Authors: Lorna Luft
Tags: #Biographies & Memoirs, #Arts & Literature, #Actors & Entertainers, #Composers & Musicians, #Television Performers, #Leaders & Notable People, #Rich & Famous, #Memoirs, #Specific Groups, #Women, #Humor & Entertainment
I didn’t think twice about the meeting, but for Burt, it was apparently love—or at least lust—at first sight. I was twenty years old, still in recovery from Barry, and completely uninterested in a thirty-something actor with a toupee. Burt, though, had other ideas.
My sister had been filming on location in Mexico with Burt for weeks by then. He was ending his affair with Dinah Shore at the time, although the press didn’t know it yet, and he’d already become infatuated with me. After weeks of being bugged by Burt, Liza finally called me from Mexico and said, “You have to come down here and have dinner with Burt.” I didn’t want to go, but Liza wouldn’t give up, so I finally agreed, as long as it wasn’t a real date. After all, I reasoned, how bad could a free trip to Mexico be? Besides, I wasn’t really doing anything else. Liza agreed that we’d all have dinner together—me, Liza, Jack, and Burt—at a little restaurant she knew. She sent me a ticket, and I took the plane down.
The first person I met when I got there was a production assistant named Michael Greene who was very cute and very sweet and asked me for a date. I wanted to skip the dinner with Burt and go out with Michael, but Liza would have none of it. She insisted I go to dinner with Burt. “But I don’t even like him. And besides, he’s got beady eyes,” I told her.
Liza was horrified. “Are you crazy? Do you know how many women would kill you if they heard that?”
“I don’t care,” I replied. “I don’t want to go.”
“You have to,” Liza told me. We went. I just wanted to get dinner over with so I could go out with Michael, the cute assistant, afterward. Liza and Jack and I got there first, and about half an hour later Burt arrived, spilling over with apologies for being late. I looked at him in disbelief. It felt as if it were nine hundred degrees that evening, but Burt was dressed from head to toe in brown leather—boots, pants, jacket, everything. He was beet red from heat and nerves, and from the moment he sat down at the table, he
began to perspire. By the time the food got there, he was sweating so much I was afraid his toupee would slide off. I kept thinking, “He’s going to have a heart attack right here at the table from the heat.”
I thought he was very sweet but too old for me and just not my type. His only saving grace that evening was his sense of humor. He knew more clearly than anyone else there how ridiculous he looked, and his self-deprecating jokes were funny and oddly charming. He joked about his toupee and told me, “I hope you’re impressed, because I’m having heatstroke in all this leather.” I couldn’t help but like him, but I still had no romantic interest in him. I was relieved when the dinner was over and I could escape with Michael, the cute assistant.
I returned to Los Angeles thinking, “Well, that’s over with,” convinced that was the last I’d hear from Burt Reynolds. I was sure he’d lose interest. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He simply turned the courtship up a notch. I began getting flowers, flattering telegrams, phone calls from Mexico. He wanted me to come down to Mexico again and spend some time with him. His breakup with Dinah had hit the tabloids, so he was apparently unattached. After a few weeks of pressure from Burt, my sister called me and said, “Burt’s driving me nuts. You have to come down here and go out with him. Come on, it won’t kill you just to go on one date with him.”
It’s very hard to say no to my sister, and she wouldn’t give up. Besides, it was flattering to be wooed by a man so many women wanted. I wasn’t interested in Burt romantically, but he was funny and sort of cute. Between Burt’s flowers and Liza’s phone calls, the two of them wore me down. I finally agreed to just one more date.
Once again, I flew down to Mexico. Upon arrival I discovered I was having dinner alone with Burt, and I begged Liza to come with me. But Liza was sick of playing chaperone, and I ended up going alone. Burt was funny and charming, and I had a pretty good
time. After dinner Burt suggested we drive back to his place so we could talk. I wondered privately just what he had in mind, but I knew he wouldn’t force me into anything I didn’t want to do and I thought we might as well talk and find out if there was any point in starting a relationship.
I needn’t have worried about any sudden moves on his part. As we drove toward the little bungalow the movie company had rented for him, I noticed Burt becoming more and more agitated. Finally he stopped the car in front of the cottage, turned to me, and said, “Promise you won’t scream at what’s about to happen?”
“What’s about to happen?” I asked suspiciously.
