Before ''Burt-and-Loni-gate'' broke last June, before the cheesy accusations of their messy breakup made daily headlines, before we had ever heard the words ''cocktail lounge manager Pam Seals,'' a marginally more innocent America's gaze fixed on Loni Anderson, now 47, and Burt Reynolds, 58, for a far prettier reason.
They met on The Merv Griffin Show in 1981, but a year passed before Loni agreed to a date. ''I was terrified,'' she later explained. ''I expected a glib ladies' man, which he's not.'' Throughout Burt and Loni's six-year courtship, the press and public watched, waited, and wondered: Would Hollywood's most monogamous nonspouses ever tie the knot? Skeptics pointed to Burt's altar-shy behavior with Sally Field and Dinah Shore, while the twice-married Loni told the press she didn't want to make the same mistake thrice. But there were signs wedding bells would ring: In 1984 Loni moved in with Burt, she stood by her man during his career-derailing battle with the joint disorder TMJ, and in 1985 Burt had a chapel built on his 160-acre ranch in Jupiter, Fla. Rumor finally became reality on April 29, 1988, when the couple made it legal at the ranch. Guests included Ann-Margret, Perry Como, and Robby Benson. In a charming twist, Burt made all the arrangements. ''I hate to say I just showed up, but that's what I did,'' said Loni.
Just before 2 p.m., while photographer-filled helicopters whirred above, the 65 guests gathered in the chapel for a simple, 20-minute ceremony. ''I'm at peace with myself. I feel really warm,'' Burt gushed to his best man. Loni, in a leg-baring, lacy white dress, was given away by Burt Reynolds Sr., since her parents were deceased. Then, following Jim Nabors' rendition of the Lord's Prayer and ''Our Love Is Here to Stay,'' Burt produced the whopping, seven-carat diamond ring he'd had designed. Afterward, the wedding party removed to a flower-filled helicopter hangar for the reception. The heart-shaped wedding cake was housed in a gazebo all its own. Burt told the crowd, ''I married my best friend today,'' to which Loni responded, ''I feel like Cinderella. I married Prince Charming.'' At 5:30, the happy couple boarded a chopper bound for a 125-foot yacht, a honeymoon in the Bahamas, and what any right-thinking screenwriter would have called a happy-ever-after.