Who Has the Last Laugh?

By 1978 Burt Reynolds was approaching the peak of his popularity which would begin to taper off in the mid-eighties as he approached the age of 50. He had just completed two huge box office hits, Smokey and the Bandit and Semi-Tough (both 1977) and was in a position to choose and develop any project he fancied. But instead of rushing into a sequel to Smokey and the Bandit or some other big budget vehicle that exploited his good ole boy blend of machismo, charm and sex appeal, Reynolds chose to make a risky, offbeat black comedy about a man dying of a terminal condition who contemplates suicide as a solution to a slow, agonizing death. In addition, the popular leading man would direct and star in it and cast his girlfriend at the time Sally Field in a prominent role. Released as The End in 1978, the film was not what moviegoers or critics expected from Reynolds or even wanted. 

The script for The End, which was written by Jerry Belson (Smile [1975], Fun with Dick and Jane [1977]), had been peddled from studio to studio for more than six years without any takers until Reynolds became captivated by it and decided to take the plunge. Despite Reynolds’ box office clout at the time, he had to accept a cut in the percentage money of the profits and to cut his usual salary requirements in half to get the movie made. Also, in order to direct the film (it would be his second effort, Gator (1976) was the first), he had to agree to star in it as well.

Wendell Lawson (Burt Reynolds) agonizes over the bad medical news he receives in the 1978 black comedy THE END, also directed by Reynolds.

According to Burt! The Unauthorized Biography by Marc Eliot, the star revealed that he got the idea for The End during a brief hospital stay at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles where he would play cards every day with the elderly patients on his floor. The reality, of course, was that Belson’s script already existed and its macabre humor was what inspired Reynolds to make it.

Cancer patient Wendell Lawson (Burt Reynolds) is befriended by schizophrenic patient Marlon Borunki (Dom DeLuise) in THE END (1978).

The director/star immediately set about assembling a crew and cast, some of whom were close friends and associates such as Smokey and the Bandit director Hal Needham (for stunt coordinator), producer James Best (the prolific film and TV actor who befriended Reynolds when the latter was a student in his acting school), composer Paul Williams (who played the role of Little Enos in Smokey), and cinematographer Bobby Byrne (who shot Smokey).

Burt Reynolds and real-life girlfriend at the time Sally Field star in the 1978 black comedy THE END.

In addition to Sally Field, Reynolds also cast Dom DeLuise as mental patient Marlon Borunki (it was the first of many screen collaborations with Reynolds), comedian David Steinberg as his psychiatrist, Norman Fell as his physician, character actor Strother Martin as the head of a sanatorium, Joanne Woodward as his ex-wife, Kristy McNichol as his daughter, Carl Reiner as a death therapist, Robby Benson as a young priest, and Pat O’Brien and Myrna Loy as Reynolds’ fussy, argumentative parents.

Hollywood character actor Norman Fell is just one of many famous faces in the 1978 tragicomedy THE END, directed by and starring Burt Reynolds.

According to Loy in her autobiography, Reynolds called the actress and told her, “I want you for my mother…You and Pat O’Brien have always been my ideal parents and he’s already agreed to do the father.” Loy added that, “Pat and I had just one scene, but Burt made the most of it on and off screen. At a huge, festival party to welcome us, Burt had the sound stage decorated with an enormous blowup from Consolation Marriage in 1931. As we posed for photographers beneath that glossy advertisement for gilded youth – Pat, a handsome young man; me, with the fabulous profile – Pat turned to me and said, “Myrna, you want to see my pacemaker?” I declined the offer, so he ripped his shirt open and went around showing it to everyone else. He was priceless, better than ever. Working together was not very different after forty-seven years, really, except we had been younger then.”

Hollywood veterans Pat O’Brien and Myrna Loy have a scene-stealing cameo as the parents of cancer patient Burt Reynolds in THE END (1978).

As Reynolds’ second directorial effort, The End shared some of the same attributes and flaws of his first feature Gator. He is generous to his actors and often gives them showcased moments that steal the scene and he is not afraid of extreme tonal shifts in the narrative which can often be entertainingly quirky and original or they can kill the established mood as when a scene of broad slapstick quickly segues into pathos.

The major weakness of The End is that Reynolds the director is not the right choice to guide the star of his film and as a result, Reynolds overacts and mugs broadly throughout, crushing any subtlety or sly humor that exists in the subversive script. Of course, black comedy is not only an acquired taste but also something even the most gifted directors have had trouble executing and sustaining such as Charlie Chaplin (Monsieur Verdoux, 1947), Tony Richardson (The Loved One, 1965) or Robert Zemeckis (Death Becomes Her, 1992).

Cancer patient Wendell Lawson (Burt Reynolds) wants to kill himself but doesn’t have the nerve to carry it off in the 1978 black comedy THE END.

Still, The End remains an intriguing career detour for Reynolds and has its share of laugh out loud moments, especially the scenes with Dom DeLuise as a spirited, high-energy schizophrenic who attempts to help Wendell Sonny Lawson (Reynolds) kill himself.

Dom DeLuise plays a certifiable nutcase in the 1978 black comedy THE END, directed by and starring Burt Reynolds.

Other actors who shine in their brief moments on screen are Kristy McNichol, who has a natural, unaffected screen presence, Harry Caesar as a hospital orderly, and the two veterans, Pat O’Brien and Myrna Loy, who provide one of the comic highpoints.

Kristy McNichol plays a small role as the daughter of cancer patient Wendell Lawson (Burt Reynolds) in THE END, a 1978 black comedy also directed by Reynolds.

Regarding their scene, Loy recalled, “At first, directing us had been intimidating to Burt. “How can I tell Myrna Loy what to do?” he asked me. “You’ve been in seven of my all-time favorite movies.” Perhaps we tested him at the start, but he did not drop the ball and we soon gave ourselves to him completely. He is a very gifted director, full of ideas. He never wastes time, as so many fledglings do, because he does his homework. And he is such a delightful man to be with, witty and dear. He always calls when he visits New York: “Hello, Mom, this is your erstwhile son. When can we have dinner?””

The End did not become a box office hit for Reynolds and the critics were particularly ruthless in their reviews. Variety called it “a tasteless and overripe comedy that disintegrates very early into hysterical, undisciplined hamming.” Vincent Canby’s review in The New York Times was even more specific about the flaws: “The End, which was directed by Burt Reynolds, who also stars in it, is like being with good friends at a party where nothing goes right. The food doesn’t arrive. The ice runs out. A couch catches fire and, outside in the street, the Department of Water Supply is making a noisy, after-hours dig to locate a broken main. Instead of calling the whole thing off, the host tries to cope….This is half-heartedly satiric material that’s been directed by Mr. Reynolds as if it were broad, knock-about comedy sometimes and, at other times, as if it were meant to evoke pathos, which it never does.”

Reynolds, of course, was extremely disappointed with the poor reception that The End received but he didn’t waste much time assessing the damage and quickly moved on to his next project Hooper (1978), directed by Hal Needham, which proved to be another box office hit, and was followed by the equally popular romantic comedy Starting Over (1979), which enjoyed critical acclaim as well. And three years after The End, Reynolds would deliver his most successful film as a director, Sharky’s Machine (1981), which was not only a box office hit but earned the respect of numerous high profile critics like Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin of The New York Times.

Character actor Strother Martin (center), often seen in Sam Peckinpah films, has a comic supporting role as the head of a sanitarium in THE END (1978).

The End was released on DVD by MGM Home Entertainment in February 2001 and was later released by Olive Films on Blu-ray in October 2015 with no extras.

*This is an updated and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

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