I sat down a couple weeks ago with the original Richard Lester Superman II and the Richard Donner cut that came out a few years ago.
I’ve seen them both, Lester’s perhaps a dozen times over the years, but wanted to watch them back to back to see just how different they were.
Both had some clever moments – Lester sometimes added a bit too much comedy and Donner could be a tad more serious.
It is interesting to know the history behind those films. If you’ve lived in a bubble and have no clue what I’m talking about – the short end of the stick is Donner had filmed most of Superman II (which he filmed at the same time as Superman:The Movie), stopped to edit Superman, and was let go. Lester was brought in, had to refilm a good amount so he could get a directing credit, and the Donner footage was thought lost until a few short years ago when it was found in a UK vault. After a few years Donner helped Warner Brothers put together a DVD version of his film thus creating the two different versions of Superman II that we now have today.
|“General. Would you care to step outside?”|
There is another film that may or may not have had totally separate versions of the same film.
That film is Smokey and the Bandit 3.
I was only the wee age of one when the original hit theaters in 1977 and most film audiences probably don’t realize that Smokey and the Bandit was the second highest grossing film of that year, second only to Star Wars.
The film, which starred Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, and Sally Field, was of course successful enough for a sequel that followed three years later. Hal Needham, the stuntman-turned-director who directed the first two films, decided to not come back for the third film. Nor did Reynolds or Fields. Losing the stars and the director didn’t seem to bother Universal Studios. They still had Gleason and with him they figured that the Smokey franchise could still live on.
Fully determined Universal started production on a third film.
The rumor over the years has been that Smokey and the Bandit 3 was originally going to feature Smokey (the Jackie Gleason character who chased Reynolds’ Bandit through the first two films) becoming the Bandit in the 3rd film – thus the tagline being born ‘Smokey IS The Bandit.’ This concept was very far removed from what was seen onscreen as Jerry Reed, Snowman in the first two films, was the Bandit character in the final film.
According to Wikipedia:
The film was originally entitled Smokey IS the Bandit, with Jackie Gleason playing both Sheriff Buford T. Justice and the Bandit. According to the legend, test audiences reacted poorly, and so the Bandit scenes were re-shot with Jerry Reed playing the role. A trailer featuring the original title has surfaced along with one publicity still of Gleason in his Bandit costume. Research has verified that during the films first sneak previews Gleason did play both roles.
The last line, where it mentions research being verified, leads to a footnote that has no link.
What research Wikipedia is talking about is unknown, you can couple that notion with the fact that anyone can write anything on Wikipedia. Two things are known – that the above photo with Gleason as the Bandit does exist (I put a picture of Burt Reynolds as the Bandit next to it for comparison purposes) and that this very early teaser trailer does exist as well.
Obviously the trailer bolsters the case of the original concept of the film. William Smith, the fan who put up the trailer on YouTube, is also responsible for a petition asking for the original cut of Smokey and the Bandit 3 to be released onto DVD (http://www.petitiononline.com/smokey3/). I asked William when he started the petition and why.
“I started the petition in late February,” Smith said. “The only other info I have come across is what is listed in the snopes.com article which has references to different articles about the proposed film.”
Snopes, known as ‘The definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation’, does indeed have an article on Smokey and the Bandit 3. Snopes lists the article as ‘undetermined’ because of the lack of proof behind the Smokey IS the Bandit concept. The site further quotes from Scott von Doviak’s book ‘Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema’ which states, “In reality, it’s hard to believe this idea ever got past the pitch meeting, and not so much as a production still (let alone a full-blown bootleg copy) of the supposed original version of the movie has ever surfaced.”
The trailer and production still, which both have only recently surfaced, certainly contradicts von Doviak’s statement but doesn’t help substantiate that there is a version of Smokey and the Bandit 3 that does exist where Smokey IS the Bandit. Snopes helps by giving its own theories on what happened with the film but the site isn’t able to provide any solid information beyond the theory.
This all led me to the question: Does the actual ‘Smokey IS the Bandit’ film exist in any shape or form?
Was the concept lost during the production as ideas continued to change?
Is the trailer proof of a film long lost or something created through the art of found footage and computers?
Is the production still further proof of the film, a wardrobe test, or Jackie Gleason just hanging out one day in his backyard?
Will the petition actually work and with enough signatures garner a release of Smokey IS The Bandit?
Or can anyone actually prove that all this is just rumor?
I have my questions and so little answers. After all the years of rumors I finally decided that I will be the man to find out the mystery of Smokey and the Bandit 3.
How would someone go about proving or disproving a rumor that has been circulating around since the eighties?
