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Aging Burt Reynolds talks ponies and movies at Southeastern Guide Dogs

PALMETTO — Appearing frail and disinterested, Burt Reynolds skipped most of Wednesday's media event for his latest film, And Then There Was Light, that literally turned into a dog and pony show.

Ten minutes before the nearly hour-long Q&A session ended, Reynolds, 80, entered a conference room at Southeastern Guide Dogs, where principal photography commenced last week and is slated to conclude May 5.

And Then There Was Light is a fictional story of a girl blinded in an equestrian accident, who learns to use a miniature pony as her support animal. That adorable horse, an even tinier stable mate and several guide dogs were trotted out for cooing reporters killing time before and after Reynolds' arrival.

The Burt Reynolds who walked stooped into the room wasn't the vibrant 1970s matinee idol his fans cherish, or even a rakish Boogie Nights father figure. More like the sort of great-grandfather figure that's practically unavoidable at his advanced age, moving slow with a cane, speech softly slurred.

Reynolds was shielded from direct media questioning by a Southeastern Guide Dogs publicist who had reporters submit questions for Reynolds, screened them, then apparently ignored all except the softest lobs. (My questions about Reynolds' health, finances and current professional state were bypassed.)

For starters, Reynolds was asked what drew him to the role of Charlie, a Southeastern Guide Dogs trainer bonding sightless Bailey (Avery Arendes) with her guide pony:

"I haven't done a picture in a long time that's a real family-friendly picture, and I needed to do one," Reynolds said.

"I can't keep jumping off buildings, doing things like that. I'm too old for that. And it's a delightful, sweet story, with a wonderful young cast, and a little horse that's just a pain in the — no, he's wonderful."

Everyone and everything about And Then There Was Light is "wonderful" or "terrific" in Reynolds' book. His co-stars use words like "surreal" and "legend" to describe working with him. They're all "kids" to him.

The world's former No. 1 box office draw had pleasant things to say about writer-director Castille Landon, 24, a former Bradenton resident making her second feature film.

"She knows what she's doing," he said. "She's very prepared, and I like it."

Moments later, Reynolds joked about the generational gap between himself and Landon, when describing the role of Charlie.

"I hope he's likable," Reynolds said. "I was talking about (playing him like) Ben Johnson, and our young director didn't know who that was, and I wanted to quit the movie."

Johnson was an Academy Award winner for 1971's The Last Picture Show, as the laconic mentor Sam the Lion, after a career playing cowboys.

"Ben Johnson is one of my heroes, and (this role) is very similar to the kind of pictures that he did," Reynolds said.

In other moments Wednesday, Reynolds' comments ranged from arbitrary ("At one time I had 27 horses, which was really silly. They didn't do anything except poop and eat. They didn't make me money. But they were beautiful.") to somber, when asked if he knows anyone sight-impaired.

"I had a very dear friend who I played football with in high school, who gradually was going blind. When it happened, he faced it with such bravery and class. I only wish that I had that, if anything like that happened."

Reynolds isn't going blind, but he's obviously facing physical challenges, after a lifetime of football, movie stunts and any other exertions that came with being Burt.

Exiting the media event, Reynolds walked past his career peak, a parked pair of Smokey and the Bandit Trans-Ams having nothing to do with this movie. His scene being filmed nearby was supposed to be open to reporters but closed at the last minute, an abrupt end to a show biz dog and pony show.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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