For many years movie star Burt Reynolds had a shadow hanging over his head. The one time top billing actor and charismatic personality came under suspicion following the death of David Whiting. This was during filming in Arizona in 1973. Did Burt Reynolds end the life of David Whiting or was it a case of being in the wrong chaotic place at the wrong chaotic time?
Sarah Miles,31, is a British actress who was renowned as a bit of a beauty. This married lady joined Burt Reynolds, Lee J Cobb and George Hamilton to make the Western, ‘The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing’.
Filming was to take place in the area around Gila Bend, Arizona and cast and crew arrived in January 1973. 26 year old David whiting was not a member of the cast. He was sort of Sarah Mile’s manager. I say sort of because his involvement with her has separately been called other things. In other places he is described as her personal assistant. Certainly he was part of her life and had been closely associated with her for quite sometime.
According to the very good ( but very long) Esquire article I read Whiting was a half fantasist/ half talented individual. He could arrange things that many others could not, he had great taste and contacts. He was also a talented writer. The flip side of the coin is that he had real emotional issues and relied heavily on prescription drugs. From what I can tell these drugs were not under the supervision of any doctor.
The use of Quaaludes (methaqualone) and barbiturates were big back in the day. Quaaludes for example have featured in many cases of darkness back in the Hollywood heyday. Barbiturates such as Phenobarbital were often abused because the addictive effect of long term use were not really understood by the user. Of course these drugs benefited many who truly needed them. However, the recreational use that followed their introduction probably caused as much suffering as they alleviated. A quick search on the internet will spew out a whole list of stars that have succumbed to these sort of drugs over the decades.
Whiting accompanied Miles to the flat dry heat of Gila Bend and along with most of the cast and crew took up residence in the Travelodge. The complex was comprised of the usual small rooms some of which had interconnecting doors. Whiting initially moved into the room adjoining Miles’. After a time Sarah Miles had her five year old son and their nanny join her so Whiting took another room a little distance away.
On 11th February 1973 Whiting was found in Miles’ room. He was very dead. He was lying on his side clutching the bin. In two groups on the floor were drug capsules. Apparently the night before many of the group had been at a drinks party at a bar. Whiting had been invited but had declined. Burt Reynolds had returned to his room and had arranged a massage. A masseuse had been retained and had been moved into her own room so she was on call. Sarah Miles had come back from the party and joined Burt Reynolds. They talked and watched TV while the masseuse did her job. At one point it is reported that Sarah Miles fell asleep on the bed next to Burt Reynolds while the masseuse was still there. At about 3 am Miles returned to her own room.
According to her she was grabbed by Whiting as soon as she entered the room. He wanted to know where she had been and who she had been with. He slapped her and in the following commotion the nanny ran into the room through the adjacent door. Because Whiting was belligerent and aggressive Miles told the nanny to call Burt.
Whiting left the room and a short time later Burt Reynolds came in and took Miles back to his room.
At first the law, including the local coroner, thought it was likely that they had a suicide or at least a drug overdose on their hands. Things took a turn when they went to Whiting’s room. There they saw blood on a pillow, blood on tissues and a towel. They also found a room key for the nanny’s room.
What they then found, when they returned to the body, was blood seeping from an overlooked wound. A star shaped wound was on the back of Whiting’s head. Later it would be declared that as they searched Whiting for ID they had moved him enough to allow the fluid to seep out. They also asserted that the sort of wound he had is commonly associated with people falling backwards.
Well the events of the early hours of 11th February ( regarding the time Miles was in Burt Reynold’s room and the struggle when Miles returned to her own room) were confirmed by the witnesses.
There was no corresponding area of Whiting’s room to explain his wound. The walls were checked, the fittings were checked and the floor was carpeted. More likely any fall would have been in an area like the car park. The complication here was even in Arizona it does rain sometimes. It had done just that on the night of 10th/11th February.
Whiting’s body showed signs of injury, but these consisted of some bruising to the chest and shoulder and some abrasions on his abdomen. There were also some scratches on his arms. I have seen it written that the injuries he had were minor and did not support any theory of serious assault. Of course there was the injury to his head, but other than him hitting his head in a fall, pushed or not, nothing on him or in his room pointed to some murderous intent.
The autopsy report later declared that it was the intake of drugs found in Whiting’s body that caused his death. The formula for deciding this had been criticised. One source sited a bit of research that said that the amount would be fatal, another said it would not.
