It’s also fair to question if Burt Reynolds was even in a position to offer the part to Merle in the first place. The director and originator of Smokey and the Bandit was stuntman Hal Needham, who had written the disjointed script for the film down on a series of legal pads. Needhan originally envisioned country artist Jerry Reed playing The Bandit, which Reed eventually did in the 3rd installment of the movie franchise.
But the original movie had trouble getting off the ground until Burt Reynolds got involved, and helped secure some professional screenwriters for the script, and the funding for the film. Jerry Reed with his mutton chops and bell bottoms slid over into the part of The Snowman, Burt Reynolds became The Bandit, and the rest is history. Aside from Star Wars, Smokey and the Bandit was the highest grossing film in 1977.
Looking back on it now, it was probably a good thing the more reserved Merle turned the film part down. The more animated Jerry Reed was born to be The Snowman, while a high-profile acting role could have eroded some of the mystique surrounding Merle.
It is interesting to ponder an alternative universe where Merle Haggard appeared in Smokey and the Bandit and became a movie star similar to Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson at that time. Merle did appear in a few film roles here and there, mostly just singing songs or playing a music performer. But not “wiggling his ass” on camera is one of the reasons Merle kept his cool factor throughout his career.
Merle Haggard wasn’t the silly joke cracker. He was the guy who stood up for the working man, the middle American, and the prison inmate. And that’s why the prisoners at Leavenworth and everyone else loved him universally.