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Smokey Screen

Claim:   The third Smokey and the Bandit film was originally shot with Jackie Gleason playing both the Sheriff and the Bandit.

UNDETERMINED

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, June 2009]

This is not so much a new rumor to me, but something I've recently seen questioned as being factual.

Smokey and the Bandit 3 was originally titled Smokey IS the Bandit, with Jackie Gleason playing both Smokey and the Bandit. After test screenings, audience reported being confused, and the movie was partially reshot to be the version we're familiar with now.
 

Origins:   To many filmgoers it sometimes appears as though virtually any moderately successful movie produced these days inevitably spawns a series of sequels, follow-on films that all too often simply recycle the original's premise and setting without adding much of anything new. Yet such sequels still seem do quite well at the box office regardless of their artistic merits, if for no other reason than many devoted fans will eagerly follow any new installment featuring their favorite characters and actors.

Some sequels don't even have continuity of characters and actors going for them, however. By the time the third installment of the popular Smokey and the Bandit films (imaginatively titled Smokey and the Bandit Part 3) rolled out in 1983, time and salary demands had precluded the appearance of stars Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, and therefore their characters — trucker legend Bo Darville, better known as the "Bandit", and runaway bride Carrie — were also no-shows (save for a cameo by Reynolds in the film's closing minutes). Instead, actor Jerry Reed (who portrayed Darville's fellow trucker Cletus "The Snowman" Snow in the first two films) stepped into the Bandit role, pursued once again by Jackie Gleason reprising his earlier turns as Sheriff Buford T. Justice.

Hollywood legend holds, however, that in the original conception Part 3 was to be titled Smokey Is the Bandit, with Reynolds' absence covered by Jackie Gleason's playing both Sheriff Buford T. Justice and the Bandit. The first cut of the movie was filmed according to that conception, the legend says, and only after test audiences were thoroughly confused by Gleason's dual roles did the filmmakers cast Jerry Reed as the Bandit and reshoot a number of scenes to work Reed into a previously completed film.

Is there something to this tale, or is it simply another bit of entertaining but apocryphal film lore? In his 2004 book Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema, author Scott von Doviak cites a lack of evidence in disdaining the notion that any such film as Smokey Is the Bandit was planned, much less actually shot:
[A]n urban legend persists (propagated by Leonard Maltin, among others) that Smokey and the Bandit 3 was originally filmed as Smokey IS the Bandit, with Gleason playing both title roles. After a disastrous test screening, Jerry Reed took over the role of the Bandit in reshoots, or so the story goes. In reality, it's hard to believe this idea ever got past the pitch meeting, and not so much as a production still (let alone a full-blown bootleg copy) of the supposed original version of the movie has ever surfaced.
Whatever the ultimate truth may be, this tale is clearly not a latter-day urban legend made up long after the fact: press accounts published while the third Smokey and the Bandit film was still in production stated that the movie was indeed intended to be a dual-role vehicle for Jackie Gleason, with actor Jerry Reed originally having no part in the film at all. The Ocala, Florida, Star-Banner reported in October 1982, for example, that:
The next installment in the movie series "Smokey and the Bandit" will be filmed in several Marion County areas during the first two weeks of November, production officials have announced.

Tentatively titled "Smokey Is the Bandit," the third in the series stars Jackie Gleason in the dual roles of the Bandit and Sheriff Buford T. Justice.

Burt Reynolds, Sally Field and Jerry Reed, who appeared in "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Smokey and the Bandit II" will not appear in this film.

According to officials with the production company, scheduling conflicts and salary demands cut down the cast, as compared to the previous two movies in the series.
Several months later, just days before the release of Smokey and the Bandit 3, that same newspaper ran a photograph of producer Mort Engelberg on location at the Golden Ocala golf resort in Florida, with a caption that read (in part):
As in the first two films, Texas Sheriff Buford T. Justice, played by Jackie Gleason, is hot on the tail of Bandit. This movie originally was titled "Smokey Is the Bandit," with Gleason playing both roles, but that idea was scrapped and Jerry Reed, who played trucker Cletis [sic] Snow in the first two films, will play the Bandit and drive the black and gold 1983 Trans Am.
Likewise, the notion that Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 was not just conceived with Jackie Gleason playing both title roles but was actually shot to completion that way, with Jerry Reed brought in to take on the role of the Bandit only after test audiences found the results confusing, was also being mooted well before the film's release. More than three months ahead of Smokey and the Bandit Part 3's 12 August 1983 release, for example, press accounts from Los Angeles noted that:
You may have heard that Burt Reynolds won't appear in the third edition of the Smokey-Bandit car-chase series.

