Did You Know a Key ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Character Is Based on Burt Reynolds?

Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is still months from being released, but the anticipation is exceptionally high. Maybe it’s the fact that the movie revolves around what Tarantino does best—exposing the dark underbelly of people, places and things that appear glamorous at first glance (ahem, anyone remember Pulp Fiction?). Maybe it’s the star-studded cast. Or maybe it’s the macabre fascination with the story within the story: the Manson Family murders.

According to Tarantino, the film is more about the changing tides of the late ’60s and how the hippie cultural shift impacted Hollywood. Right at the center of that are the film’s main characters, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, respectively. Rick is a struggling former Western TV show star who wants to transition to movies but isn’t finding success. Booth is his longtime stunt double and best friend.

But did you know that the characters are actually loosely based on actor Burt Reynolds and his IRL stuntman and friend Hal Needham?

leonardo dicaprio and burt reynolds side by side1

In the film, Rick is said to have starred in a series called Bounty Law from 1958 to 1963. He left to pursue a film career, but it didn’t work out. In 1969, when the film takes place, he’s guest starring on any TV show he can and contemplating a move to Italy to get into the spaghetti Western film scene.

In real life, Reynolds experienced career difficulties after he quit Riverboat, which he starred in from 1959 to 1961. He left the show because he didn’t like his part and developed a bad reputation. As he put it in a 1966 New York Times interview, “You don’t walk out on a network television series.” He went on to guest star on a slew of television shows.

Reynolds later starred in Gunsmoke from 1962 to 1965. He left the series because he didn’t feel there was room for two leading men. Like Rick, he attempted a transition to movies that proved unsuccessful. His career didn’t really take off until he started hitting the late-night talk show circuit in the early ’70s and became beloved for his self-effacing sense of humor. He then went on to pose nude in a 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan and gained notoriety for dating singer Dinah Shore. By the time Deliverance came out that same year, Reynolds was officially a movie star.

As fate would have it, Reynolds was even attached to appear in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but he passed away at the age of 82 before he could shoot his scenes. He was set to portray George Spahn, an 80-year-old blind man who allowed Charles Manson and his followers to live on his Spahn Movie Ranch for months before they committed the Sharon Tate and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca murders. Bruce Dern replaced Reynolds in the upcoming film.

Reynolds’s memory will live on in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when it hits theaters July 26.

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Lex Goodman

Cat mom, yogi, brunch enthusiast

Lex is an LA native who's deeply obsessed with picnics, Slim Aarons, rosé, Hollywood history and Joan Didion. She joined PureWow in early 2017.
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