The unmentionables: Burt Reynolds in Cosmo

We’re not quite as prudish in America as we once were, but how can we attest to that if the obituaries for Bert Reynolds, who died today at 82, fail to mention a pretty iconic moment in the cultural landscape?

This in 1972:

Photo: Francesco Scavullo for Cosmopolitan.

Reynolds was filling in for Johnny Carson (ask your grandparents) one night when his guest, Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of “Cosmopolitan” asked if he’d pose. Paul Newman had already said “no.”

Reynolds figured why not?

Burt Reynolds had made a bunch of OK movies. But it was that centerfold that catapulted him to true stardom. “He had been a movie star,” Brown said. “Now he was a celebrity.”

And a fixture on dorm rooms all over America.

It was a first for women’s magazines.

Oh, there are still stories people tell, just not in the obit section, apparently.

Reynolds grew to regret the decision, he said.

Although no one had ever shown a naked man in a magazine before, Helen believed women have the same “visual appetites” as men, who’d been looking at naked women in Playboy since 1953. She wanted the same prerogative for women. It would be a milestone in the sexual revolution, and she said I was the one man who could pull it off. I found out later she’d asked Paul Newman first, but he turned her down.

Helen didn’t have to talk me into it. I was flattered and intrigued. I wish I could say that I wanted to show my support for women’s rights, but I just thought it would be fun. I said yes before we came back on the air. (I may or may not have had several cocktails in the greenroom before the show.)

On the way to the photo shoot, I stopped for two quarts of vodka and finished one before we got to the studio, which was freezing cold (bad for a naked man’s self-esteem).

“It was really stupid. I don’t know what I was thinking,” Burt said at South by Southwest a few years ago.

A few months later, “Deliverance,” which had already been completed by the time of the Cosmo photo shoot, was released.