Instead, Jackie Gleason was signed to play both the Smokey and the Bandit roles, hence the title Smokey Is the Bandit. But apparently preview test audiences couldn't follow what was going on. Though that would hardly seem to matter in this kind of picture, the filmmakers have gone back to shoot more scenes, this time with Jerry Reed, who was in the earlier two films, playing Bandit.
These reports seem like reasonably good documentation of the existence of a Gleason dual-role version of Smokey and the Bandit Part 3, and yet ... as Scott von Doviak pointed out, hard evidence seems to be curiously lacking: as far as we know, no one has yet turned up any footage, production stills, or promotional photographs showing Jackie Gleason in the role of the Bandit, despite persistent rumors of their existence. (This absence of evidence is
commonly explained away, in typical folkloric fashion, with the claim that Gleason bought up the rights to the first cut of the film to prevent the public from ever seeing it.) As well, the explanation that preview audiences were too "confused" by a film that featured an actor portraying two distinctly different characters sounds a bit flimsy (especially since audiences apparently had no issue with Gleason's playing three different characters in Smokey and the Bandit II.)

Another theory holds that the original conception of the film was not for Gleason to play two different characters, but for the roles of Sheriff Buford T. Justice and the Bandit to be effectively combined into one part. That is, this time around Sheriff Justice, not the Bandit, was to be the one who took on an outrageous bet from Big and Little Enos involving a law-breaking, cross-country run, thereby making Gleason both Smokey, the lawman, and Bandit, the lawman's nemesis — Smokey IS the bandit!

Having viewed the film again with a critical eye, we have to admit there may be something to this second theory. The movie starts out with the Enoses betting Sheriff Justice $250,000 (against his sheriff's badge) that he can't drive from Miami, Florida, to Austin, Texas, by the following afternoon, carrying a large replica fish (actually a shark) atop his car the whole way as a promotion for the Enis [sic] chain of fish & chips restaurants. The Enoses then begin throwing up all manner of contrived roadblocks to delay Sheriff Justice and prevent him from reaching his destination by the deadline, but a short way into the film they suddenly call up the Snowman (Jerry Reed) and promise to give him the $250,000 prize if he'll take on the guise of the Bandit and stop Sheriff Justice from winning the bet.

The result is a jumbled mess, and Reed's function in the film is a puzzle. The premise appears to be that by recruiting the Snowman to imitate the Bandit, the Enoses can lure Sheriff Justice into chasing him (rather than driving to Austin in time to win the bet). However, Reed's Bandit does nothing more than repeatedly steal the fish off the sheriff's car, while Sheriff Justice (accompanied by his dimwit son) chases the Bandit to Austin in the course of retrieving it (all while the Enoses continue making sporadic efforts to foil the sheriff). The Bandit doesn't lure Sheriff Justice away from his destination, and Sheriff Justice appears interested in chasing the Bandit only just long enough to retrieve his fish rather than finally capturing him.

If we had to guess, we'd surmise that the original version simply had Sheriff Justice attempting to win the Enoses' bet, while Big and Little Enos played the antagonists, employing a variety of dirty tricks to humiliate and delay the sheriff and keep him from winning the $250,000. But test audiences didn't much care for a Smokey and the Bandit film that lacked both the Bandit character and the iconic Trans Am, so Jerry Reed was recruited to take on the Bandit role. New scenes with Reed were shot and integrated with earlier footage, thereby allowing Gleason to revert to the more satisfying role of the pursuer rather than the pursued.

All of this is mere speculation, however. Hollywood flacks have been known to fabricate all kinds of odd stories in order promote upcoming films, and given the aforementioned lack of hard evidence, we have to assign this item an "Undetermined" status for now.

Last updated:   7 July 2009

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Sources:

    Arnold, Gary.   "Unarmed 'Bandit'; Reynolds' Handicapped Sequel to 'Smokey.'"
    The Washington Post.   15 August 1980   (p. C1).

    Deans, Laurie.   "Gleason Gets Some Help from Reed; Smokey No Longer Chasing Himself."
    The [Toronto] Globe and Mail.   6 May 1983.

    Von Doviak, Scott.   Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema.
    Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2004.   ISBN 0-7864-1997-0 (p. 35).

    Ward, Tyler.   "Third in 'Smokey' Films to Be Filmed in Marion."
    Ocala Star-Banner.   26 October 1982   (p. B7).

    Ocala Star-Banner.   "Shootin' 'Smokey.'"
    9 August 1983   (p. A1).