“Something is going to happen to me. Promise you won’t scream,” Burt repeated.
I eyed him carefully and said, “Are you having a panic attack?” He was hyperventilating, gasping for air and turning white as a sheet. Without first aid, I knew he might pass out.
Burt nodded and told me to open the glove compartment. It was filled with paper bags for him to breathe in, Valium, and hot water for just such occasions. Clearly this wasn’t his first panic attack. He came prepared.
So I told him, “I won’t scream if you promise not to faint until we get in your house, because you’re much too big for me to carry.” In reality, I didn’t have the slightest impulse to scream. After five years of coping with my mother’s seizures, I wasn’t likely to get hysterical at the sight of someone fainting.
We had stopped in front of his bungalow, and Burt managed to stagger into the house. Once inside I helped him to the couch, got his boots off, gave him two Valium, hot water, and a paper bag to breathe into. The carbon dioxide trapped in a paper bag helps keep the sufferer from hyperventilating. God knows, I knew how to administer sedatives. Burt sucked on the bag for a while, and in no time he’d passed out and was snoring away, still clutching the paper bag. I watched him snoring and thought, “Well, this is lovely,
really lovely.” Since he seemed to be out cold, I called a cab and left. Back at my sister’s bungalow, I said, “Gee, thanks, Liza. You’re right. That was real romantic.” The next day I took a plane back to L.A.
Incredibly, though, that wasn’t the end of it. Burt called me in L.A., embarrassed but undeterred by our disastrous second date, and the whole routine started all over again. Flowers, telegrams, letters, messages, on and on and on. Few girls my age could resist that kind of persistent flattery from a man, much less a national heartthrob like Burt, and eventually he just wore me down again. He promised that if I’d come back for one more date, he wouldn’t faint. He didn’t. The tabloid rumor at the time was that he and Liza were having an affair, but it wasn’t true. Liza was playing the beard so Burt could date me without going public. He already had enough bad press from dumping Dinah.
Burt was persistent, he treated me like a queen, and when he was conscious, he could be a lot of fun. I drifted into a relationship with him. When they wrapped
and Burt returned to L.A., Liza asked him point-blank if he was going to take me to the wrap party, meaning, was he ready to go public with me? We went to the wrap party together, at the Scandia restaurant on Sunset, and it was a regular media circus. We tried to sneak out the back door of the restaurant, but it was hopeless. No sooner did we walk out the back door than somebody snapped our picture, and the next day we were on the cover of every tabloid in America: “Burt Dumps Dinah for Twenty-Year-Old,” “Garland’s Kid Steals Burt from Dinah.” It was horrible. I hadn’t stolen anybody, and I really liked Dinah. For the first time in my life, I felt what my parents had experienced over and over for so many years. It was humiliating to see my face at every newsstand; I wanted to scream, “But it isn’t true! I didn’t steal him! I
Dinah.” I suddenly found myself cast as the evil other woman, the “secret woman” who’d stolen the man of America’s sweetheart.
Luckily, Dinah had all the class the tabloids don’t have. One
day about this time, as I was having lunch with a dear actor friend, John Hillerman (from
in Joe Allen’s, an actors’ hangout, Dinah walked in and saw me. Everyone in the place suddenly became very uncomfortable. But Dinah, who knew the truth of the matter, just walked over to me, gave me a friendly “Hello, how are you?” and we shook hands. Then she said, “I think you have very good taste in men.”
I said, “Thank you.” And that was that. What a classy lady.
By that time, Burt and I were dating in earnest. I wasn’t exactly in love with him, mostly because I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that one day the other shoe would drop and he’d dump me the same way he’d dumped so many other women. In spite of my apprehensions, I was fond of him, attracted to his easy charm; and the attention was exhilarating. From the beginning, though, we were terribly mismatched. For starters, Burt never wanted to go out. He was used to staying home with Dinah, who was a great cook and a wonderful homebody, but I didn’t want to stay home and take care of any man; I wanted to party. Burt and I never went anywhere. By then Liza was in Rome filming
A Matter of Time
with her father, and Burt was back in Florida filming
At first he wanted me to come, but there was nothing for me to do there. I told him, “What am I going to do while you’re filming, look at the alligators?” So I stayed in L.A. When
premiered, he told me, he’d come back and we could go to the premiere of “our movie” together. The premiere was the special moment we were always talking about.