What was found was methaqualone and Benadryl. The methaqualone was likely from a brand called Mandrax. In a conversation on the telephone at about 9pm the previous night Whiting had told a friend he had taken some. The friend later told the authorities he had sounded drowsy. Benadryl is an anti histamine that can have the same effect. There was also a trace of Valium found in his system.
What does seem to have been ruled out was any chance his death was as a result of the head injury. The scenario that was most likely was the injury had occurred and Whiting had spent sometime waiting on his bed for the bleeding to stop. At some point he had gone over to Miles’ room but of course she was not there. He had then succumbed to the intake of drugs and passed away on the floor.
Controversy and Questions
Whenever a film is financed people take a gamble with their money. This movie was not on a huge budget but nor was it a cheap B movie either. As a result the studio were involved in the aftermath as soon as they could be. This has led to natural suspicion as to how much they tried to influence the coroner’s determination. Some say that what happened was that Miles cried distress to Burt Reynolds and he went and sorted Whiting out. It was during this assault the injury to Whiting’s head occurred and that is really what killed him.
Certainly Burt Reynolds was a very capable guy back in the day. He had been a successful athlete and was a tough man not just a man who could play that part. However, there was no evidence to connect the threads on this theory. I have read elsewhere that the injuries were more severe. That Whiting had a lot of bruises and more obvious signs of a beating. I am only going off the end result and so if there was serious evidence of beating it was buried so deeply from the public that it still has not come out.
What played into the idea of a cover up were some inconsistencies in the evidence. Miles said at one point she found the body at 8 am. In another version the nanny actually went into Miles’ room early on to see if she was there and missed Whiting’s body completely. Finally Miles said that the body was found at 11.15 am and the police were called.
Burt Reynolds was called once again by Miles. He said he saw tablets on Whiting’s arm. This was not confirmed by the police. He also said there was a pill bottle in Whiting’s hand that he pried loose. He then took it to Sarah Miles. After that he says he is not sure what happened to it and it was not found. However, there were a lot of pill bottles and preparations and cosmetics in Mile’s room so maybe it had been placed back there.
Whiting appears to have been from a rather complicated family situation. His mother, Mrs Campbell, arrived like a storm and she is painted as a rather eccentric figure like her son. She insisted on a second autopsy and filed various objections and documents quizzing the process.
I think that sometimes covering up because of fear of reputation damage gives rise to later suspicions of a complete cover up. I think that happens often in high profile cases.
For example (not specific to this) someone who has a reputation to protect also likes to use illicit drugs. Someone in their company dies and so the scene is cleared of items. That or a time line is altered or a person who was there is said not to have been. Then later because of the chaos evidence is incomplete and lacks logic. It is easy to then seize on these aspects and presume the whole thing is staged.
I do know that there was argument about the amount of different drugs in Whiting’s body and if those amounts could kill him. Yet the final analysis decided that they did.
I do believe that the site of his injury was searched for but not found. Without that evidence it is impossible to point the finger at anyone or even be sure there was someone who caused him to get that injury. He was after all reported to have been under the influence of the drugs earlier to the point his friend said he sounded drowsy. Drowsy people fall down sometimes.
The other injuries which were observed came from some sort of fight. Minor bruising etc is not significant because he did have a fight with Miles. At least witnesses said he did.
It was strange that he had a key to the nanny’s room. Except that there is some suggestion he knew her before and had put her forward for the job. So maybe they had some form of agreement at the time that was not fully explained.
As for Burt Reynolds and the disappearing pill bottle. Whiting was found dead in Miles room. In that room an inventory of items showed Mandrax among other drugs. What if Burt Reynolds pried the bottle from Whiting’s hand and it was a drug that would have complicated things? As in it was a drug prescribed to Miles with her name on the bottle. Further in this speculation maybe it was for something that Miles would not have wished known in public.
Yes I am sure the studio, MGM, would have done almost anything to keep the show rolling but any influence they brought would not necessarily have swayed the evidence. Nor would it have necessarily been needed.
Whiting had a history of eccentricity, emotional issues and had said he was using drugs to the friend on the phone. Possibly Burt Reynolds did confront him, but the injuries were not consistent with the sort of beating he could deal out.
In any case the evidence led to a death by overdose and apart from bickering and circumstantial evidence laced with speculation it still stands today.