I decided the best course of action is go directly to a source who would know the original plot of Smokey and the Bandit 3: co-writer Stuart Birnbaum.
Birnbaum has worked in Hollywood for the last few decades – recently executive producing The Ranch and Miracles. Of course I love to remember him from writing the classic Mark Harmon flick Summer School and Smokey 3. Birnbaum was not only happy to sit down and talk about Smokey 3 but about so many great behind-the-scenes stories that have never been shared with the public before.
I started off asking Stuart how he came to land the Smokey and the Bandit 3 job, “My writing partner at the time was a gentleman named David Dashey. David had become the producer and manager of a black a cappella group called The Persuasions. He has sold Frank Zappa on producing their first album, which (Frank) did. I spent several years on the road with David helping him do that. David then talked an executive at Universal Studios into the idea of doing a screenplay about that experience. David was always a great writer, he had very little screenplay and film experience, and David invited me to join him. So we wrote this other screenplay for the studio and though they never made it, they admired it.”
“They had this project, the 3rd Smokey, come up. So the studio asked us to do it and we agreed. The problem that they had was the fact that Burt Reynolds had not agreed to participate in the third film. In fact, the studio had given script approval to Jackie Gleason in order to secure his deal. We were introduced to the film’s producer Mort Engelberg who had produced the other two films. Mort was a fan of ours and what we had done at Universal. He was very supportive. We sat down and wrote the first draft of the movie. We had envisioned, at the time, the lead being Gary Busey, because at the time he had just done The Buddy Holly Story which was an admirable outing.”
“The first draft of Smokey 3 was pretty darn good. Everybody at the studio thought so too. We wrote this draft of what we thought the movie should be and then it was sent to Florida to Jackie Gleason. Gleason read the screenplay and called Mort Engelberg to say, “What the hell is this? I don’t need writers. When I did my show (Ryan Note: The Honeymooners – for anyone living under a rock) I did most of the writing.”
“Gleason wanted to make all of these changes and Mort, who was caught between a rock and a hard place, said back to him, “Well listen Jackie, why don’t I have the writers come to Florida and you can sit and talk with them.”
“Gleason said, “I’m telling you I’ll do the writing myself. I don’t need to sit with them.””
“Mort said back, “What are you going to do, Jackie? Type it yourself?””
“So Gleason agreed to have us come to Florida with the understanding that we were the typists. So we went down to Florida and eventually worked with Gleason for six weeks. That was truly a trip. Gleason was a real piece of work. I guess he always had been but by that time he was a caricature of himself.”
“Universal put us up in a houseboat that was a “hotel” floating on a canal. They had already green lit the picture, Universal was going to make this movie whether hell or high water. We went to see Gleason, we were taken over to his house down in Pompano Beach, and we were escorted over there. We walked inside and it was a Vegas casino. That’s what it looked like. You walked in the front door and the entire living room was sunk down like the floor of a casino. There were craps tables, roulette wheels, card tables, just green felt everywhere.”
“Then we were escorted into his office and The Great Man, which is what they called Gleason, was there to great us. I remember I walked in the room and he was wearing this kind-of Cuban Babalu shirt, open all the way down to his belly button and very puffy sleeves. You could see the fresh scar tissue across his heart from recent open heart surgery. In one hand he had a glass of bourbon and in the other he had a lit cigarette. White as a ghost. He invited us in, as the typists, and we sat there everyday and ended up writing the screenplay again and again and again. And again. Gleason would changed everything and we would have to go back to the drawing board.”
“Universal locked us up in this hotel, this floating hotel on the canal, and for a period of time as the production grew near, even when they started shooting and there was script changes that had to be made, they wouldn’t let us out of the room. They hired Teamsters to the hotel for us. We could make a list of anything we wanted and they would get it for us. We were so bored at one point that we actually had the Teamsters bring us pistols. I never shot a gun before but we actually sat there shooting fish from our room. It was quite insane.”
“When they started shooting the film, Gleason would change the dialogue. Sometimes for the better and sometimes not. What we had to do was sometimes scramble to make changes in the story structure.”
This seemed a good moment to ask Stuart about the ‘Smokey IS The Bandit’ concept. Stuart pondered this question, revealing as he thought that there was a total of 11 drafts, reiterating that revisions were being made even as production hit.
Birnbaum finally continued, “The problem was the real driving force behind the first two films was Burt Reynolds. I don’t remember at what point we stumbled upon that Smokey was the Bandit, but it wasn’t right away. I even believe that when we started there was still some hope that Burt Reynolds could be persuaded to get involved. In fact it wasn’t until well into the shooting of the film that he was persuaded to at least come back and do a cameo.”
