If you haven’t seen the movie, this is the basic plot: The “Bandit” (Burt Reynolds) has 28 hours to get 400 cases of beer from Texarkana, TX to Atlanta, GA while “Smokey” (slang for highway patrol officers) and “Sheriff Buford T. Justice” (Jackie Gleason) try to stop him.
The film was both created and directed by Burt Reynold’s old roommate named Hal Needham. Before becoming a director, Mr. Needham was a well known stuntman in the movie industry which led to the plot-line for “Smokey and the Bandit”.
Hal Needham was living in Mr. Reynold’s pool house for 12 years when he hand wrote the script on yellow legal pads.
The plot-line was based on two friend’s love of a Colorado beer. Back in 1976, Hal Needham was working as Mr. Reynold’s stunt double for the ’76 film “Gator”. The movie was being filmed in Georgia which created a funny problem: the two friends loved drinking “Coors” beer but in ’76, Coors was not sold east of the Mississippi River (refrigeration and transportation wasn’t the same back then).
As such, Mr. Needham had bring a couple of cases on a flight all the way from back in California. Problem was, the hotel maids “kept stealing beers from the fridge” which led to Mr. Needham’s crazy movie idea, “bootlegging Coors would make a good plot-line for a movie”.
With this idea jotted down on legal pad, Mr. Needham presented the script to Burt Reynolds’ landlord and close movie star friends to raise money for the film.
Burt’s reaction was to promise that if Mr. Needham could raise the money for the film, he would star in it. However, Burt’s landlord and actor friends had a very different reaction (according to Burt’s autobiography), “(they) got down on their knees with tears in their eyes and begged me not to do it”.
The Pontiac Firebird T/As were actually 1976 models with the soon-to-be-released ’77 front ends.
To catch viewers attention, Pontiac also put a decal on the hood scoop announcing “6.6 LITRE”. Previous to this, the engines were called out by the engine’s cubic inch size…using liters was both a way of grabbing people’s attention AND coving-up the fact that these Firebirds produced much LESS horsepower than the 1969 muscle cars.
When lead actress Sally Field was offered the role, she was considered a good actress however she was NOT known as a “good looking/sexy” actress.
In Sally Field’s words:
“Burt Reynolds, who was this really big box office star at the time, called me and said would I consider doing this, which I was completely flabbergasted that he would call me and do that. And there was no script. So I just took a leap of faith, and thought, ‘If I play this character that Burt is supposed to think is attractive, maybe the world will think I’m attractive, and somebody else will hire me.’ So I did it.”
Needham saw a picture of the Pontiac Trans Am and knew it was the right car for “the Bandit” (Burt Reynolds). He came up with a plan to sell the idea to Pontiac as a great product placement idea AND he understood that they’d destroy them in the stunt scenes…so he requested six T/As but only got four.
Sure enough, 3 of the 4 were totalled and for the final scene, they had to use another car to push the 4th in to the scene. Why? Because after that 4th T/A took a beating from the stunts, her engine just wouldn’t start.
Universal gave the film a budget of $5.3 million (with $1 million going to Burt). Just as they got started filming, that budget got cut to just $4.3 million (minus a million for Mr. Reynolds’ role).
Actor Jackie Gleason played the role of “Sheriff Buford T. Justice”. This character was based on Burt Reynolds father. In fact, the studio wanted another actor but Burt thought Gleason could play a “sumbitch” and the other actors suggested just needed to be, “a little crazier, a little more dangerous, and a lot funnier”.
Jackie Gleason would often ask his assistant for a “hamburger” while on set…that was his code word for a glass of bourbon.
Alfred Hitchcock had a tradition; every Wednesday, he would take time to watch up-coming films at his studio office. Not only was “Smokey and the Bandit” the last film Mr. Hitchcock ever screened in his office (according to his daughter Patricia), it was also his favorite movie that he had seen in years.
A senior executive at Pontiac promised to get Burt a free Trans-Am if the movie was successful. Not only was the movie a hit, it also helped the T/A record major sales records that year. But his free T/A never showed up. After a few months, Mr. Reynolds decided to give Pontiac a call. He found out that the promising executive had retired and that the new senior executive was not willing to send Burt Reynolds a new free T/A.
How effective was this movie in generating sales of the second generation Trans-Am? In 1978 Pontiac sold 93,341 T/As which was an increase of around 25 thousand new buyers.
The numbers didn’t stop there. In 1979, Pontiac would sell over 117,000 new T/As.
Mr. Reynolds eventually got his own Trans-Am (1978). He had the 8.2-liter engine tuned and fully customized to bring power up from the original out-put of 220hp to a head turning 600hp. That same “tribute” T/A was auctioned off earlier this year for $275,000.
The movie inspired “Screaming Chicken” Special Edition (SE) Trans-Am has auctioned off 2 of the film’s original promo cars.
In 2014, one sold for $450 thousand and earlier this year the other fetched $550 thousand bucks.