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.