Merle Haggard Was Burt Reynolds’ Choice to Play The Snowman

Reading through the new definitive biography on Merle Haggard by Marc Eliot called The Hag: The Life, Times, and Music of Merle Haggard, there are a some fresh details revealed on some of the older and well-known Merle Haggard stories and anecdotes from his legendary Hall of Fame career, and a few new stories that few if anyone knew about Merle beyond his close friends and family.

One such interesting story that seems to have gone under-reported in the Internet age is that Merle Haggard was the pick by Burt Reynolds to play his semi truck-driving sidekick “The Snowman” in the legendary Smokey and The Bandit movie series.

In 1973, Merle Haggard agreed to appear on a Burt Reynolds NBC special taped at the notorious United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. This was when prison concerts were all the rage, thanks to Johnny Cash’s successful prison albums, and Merle’s #1 songs about prisoners and convicts like “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried.”

Before Saturday Night Live was launched in October of 1975, NBC gave Burt Reynolds a series of specials on Saturday night after he’d made a number of popular appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Reynolds would do a stand up routine, and then invite out celebrities and musical guests. Reynolds always had admired Merle Haggard, and asked him to appear on the Leavenworth special. Other guests on the episode included Dinah Shore, Jonathan Winters, and musicians from the prison, including a songwriter named Bobby Holmes, and a soul performer.

But what happened at Leavenworth didn’t sit right with Merle. The two men just had opposite personalities. Merle was the relatively private ex-convict known for his rather stern personality. Reynolds was a more bombastic Florida boy used to cutting jokes and having a good time—a good ol’ boy with a funny bone and a flair for the entertainment industry.

When Burt Reynolds came out on the Leavenworth Prison stage for his monologue, he cracked jokes about his nude photos that had recently been published, the Watergate scandal, and the recent XXX movie Deep Throat. He also started dancing around the stage when the soul act came out to perform, which some of the prisoners enjoyed, and others very clearly did not. (You can see the NBC special except the Merle Haggard appearance HERE.)

Burt Reynolds trying to show off his dance moves is what happened before Merle Haggard came out on stage as the headliner, and apparently Merle wasn’t impressed, and neither were many of the inmates. But when Merle Haggard appeared on the stage, everyone gave him a standing ovation, and according to both the inmates, Merle, and Burt Reynolds, it’s what saved the show. That’s reportedly the reason Reynolds offered Merle the part to play The Snowman in Smokey and the Bandit.

“He offered it to me the night after we did Fort Leavenworth,” says Haggard. “What happened [there] was kind of sideways with me. Reynolds went [onstage] and wiggled his ass at the convicts. They started whislin’ and booin’ at the same time. I don’t know why he did that and they were ready to eat him alive … When I came out they gave me a standing ovation. So I never even replied to the offer on the films.”

It’s fair to question if in fact it was the day after the Leavenworth taping when Reynolds offered Merle Haggard the Snowman part. The NBC special aired on October 13th, 1973, and Smokey and the Bandit did not come out until the summer of 1977. But it was the way Merle felt Reynolds disrespected the inmates at Leavenworth that resulted in him turning down the part.

It’s also fair to question if Burt Reynolds was even in a position to offer the part to Merle in the first place. The director and originator of Smokey and the Bandit was stuntman Hal Needham, who had written the disjointed script for the film down on a series of legal pads. Needhan originally envisioned country artist Jerry Reed playing The Bandit, which Reed eventually did in the 3rd installment of the movie franchise.

But the original movie had trouble getting off the ground until Burt Reynolds got involved, and helped secure some professional screenwriters for the script, and the funding for the film. Jerry Reed with his mutton chops and bell bottoms slid over into the part of The Snowman, Burt Reynolds became The Bandit, and the rest is history. Aside from Star Wars, Smokey and the Bandit was the highest grossing film in 1977.

Looking back on it now, it was probably a good thing the more reserved Merle turned the film part down. The more animated Jerry Reed was born to be The Snowman, while a high-profile acting role could have eroded some of the mystique surrounding Merle.

It is interesting to ponder an alternative universe where Merle Haggard appeared in Smokey and the Bandit and became a movie star similar to Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson at that time. Merle did appear in a few film roles here and there, mostly just singing songs or playing a music performer. But not “wiggling his ass” on camera is one of the reasons Merle kept his cool factor throughout his career.

Merle Haggard wasn’t the silly joke cracker. He was the guy who stood up for the working man, the middle American, and the prison inmate. And that’s why the prisoners at Leavenworth and everyone else loved him universally.

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