After the tour, Reynolds returned to New York and enrolled in acting classes, along with Frank Gifford, Carol Lawrence, Red Buttons and Jan Murray.
"I was a working actor for two years before I finally took my first real acting class (with Wynn Handman at the Neighborhood Playhouse)," he said.
He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Boogie Nights (1997). was the son of Harriet Fernette "Fern" (née Miller; 1902–1992) and Burton Milo Reynolds (1906–2002).
After the play closed, the director, John Forsythe, arranged a film audition with Joshua Logan for Reynolds. Reynolds was told he could not be in the film because he looked too much like Marlon Brando.
Although Reynolds had leading roles in such films as Navajo Joe (1966), his breakthrough role was as Lewis Medlock in Deliverance (1972).
Reynolds played the leading role in a number of subsequent box office hits, such as The Longest Yard (1974), Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Semi-Tough (1977), The End (1978), Hooper (1978), Starting Over (1979), Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981), Sharky's Machine (1981), The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), and Cannonball Run II (1984).
He also claimed Cherokee and Italian roots, both of which remain unverified.
He, his mother, and his sister joined his father at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and lived there for two years.
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When his father was sent to Europe, the family moved to Lake City, Michigan, where his mother had been raised.