Ex-sentials: Gator (1976)
Updated: Jun 17, 2022
“Well, Gator McKlusky's sittin' on a stump
Hammer pulled back on a twelve-gauge pump
Watchin' that swamp, lookin' out for the law
While he make the best corn liquor you ever saw…”
Burt Reynolds grew up in Riviera, Florida, where his daddy was the local police chief, and Burt wanted to do nothing more than play football. He was good at it, too; running his way toward a college and (more than likely) pro career. But after earning a scholarship to FSU, Burt blew his knees out in a car accident, and was never the same again. As the story goes, he missed a defensive assignment against North Carolina State, and “Buddy” Reynolds quit the squad, despite not knowing what the hell he was going to do after ball.
Being an athlete was Burt’s whole life, and he damn sure didn’t want to be a cop like his dad. It wouldn’t be until a Palm Beach Junior College English professor cast Reynolds in a production of Outward Bound that the good ol’ boy ever dreamed of becoming an actor. Nevertheless, he’d caught the bug, and (perhaps most importantly) the pretty girls liked him. So, it seemed to be as good a potential path as any.
Hal Needham was raised an Arkansas sharecropper’s son. He didn’t have an education, nor did he ever see the point in one. When Hal came of age, the strapping buck left his daddy’s farm and joined the 82nd Airborne, becoming a diligent paratrooper. But, like Burt and ball, the military didn’t exactly love Hal back, and the square-jawed scrapper headed West with barely anything but the clothes on his back and the hunk of junk that carried him toward destiny.
Not knowing a damn thing about the business of Hollywood, the old school workman did what he knew how: he jumped out of a fucking airplane and tackled a dude off a horse. The stunt was called a “bulldog”, and became just the first of many dangerous acts Needham sacrificed his body for to build a career as a professional stuntman. Pretty soon, he became a local legend; the guy who wouldn’t turn down any gag, no matter how dangerous it was. For Hal Needham, fear wasn’t part of his DNA makeup, and he exploited that dearth to its fullest.
Fast forward to '59. Burt had landed a big role on the TV series Riverboat and, being a total jock at heart, didn’t have a problem doing his own stunts. That didn’t exactly sit well with the studio (let alone their insurance underwriters), and Universal sent down one of the new hard men they’d just hired to double for the cocky up-and-coming star. Both being dyed-in-the-wool Southerners, Burt and Hal hit it off immediately, as Reynolds was instantly smitten with a lug whose whole job consisted of jumping through windows and setting himself on fire in the name of their art.
Meanwhile, Hal looked up to Burt as an acting mentor, and the two became inseparable. Hell, when Hal got thrown out of his house by one of his girlfriends, he moved in with Burt, and the two held down one of the most legendary Hollywood bachelor pads in the history of Hollywood bachelor pads (which, considering it was the age of shag carpet and bathroom tile, means that mansion saw a lot of booty). What was supposed to just be a few days of debauchery became an eleven-year stay, and even after Hal eventually moved (courtesy of his first marriage), the two remained “roomies” in their hearts for life.
Naturally, once Burt graduated from the small to the silver screen, he brought Hal along with him for the ride. Yet marquee idol status wasn’t instantaneous for Burt. Bit parts in mostly forgotten B-Grade junk like Byron Haskin’s Armored Command (1961) gave way to a lead in Christian Nyby’s Operation CIA (1965), before Burt and Hal headed overseas to star in Sergio Corbucci’s rippingly violent spaghetti revenge yarn, Navajo Joe (1966). That last one has grown in esteem with fans throughout the years, despite Reynolds hating it until the day he died*.
The duo’s return to the States brought a string of high-profile Western roles such as 100 Rifles (1969) and Sam Whiskey (1969), before John Boorman elevated Burt to the big time via a “serious” turn in his seminal slice of survival horror, Deliverance (1972). If you’ve seen Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood (2019), you’ve already got a pretty good notion of what Burt and Hal’s partnership looked like, only without all the old white dude malaise that helped make QT’s ninth feature an instant all-timer.
Still, despite all the Hollywood glitz and glamor, Burt and Hal were one pair of battered Levi’s and a piece of tall grass between their teeth from being straight out the trailer. In a classic boner move, Burt nearly totaled his career with a nude centerfold spread in Cosmo, which simultaneously made him a household name while cancelling out any hope he had of being taken seriously as an actor**. So, with roomie in tow, Reynolds headed south to shoot the first of two drive-in classics that would not only be key in solidifying how audiences perceived the goofball superstar, but also became cornerstones in the hicksploitation subgenre.
White Lightning (1973) was originally supposed to be directed by Steven Spielberg, who was coming off the harrowing rogue semi TV movie, Duel (1971). But there was concern the untested filmmaker couldn’t handle an off-lot shoot in the Arkansas swamps. So, Sam Whiskey producers Jules Levy and Arthur Gardner recruited seasoned television shooter Joseph Sargent to come in and realize the first moonshining adventure of Burt’s greatest character: Gator McKlusky. Written by noted former fugitive and HUAC testifier William R. Norton, White Lightning was the first in Reynolds’ string of movies made by the South and for the South; films meant to be watched from the back of Confederate Flag-adorned pickups while denizens below the Mason-Dixon downed cases of Coors.
Nevertheless, White Lightning is most memorable for two reasons. First, it was the official debut of Hal Needham as a 2nd Unit Director, lensing dusty car chases before ducking behind the wheel to (almost disastrously) jump vehicles off bridges and onto the back of moving trash barges. Secondly, Sargent’s movie doubles as an indelible document of a culture resisting any semblance of social change. Hippies and college kids exist on the fringes or are mentioned in almost every scene, while the locals of Boogen County, Arkansas try to make heads or tails of their seemingly anti-American protests. The South was in flux, and those who called it home didn’t like it; no sir, not one bit.
