For 14 years Burt Reynolds had toiled in low-budget Westerns and two cop TV series, Hawk and Dan August. He was known primarily as the man on the arm of Older Woman Dinah Shore, and as everybody's favorite talk-show guest. But Reynolds, then 36, showed new dimensions and made beefcake history when the April 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan hit the stands. There, chewing a cigarillo on a bearskin rug with a staple in his furry tummy, was Burt au naturel from head to toe.
Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown says that the idea of showing male nudity (Playgirl didn't debut until the next year) came to her while ''doing the dishes or something,'' she recalls. ''I thought, why wouldn't we enjoy looking at a man's body?'' Actually, Brown had shot another male star to be the first centerfold but didn't like the photos. (She won't name names because ''it would hurt his feelings.'') She approached Reynolds about posing after they had both appeared on The Tonight Show. Reynolds quickly agreed to pose in nothing for nothing ''I thought it would be a kick,'' he said. Says Brown: ''He was never a scrap of trouble, and we took lots of full frontal nudity.''
The magazine sold out (1.6 million copies) and, along with his work in Deliverance, which was released that fall, the centerfold put Reynolds' career into high gear: Within a year he had his own talk show. Meanwhile, Dinah Shore quipped that the centerfold didn't do him justice, and in interviews Reynolds joked that the chilly studio had diminished his manhood.
Turns out he'd been nervous from the start. Photographer Francesco Scavullo recalls giving Burt booze so he'd relax and take off his robe. ''He was nervous,'' says the photographer. ''There was a lot of walking around.'' Scavullo shot a slew of beefcake for Cosmo thereafter John Davidson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jim Brown. None of them shared Reynolds' modesty. ''Arnold just walked out of the dressing room without a robe on,'' says Scavullo. ''John Davidson took his clothes off right away.'' He shot David Hasselhoff as Cosmo's 25th-anniversary centerfold in 1990. ''These days, no one is worried about being nude,'' says Scavullo, ''because they're nude in half the movies they make. They are worried about pumping up.''
But Reynolds is still the most celebrated male foldout in history. In Esquire's ''Dubious Achievement Awards of 1991,'' he and his photo were given a permanent place in the ''Bimbo Timeline,'' near Raquel Welch and Joe Namath. But let the cynics laugh. When Cosmo ran Burt up the flagpole, America saluted.
Time Capsule: March 27, 1992
Herman Wouk's The Winds of War blew across the best-seller list, and Donny Osmond's ''Puppy Love'' was lapped up as a single. Movie audiences said ''welcome and bien-venue'' to Cabaret. All in the Family was the No. 1 TV show again in its second season.