I can’t recall when I first saw the famous Burt Reynolds centerfold in Cosmopolitan, but I was probably about 18. The photo, taken in 1972 when Reynolds was not yet famous (but getting there) exudes warmth. I could almost smell the cigarillo he’s smoking and the man sweat I mostly knew about from clandestine reads of The Clan of the Cave Bear.
The picture made me laugh out loud, in a reflexive, embarrassed way. That’s because of Reynolds’ body hair—a luxurious and unapologetic pelt, in true ’70s fashion. All of my celebrity lust objects up until that point were skinny, beardless boys—I had a River Phoenix tribute wall in my dorm room—and I wasn’t used to this. It looked realer than real, like I had stumbled upon a secret. I felt like I was seeing one of my parents’ friends naked by mistake, and it was confusing.
“To say the centerfold was popular would be an understatement,” Taylor Telford wrote in the Washington Post on Friday, detailing the origin story of the photo on the occasion of Reynolds’ death on Thursday at the age of 82. “It sold out nationwide, with more than 1.5 million total copies flying off the shelves in short order.” As Anne Helen Petersen writes about the centerfold’s significance at the time, Reynolds’ unapologetic hirsuteness was “a departure from shirtless celebrities of the past”—Brando, Elvis, and Jim Morrison had showed off little patches of chest hair, but nothing like this—“and a strong signifier of maleness.” People who misremember the image as having run in Playgirl are wrong, but for good reason: The founder of Playgirl, Telford writes, was inspired by the Reynolds centerfold, like the rest of us.
As Telford notes, Reynolds himself was later chagrined that he had heeded Helen Gurley Brown’s request and stretched out on that rug for photographer Francesco Scavullo to snap. “It was a total fiasco,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I thought people would be able to separate the fun-loving side of me from the serious actor, but I was wrong.” He even thought that he might have gotten an Oscar nod for Deliverance (out that same year) if it weren’t for the photo’s popularity.
The photo is truly, in the “emblem or symbol” sense of the word, iconic—recyclable in all kinds of contexts, always surprising and beguiling and beautiful. Rest in peace, Mr. Reynolds. Take it from me: You made the right decision.