White Lightning’s simplistic plot sees Gator making a deal with the Feds to bust fellow ‘shiners in the name of avenging his fallen brother. But by the end, McKlusky realizes it wasn’t the good ol’ boys running the blindingly potent booze who did his kin in. No, it was the swamp rat’s involvement in a free love sit-in that led to his death at the hands of corrupt Sherriff J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty). For a movie aimed at porch-sitting, peach-eating Southerners, Lightning’s a downright existential journey, leaving Gator to question why the one member of his family who ever harbored aspirations beyond the bayou was the one his community targeted.
Now, Gator (1976) – the somewhat delayed sequel to White Lightning – doesn’t really care about any of that. In fact, it might be one of the proudest, bloated, self-indulgent vanity projects a movie star has ever engaged in, as Burt makes his directorial debut with a retread of the original’s plot, which sees McKlusky recruited to take down Dunston County crime lord Bama McCall (theme song-singing wild man, Jerry Reed). However, this ostensible laziness is also what makes the movie so very special, as Gator practically becomes the template for every “bigger is better” action sequel that would follow. It’s the Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) of rednecksploitation, so wildly irresponsible in ethos alone that you can’t help but admire its dumbass moxie.
A certain font size during the opening credits makes clear just what the hell we’re in for over the next two hours, as Hal’s name is the second largest of the bunch behind Burt’s. Almost as soon as we’re reunited with our man of action, the whiskey cops descend on his swamp shack, bringing along New York investigator Irving Greenfield (Jack Weston, sweating buckets), who earned his reputation shutting down mafia rackets up north. Greenfield ropes Gator into cooperating by threatening to toss Daddy McKlusky (John Steadman) in jail and send his daughter (Lori Futch) into the system. The boat chase that ensues takes up almost the entirety of the first act, as Hal crashes speeders through (hopefully empty) shacks, mocking safety standards everywhere. It’s glorious, borderline nihilistic mayhem that you’re either on board for, or you’re not. Bad Boys II (2003) shit.
Seeing how he was in prison for four years before the events of White Lightning, you might be wondering just when the hell Gator had time to sire a preteen seed, and let this writer inform you up front: that question will never be answered. To be honest, the Gator in Gator is practically a different person from the one in White Lightning. Burt looks like he’s aged thirty years during the three between pictures, donning big bell-bottoms and perspiration proof Canadian tuxedos, along with his iconic ‘stache. Again, this movie is 110% the work of a star wanting to soak up the spotlight and flex every sensual muscle he’s got. In the pantheon of ‘70s panty-droppers, Gator McKlusky reigns supreme.
Acting as Gator’s dark double is Bama McCall, who exercises an icy grip over the black majority who comprise Dunston County. If the strip clubs don’t pay their protection money, they burn to the ground. Ditto the ghetto grocery stores just looking to get by and literally put food on the table for both their owners and the community. The working girls Bama keeps chained up in a ramshackle fuck-house? All sixteen or younger. Reed relishes being wholly awful, cackling along as he commands a cadre of thugs and teaches Gator how to manage the “bad blacks”. By simple virtue alone, McKlusky becomes the champion of Dunston’s downtrodden, smacking poppers out of hookers’ paws and giving breaks to the working class wherever he can. Again, the confused driver is gone, replaced by this Caucasian savior from Okefenokee.
But let’s be real: most folks purchasing a ticket to Gator don’t care about any of that there brainy bullstuff. What they’ve signed up for is the dynamite stunt show spectacular that the back half of the movie becomes, as Needham hangs out of car windows and blasts himself backwards in the wake of vehicular collisions. The end of the movie would rival any Monster Truck bonanza, climaxing in a beachfront showdown that burns down not one, but two separate properties, flings Hal off the back of a truck, and sees Gator and Bama engaging in near endless fisticuffs, tossing their manly forms through multiple plywood booths. It’s totally insane; the product of a bygone era of action filmmaking where you truly can’t believe nobody died during the making.
Both White Lightning and Gator were huge drive-in hits, making money down South before expanding north and cutting even more green (much to Reynolds’ surprise). However, in the grand scheme of Burt and Hal’s intertwined careers, these movies were mere precursors to Needham’s phenomenal directorial debut, Smokey and the Bandit (1977). Conceived on the set of Gator – allegedly on account of thieving hotel cleaning crews cluing Hal into just how valuable Coors was in certain sections of the country – Smokey would become one of the biggest box office successes of the ‘70s, cementing Needham’s legacy as the “greatest stuntman who ever lived”. However, that’s fodder for future installments, as the legend of Burt and Hal could (and has) filled books covering their bawdy exploits. For now, we’ve gotta log out, but promise the CB radio will be tuned into this frequency again in the very near future.
*One of Reynolds’ most famous quotes was how he picked “the wrong Sergio” to work with when doing Navajo Joe.
**The photo spread was released a month before Deliverance hit theaters, and Burt took the notion that those nudes totally trounced his chances at an Oscar to his grave.
For further stories of Burt and Hal’s bromance, seek out Jesse Moss’ incredibly touching CMT documentary The Bandit (or, you know, our own episode on the boys here).
Jacob Knight is the co-founder/host/editor of Secret Handshake.
Note: Portions of this essay appeared in a previous iteration on a now defunct website and have been re-tooled and printed with the permission of the previous publisher.