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'Ihave tremendous regrets about things," Burt Reynolds says. "I could have done things gentler, better."

The seventies star, whose first big hit was the 1972 movie Deliverance and whose moment of sex-symbol being was forever captured in the photograph of him, lounging nude on a bear rug, for the centerfold of Cosmopolitan magazine that same year, has placed his tinted aviator glasses on the table between us.

For much of our conversation, he fixes his gaze on the middle distance.

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"Gentler?" I inquire, curious about his choice in words.

He now turns to look directly at me.

"Gentler, yes," he says. "With relationships and whatever."

Dressed in black from head to toe, Mr. Reynolds reposes on his wooden chair, like a cowboy against a fence.

He is all angles, tall and lean, a knee crooked here, an elbow bent there, a hand on his hip. He even walks in a sort of stiff saunter, as if ambling out of the past, a little rusty after all these years.

In Toronto recently to accept an award for his philanthropic work from Best Buddies Canada, a charitable organization, Mr. "call me Burt" Reynolds seems aware of his place in celebrity history and exudes a kitschy retro vibe.

His black mustache, a trademark, speaks of bellbottoms, smoky poker games and hairy chests. But he doesn't wear it with irony.

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The mustache is part of the 71-year-old's brittle stuck-in-time exterior that has been helped, or rather stitched in place, by some obvious plastic surgery.

Which is why the soft interior that Mr. Reynolds readily puts on display is a surprise.

"Marriage is a course I failed at," he says with a laugh, when asked if he would ever make the commitment again.

He has been married twice: for two years in the mid-sixties to comedian Judy Carne, a star on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and later (from 1988 until 1995) to actress Loni Anderson .

"I passed up some incredible, wonderful women," he continues.

By not marrying them?

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"Yeah, and I think that probably I would still be married if I'd married some of them."

I mention Dinah Shore, the late singer and actress, who was 20 years his senior.

"Yeah," he acknowledges easily. "You know, I was aware she was older because I would see old movies with her in them. But I had no sense that she was older. Her spirit," he muses. "And who she was and her class ..." he says, trailing off.

"It was before my marriage to Loni," he explains. He went on her daytime talk show as a surprise guest. "It was one of those moments that people say never happens in life. But there was something about her. And I grabbed her. And we did this whole kiss," he says, leaning over to mimic the swooping embrace they had. "And then I said, 'Would you go down to Palm Springs with me this weekend?' And she said, 'Let's go right now.' And she turned, and we walked off the set together."

They were a couple for six years.

Was it one of his greatest love affairs?

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"Yes," he says without hesitation. "But I guess Sally [Field]was the one, if I had to name the woman who really stole my heart."

"She was after Loni?"

"It happened before, and then I came back to her after. You have to hit me between the eyes to get it," he says a bit sorrowfully.

His choices in women weren't smart?

"Not about this one," he says slowly, as if lost in the memory of Ms. Field. "I'd messed [marriage]up, and so I thought, don't go there and screw this up. This is perfect, right now."

"Did she want to marry you?"

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"I hope so. It seems that every time I wanted to marry her, she said, 'No, we better not.' And every time, she said, 'Okay, let's do it,' I said, 'Oh, I don't know. Maybe we better wait a little while.' "

He regrets that?

He looks at his shiny black ankle boots, allowing a long pause, then, up at me. "Yeah, I do," he says in an even-toned confession.

"Are you in touch with her now?"

"You know, it's funny, but the last time I talked to her was at the Toronto film festival. I'm not sure how many years ago, but it was when they honoured her, and I happened to be in town here making a movie. We were both staying at the same hotel, and I left a message for her, saying, 'Would you talk to me? I'd like us to be friends forever.'

"I expected her to call me, and I should have known that she'd be out late because it was her night. It got to be about midnight, and I went to sleep, and later, the phone rang. I was very groggy. I said, 'Could I see you?' She said, 'I'm leaving tomorrow.' And I said, 'So am I. I won't come down in my jammies or anything. I'll put some clothes on. I just want to shake your hand.' And she said, 'I've thought about when and if I ever see you again and I thought it would be so special. Let's not screw it up.'

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"I'm a hopeless romantic, even as old as I am, and I, too, had visions of us running together across a field of daisies. In my stupid, sleepy state, I said, 'You're right.' "

He shakes his head. "What an idiot." He runs a hand through his artful salt-and-pepper hair that has a toupee-ish je ne sais quoi. "I should have at least argued a bit."

About his parents, especially his father, Mr. Reynolds is equally, if not more, emotional. Part Cherokee Indian, Burton Reynolds Sr. was a chief of police in Palm Beach, Fla. "He was what John Wayne played. He was my hero. The most honest man I know," his son says. "I wanted to be like him. He was eventually fired from the police force for not going along with the politics, and he went to work driving a truck. He had been a captain in the army and highly decorated. But he never lost his dignity, never lost his class."

It was that model of behaviour that helped Mr. Reynolds survive his decline in fame.

"I had five fabulous years where I was No. 1. And a lot of people go from No. 1 to No. 2. I went from 1 to 38. That's when you find out what you're made of."

But his father never really approved of his son's acting career. "He never quite got it," he says. "He never saw that what I did was hard, hard work and that it was a profession that had dignity."

Then, thanks to James Stewart, he came to appreciate his son's achievements. "It was in 1985, and there was some big party at Warner Bros. Everybody came. And I was sitting with my mother and father, and Jimmy Stewart came along."

Mr. Reynolds pauses here. Suddenly, a sob escapes from his throat. He presses the tear ducts of each eye with the tips of two fingers. "And Jimmy said to my Dad, 'You should be proud of him.' From that moment on - because Jimmy had been in the army and that made a big impression on my father - he was proud. He thought that if Mr. Stewart thinks he's all right, he must be all right."

The mask of Mr. Reynolds' appearance slips easily, and interestingly, because of the wobbly self underneath, all the surgery and effort to keep himself as he was in his prime suddenly seems completely forgivable, sweet even.

After all, such vanity is so very human.

lhampson@globeandmail.com

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