For people growing up in the 1970’s, Burt Reynolds was ubiquitous, starring in popular movies, appearing on nightly talk shows, and popping up in a variety of commercials. For a five-year period, Reynolds was the nation’s biggest box office star, anchoring hits like Deliverance, The Longest Yard, and Smokey and the Bandit. Mark Fauser, BSG ’84 general studies, was among the legion of young people who grew up admiring the actor and hoping one day to become just like him.
“I thought he was a very diversified actor, and I thought he had a lot of fun by surrounding himself with friends and doing good art,” Fauser says. “I never thought in a million years I would meet him, but that’s what I wanted to do—to have fun for a living as an actor.”
Burt Reynolds talks to students at the Burt Reynolds Institute in Jupiter, Florida.
The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship
Fauser’s odds were considerably better than one-in-a-million. While attending Mizzou, he had taken “a ton of theater courses” and acted in numerous plays such as Grease, South Pacific, and Bus Stop. During his senior year, he performed in Eleven Zulu, which won more Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival awards than any other play that year. After graduating from MU, Fauser applied for one of 11 scholarships offered by the Burt Reynolds Institute in Jupiter, Florida, and was accepted. Fauser says the school was designed to help young talent improve their acting chops while learning some real-world lessons about Hollywood. One day students might study with actress Carol Burnett, and the next day they would clean toilets at the school.
“It was all designed to give us the full highs and lows of Hollywood and show business to see if we could handle it,” Fauser says. “It’s not for everybody because a lot of people think show business is just glamorous, but folks don’t realize the sacrifice and the rejection and the pain that comes along with it. Burt wanted to make sure we had a taste of it.”
Burt Reynolds, Mark Fauser, and Charles Durning joking around on the set of Evening Shade.
Hollywood, Here We Come
It was during his time at the school that Fauser met his wife of 32 years. Julie was a waitress at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre and they “hit it off quickly and got married a few months later.” Fauser and his good friend Brent Briscoe, BA ’84, speech and drama, who had performed together in numerous plays at Mizzou, both moved to Los Angeles and became writing partners. Fauser says they had a great career in California, writing movies such as Waking Up in Reno and acting together in movies such as Madison. Fauser also acted in a number of television shows, including Quantum Leap, seaQuest DSV, Coach, and Burt Reynolds’ popular series Evening Shade. In fact, Reynolds also hired Fauser and Briscoe to be among the show’s writers. It was during this run that the executive producer of seaQuest DSV wanted to hire Fauser as an actor on the show. Fauser was interested but told Reynolds his loyalty was to him; Reynolds suggested he take on the second role, telling Fauser he wanted what was best for him. Reynolds agreed to smooth things over with CBS, the home of Evening Shade, and to pave the way for him at NBC, where seaQuest DSV was being produced by Steven Spielberg.
“He picks up the phone and calls Steven Spielberg right in front of me and tells the story about us and then the phone call was done,” Fauser recounts. “Burt says, ‘Done. No worries.’ With tears in my eyes, I asked, ‘Why are you doing this for me?’ He said, “Because Jimmy Stewart did it for me, and someday I hope you do it for others.’ That’s kind of what life is about—making sure you pay it forward.”
Repay in Kind
Fauser says that’s why he wrote his book, Because of Burt, to “let the world know what a generous heart he had and how important it is in life to pay it forward.” Fauser began to write the book as a catharsis upon hearing of his mentor’s death last year. It was released February 11, which was Reynolds’ birthday, and is available on Amazon.
“I certainly did my very best to try to pay it forward from the tremendous gift Burt gave me, as well as my teachers at Mizzou, like Jim Miller, Larry Clark, and Weldon Durham,” Fauser says. He says his MU professors offered advice to students that holds true today—figure out if there is anything else you can do because show business is dependent upon luck to a greater degree than other professions.
“It is about being at the right place at the right time, and you have to have the talent to back it up,” he says. “But if you are young, and you love it that much, by all means go for it because you don’t want to have regrets in life.”
Fauser is currently working on his next project, a musical based on the life of actor James Dean called King of Cool. He also plans to return to his alma mater this summer to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Larry D. Clark Summer Repertory Theatre.