“The making of this movie is a classic example of the studio system in action. In all its power and glory and idiocy. They knew they could make money with the sequel to these other powerful films but forget the fact that it really made no sense to do the film without Burt Reynolds. They were going to do it anyway. That was the problem that we had to solve. There were many different solutions in different drafts of the film. I don’t remember when along in that process that we came up with the idea but the entire process was very patchwork.”
“One of the ironies was that the director Dick Lowry, a great guy that I always had a great relationship with, was not a comedy director. He later went on to do The Gambler series with Kenny Rogers. Dick was kind-of a cowboy riding out of Oklahoma. I remember in his hotel, throughout the shoot, he had a saddle by the bed and he would sit there roping the saddle. He would sit down with us, go through the comedy lines, and he just didn’t get it. He really just didn’t know how to shoot comedy.”
“As a result, as the movie was being made, the dominant comedy force in it fell back on the shoulders of Gleason who was concidered a comic genius, most certainly by himself. History will show this, he really had his great days. The great thing was the first day he went out on the set this ashen faced guy that I first met at his house, they made him up with all the makeup and made him actually look like he was alive. Gleason didn’t live long after the movie was done, but I just remember thinking that those guys in makeup were really, really good.”
I asked Stuart what the basic plot of ‘Smokey IS The Bandit’ was and what actually happened to that plot to which he responded, “I don’t know. At a certain point we had done the best that we could, the train left the station, they were shooting the movie, and David and I returned to Hollywood. When the movie was done we took a look at it, shrugged out shoulders, and said, “Oh well, there you go.” It wasn’t the movie that we wrote.”
I continued with the questions by asking about this legendary first screening that audiences didn’t get, thus reshooting with Jerry Reed as the Bandit. Birnbaum revealed, “Well Jerry was in it from the beginning. I do recall that there was reshooting. In my opinion the film was a mess but it had its charms. I think there was reshoots but they were doing reshoots throughout the making of it. They had a delivery date and it probably didn’t make much sense. I don’t know what point I saw the film, to be honest with you.”
So was the film ever shot with Gleason as both Smokey and Bandit or was everything so rushed together that this concept was never fully developed? Birnbaum notes, “I remember us coming up with this idea of Smokey as the Bandit which everybody liked. I don’t remember when in the process that happened.”
“I don’t know if there is an “original” version of the movie. Not as far as I know. No one ever showed it to me. There certainly would have been several edited cuts which is common anyway. But I don’t know that the end cut was wildly different then the earlier ones. But Jerry Reed was in the film from the jump.”
The evidence now pointed to that of ‘Smokey IS The Bandit’ being simply the stuff of movie legend rather than a missing film in a vault somewhere. I still yearned for a definitive answer on the subject, the last nail in the rumor coffin. I decided to track down the legendary producer himself, Mort Engelberg, knowing that if one man on this Earth knew the answer it would be him.
The big question to ask him was this: Is there, or was there ever, a print of Smokey IS The Bandit?
“It doesn’t exist,” Engelberg said. “There is no such thing. A discussion with Jackie Gleason, prior to the start of the third picture, happened when it was clear that Burt Reynolds would not take part in the picture. The discussion with Jackie was about him possibly playing both parts. We’d put him in the black Trans-Am, the red shirt on him, the mustache, and we’d let somebody do stunts. He would also still play the Sherrif as he had in the previous two pictures. Ultimately the idea just didn’t work. Period. Not a frame of film was ever exposed with that intention.”
As for the trailer that is now on YouTube he says, “I’ve never seen such a trailer. I would be willing to bet this doesn’t exist. Trailers are very, very expensive. I can’t believe that there was ever a trailer out. Someone may have gotten footage over the past twenty years and dummied up something. But I’d be willing to bet that Universal never authorized or distributed a trailer with the title ‘Smokey IS The Bandit.”
Engelberg also confirmed that Jerry Reed had been a part of the production from the start, “What we tried to do was come as close to the dynamics of the first two pictures. It wasn’t a big success. We got rid of the truck that Jerry Reed had driven (in the previous films) so it was sort of man-on-man Gleason chasing Reed.”
There is the answer to the rumors that have circulated for nearly thirty years. Jerry Reed was a replacement Bandit and not someone brought in after a horrible test shooting. That the concept was there for Smokey IS The Bandit but that was something that never came to fruition. Finally there is no print anywhere of Smokey being the Bandit. The production photo and the trailer? There are still a bit of mystery to those items which we may never have answers for. For now I believe it is safe to say that this rumor can finally be put to bed.