It was tough. I’ve never been very good at long-distance relationships, as Philippe and I had learned. Burt still called me several times a day, and he expected me to be there whenever he called, day or night. If I wasn’t, the interrogation would begin. “Where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing?” I didn’t like the questioning one little bit. I wasn’t cheating on him, but I didn’t have any intention of sitting home by the phone day in and day out, either. I had parties to go to, people to see. I resented the
fact that he expected me to be on call twenty-four hours a day. He, on the other hand, was used to women doting on him. In his relationships, the women’s worlds had always revolved around him. He couldn’t comprehend my attitude.
Obviously, the relationship was destined to fail. In spite of my discontent, however, I had grown very attached to Burt and was convinced he was serious about me, maybe even hoped to marry me. He seemed so sweet, and I loved the devoted attention. He fed that illusion, initiating conversations about having children someday and inviting me down for romantic weekends at a beautiful old home in Savannah he always referred to as “our house.” I had the impression he planned for us to live there someday and raise theoretical children. I had no idea that he’d invited a long series of women to that same house until Loni Anderson told me so, years later. And he’d told each one of us that it was “our house.” So, in spite of the long separations, I stayed in the relationship, vaguely hoping to live happily ever after.
Meanwhile, I was desperate to get away from my father’s influence. My dad was driving me crazy, and I was sick and tired of being “Daddy’s little girl,” especially since Sid seemed to think I should be a bad imitation of my mother onstage. Burt and I talked about it, and shortly afterward he set me up with his own business manager, Lee Winkler, who couldn’t have been nicer. In no time at all Lee had booked me for the premiere of the TV show
and I got to film the pilot episode. That was just one more reason for me to be grateful to Burt. So by the time the premiere of “our movie” finally arrived, I was looking forward to it with a sentimental glow only increased by the fact that I was about to celebrate my twenty-third birthday.
Meanwhile, I’d been booked to open for Sammy Davis, Jr., who’d been one of my mom’s old Rat Pack friends, in Lake Tahoe. Shortly before the movie premiere I made the Lake Tahoe appearance. When I got back to Los Angeles, my regular driver was waiting to pick me up. While he was driving me back from the
airport, I noticed he was acting oddly. He knew I always liked to see what I’d missed while I was gone, so he always brought the local papers when he came to pick me up. This time, though, there were no papers, and when I asked him about it, he said, “Sorry. I forgot.” I looked over at him then and noticed something strange. He was sitting on a newspaper!
Now, unless you’ve got a bladder-control problem, this is very odd, so I demanded he give me the paper. After trying to talk me out of it, he gave the paper to me very reluctantly. And there it was, splashed all over the paper: “Burt and Dinah, Back Together.” There was a picture of them together at his stuntman Hal Needham’s party, and to make it worse, the article explained that Burt and Dinah had been seeing each other again for weeks and Burt had arranged a special screening of
at the party so Dinah could see it.
Happy birthday to me.
I was hurt and angry and humiliated. I kept thinking, “For God’s sake, Burt, why couldn’t you just tell me? There’s this old invention called a spinal column. Grow one!”
The next day I was so miserable that Jack Haley suggested I go down to the set with him to watch them shoot a TV show he was producing with Mac Davis. Mac Davis had written a series of hits for Elvis Presley before recording in his own right, and had just begun starring in his own musical variety show on television. Ironically, Mac’s wife had just run off with Glen Campbell a few days before. This was at the height of Glen Campbell’s popularity as a cross-over country singer, and Glen had a television show of his own. When I arrived on Mac Davis’s set that day, Mac said to me, “I hear you’re having a really shitty day.”
I replied, “And I hear you’re having a really shitty time, too.” So we went out that night after the shooting, got really drunk together, and felt thoroughly sorry for ourselves. By the time I got back to Jack and Liza’s house at three in the morning, I was so
stoned I could hardly walk straight. And as it turned out, the night wasn’t over.
Propped against the front door was a small black jeweler’s box and a note with my name on it. When I opened the box, there was a ring inside—a big, ugly man’s ring. The note said, “Happy Birthday, Lorna. Love, Burt.” I was floored. The man had actually given me an old ring that he had no use for. I was furious. I took a pencil, crossed out the words “Happy Birthday,” and wrote “Wrong” in their place. The next day I drove over to Burt’s place on Miller Drive and put the ring and the note in his mailbox.