Burt Reynolds honors Bertie Higgins at FMA kickoff party in Fort Lauderdale

'Bandit' reunites with 'Key Largo' singer as Florida natives reflect on careers

By Peter Burke - Local10.com Managing Editor

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Burt Reynolds and Bertie Higgins are the best of friends, despite being separated by thousands of miles and living three time zones apart.

Their reunion Friday night in Fort Lauderdale was one of mutual admiration and respect.

Reynolds appeared at the Ocean Manor Hotel & Resort to recognize his longtime pal at the Florida Music Awards kickoff party. Higgins is an inductee in the 2017 FMA Hall of Fame class.

"He's always been an extreme favorite to me," Higgins said of Reynolds before the ceremony began.

Considering their Florida roots, the fact that the movie star and the musician reunited on state soil seems appropriate.

Higgins became a household name with his 1981 ballad "Key Largo." The song quickly sprang to success on the Billboard music charts, spending 17 weeks in the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the adult contemporary chart for two weeks.

That same year, Reynolds directed and starred in "Sharky's Machine," which was well received by critics. By that time, Reynolds was an established star, having entertained audiences in the Oscar-nominated "Deliverance" and cementing his legendary status as the wise-cracking, law-abating Coors smuggler who made the Pontiac Trans Am the ultimate muscle car of the late 1970s in "Smokey and the Bandit."

Higgins, 72, and Reynolds, 81, met on the set of the 1983 movie "The Man Who Loved Women." Higgins recalled how Reynolds piqued his interest in filmmaking, steering him toward screenwriting.

"He's shooting 'Sharky's Machine' in Atlanta, and his brother, who was driving the bus, was forcing him to listen to my first demos from the first album," Higgins said. "Every morning, bop, bop, and here's 'Key Largo' with me and a guitar."

Higgins served as Reynolds' protégé, learning the art of acting from the "Bandit" and even trying his hand at teaching a thespian class at Reynolds' acting studio in Jupiter.

"But I haven't seen Burt in quite a while, and I'm very pleased he's here to do this with me," Higgins said.

Now, more than three decades after the success of "Key Largo," Higgins remains active in filmmaking. Higgins, who grew up in the Tampa Bay area, said it's one of the reasons he and his family moved to California.

Higgins is currently editing his production company's fifth film, which his son directed.

"But I miss Tarpon Springs," Higgins said.

The singer and songwriter has remained actively involved in his home state, performing concerts to help raise money for the relighting of a Gulf coast lighthouse near Tarpon Springs and donating money to the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary.

"I really miss Florida," Higgins admitted. "Florida's just a wonderful place. Plus, it's cheaper than Burbank."

His fondness for Florida is evident in his work, writing such songs as "Florida," "Palm Beach" and "The Redneck Riviera."

Reynolds also remains active in filmmaking, even though he's back home in his native Palm Beach County. The Oscar-nominated actor will star in "Dog Years" later this year.

Perhaps no other celebrity has been as associated with his alma mater as Reynolds has been with Florida State University. At the height of his fame, Reynolds was a frequent visitor to Tallahassee, attending football games and touting the Seminoles to his Hollywood chums. He was a regular on former head coach Bobby Bowden's weekly television show, and he's got an athletic dormitory at the school named for him.

So it's no surprise that Reynolds was rooting for "Moonlight," set in South Florida and directed by fellow FSU alumnus Barry Jenkins.

"That was great," Reynolds said of the newest Best Picture winner. "It was long overdue."

Before presenting Higgins with his award, Reynolds sat at a table with rocker Rick Derringer, another inductee who now lives in Florida, as Higgins performed "Key Largo" and a few other songs.

Reynolds acknowledged that they don't see much of each other anymore, but it's not for a lack of interest.

"Well, you know, we're both making a living, and you can't make it in Jupiter," Reynolds said.

"That's why I had to get out of Tarpon," Higgins added.

Higgins said he couldn't think of a better person than Reynolds to share the moment with him.

"He's been so blessed with his work, and in a lot of ways I've been blessed, too," Higgins said. "And I think it's just hanging out with good people, people who know what they're doing. I have very little patience, and I'm getting old -- er. But, you know, you become accustomed to working with people that are professional and talented. When you surround yourself in your career with people like that, then it's a, if you've got the talent, and it's a hit, you get through it."

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