Burt Reynolds (1936 – 2018), stretched out on a bearskin rug, tanned, and much like the beast beneath him, he is very, very hairy. Veins bulge on his arms, one of which is conveniently placed in front of his special place. He looks amused. Between his teeth, a limp lit cigarillo droops from his lips, not unlike a, well, you know.
The photo, Cosmopolitan magazine’s first male centerfold, was a radical statement: women had desires that deserved not just to be acknowledged, but to be catered to. Its publication sparked a sort of revolution in women’s magazines. It captivated readers, challenged ideas about sexuality and spawned a wave of new publications. But although it launched Reynolds into a higher stratosphere of celebrity, his relationship with the picture was complicated.
The idea came to Helen Gurley Brown, then editor of Cosmopolitan, one day in the late 1960s while she was washing the dishes. Brown had been in charge of the magazine for three years, expanding the circulation by rebranding it as a women’s magazine for single young women.
“Men like to look at our bodies. We like to look at their bodies, though it’s not as well known.”
After making her pitch to Hearst Magazine executives, many of whom said she’d gone too far, Brown approached Reynolds in 1971, during a commercial break while he was standing in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and asked if he’d be interested in posing nude for Cosmo.
Reynolds had enjoyed a few cocktails in the green room when Brown pitched the centerfold as a milestone in the sexual revolution. She flattered him, telling him he was “the one man who could pull it off“. Reynolds later learned she had asked Paul Newman first, but he declined.
Reynolds agreed to do it, noting:
“I wish I could say that I wanted to show my support for women’s rights, but I just thought it would be fun.”
On the way to the photo shoot, Reynolds stopped for a bottle of vodka. The studio was freezing. Reynold later wrote: “….bad for a naked man’s self-esteem“. The great fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo, who became famous for celebrity portraits in Cosmopolitan’s pages for the next 30 years, took hundreds of photos, creatively obscuring Reynolds’ junk with tactful positioning.
The photograph that was eventually published was chosen by Reynolds himself. The cover had teasing banner: At Last A Male Nude Centerfold — The Naked Truth About Guess Who!! Inside, it was prefaced by a daring declaration:
“We had the feeling the reason naked women so abound in magazines, while there is such a dearth of nude men, is that, until recently, those in control of publications have been men, who thought only of pleasing their brother men, and neglected the visual appetites of us equally appreciative girls.”
It sold more than 1.5 million copies, gone within hours. Some retailers kept the magazine behind counters rather than out on the shelves, making it even more desirable.
The morning after the magazine came out, a mob of women waited outside Reynold’s home in Jupiter, Florida. Audiences brought copies for him to autograph after his performances at his theatre. He received a lot of fan mail, including a letter from a woman in Nova Scotia containing pubic hair. Once, when he checked into a hotel, only to discover himself imprinted on the bedsheets; the manager said he’d bought them at Macy’s. Reynolds:
“It was a total fiasco. I thought people would be able to separate the fun-loving side of me from the serious actor, but I was wrong.”
In 2016, Reynolds said it was stupid of him to bare it all for Cosmopolitan and confessed that he had thought the picture had robbed him of an Academy Award nomination for Deliverance (1972). Reynolds eventually earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Boogie Nights (1997).