How My Lifelong Dream of Working With Burt Reynolds Finally Happened

Adam Rifkin spills an epic tale about directing the mustachioed icon in ‘The Last Movie Star.’

Burt Reynolds Smokey and the Bandit Promo
Universal Pictures

In this essay written exclusively for Maxim, director Adam Rifkin details how he went from a Chicago kid daydreaming about meeting his idol Burt Reynolds to directing him in ‘The Last Movie Star,’ a new movie starring Reynolds and Ariel Winter. Here, Rifkin explains how he fulfilled his lifelong fantasy of working with The Bandit himself.

There’s an old adage, never meet your heroes because you’ll inevitably be disappointed. Whoever said that obviously never met Burt Reynolds. 

Growing up in Chicago in the 1970s and ’80s, Reynolds loomed larger than life. He was the biggest movie star on the planet, the most entertaining talk show guest to ever grace a late night stage and a ubiquitous cultural phenom who’s cocksure swagger and smart-ass wit was only matched by his own self deprecating jabs at his macho image and blithe bravado. 

Burt had fun being famous and as a result, we all had a blast watching him. Whether it was squirting whipped cream down Johnny Carson’s pants, slapping Dom Deluise for cracking up during a scene or smashing his own head through a jukebox, Burt’s antics, on camera and off, were the things that this 12-year-old fan’s dreams were made of. He drove fast cars, dated pretty girls and was the coolest guy I wish I knew. Burt Reynolds was my hero.

The me of middle school was a far cry from the football-throwing, cowboy boot-wearing specimen of masculinity my idol was. Just look at my official Bar Mitzvah photo for all the proof you’ll ever need. 

Photo: Adam Rifkin

I was a film geek. I lived out my heroics vicariously through the characters I loved on movie screens. And Burt was the guy I wanted to be. As well as the guy I wanted to be friends with.

A recurring fantasy pulled me through many a tedious history class. While being quizzed on the thirteen colonies, suddenly, the deafening roar of a 5.7-liter V8 engine rattles the walls. The stuffy teacher looks up as her books vibrate across her desk and onto the floor. All eyes turn to the sound out the window. There, parked across three spaces in the faculty lot, the iconic 1977, black, T-top Trans-Am Special Edition Bandit Mobile, complete with signature flaming golden eagle decal emblazoned across the hood, sits idling. 

Instantly recognizable to all, the class goes insane. Then, an unmistakable laugh is heard from the door. All heads turn just as Burt Reynolds, looking every bit the movie star the moniker implies, swaggers into the classroom in full Bandit gear, smacking his gum. 

Every jaw drops. He struts to the teacher and hands her a note. She melts, a blushing, eyelash batting wreck. “Adam Rifkin’s coming with me. Here’s the permission slip”. Gasps abound as Burt points right at me. “Let’s go kid”. Speechless, I beam brighter than a set of million watt, Pontiac headlights. My classmates are stupefied. How on God’s green Earth does Adam know Burt Reynolds? In a flash, we’re gone. But not before Burt pokes his head back in: 

“Remember kids, stay in school”. 

He winks. Everyone rushes back to the window to watch us leap into the convertible. Doors schmoors! Thanks to Burt, I’m suddenly cool. SCREEEEEECHH! He peels off and we disappear down the highway. Two best friends with nothing but open road and adventure ahead.

Reynolds and Rifkin, together at last.

35 years later…

I wanted to give something back to Burt Reynolds for all the joy he’d given me and so many others for so many years. That’s why I wrote The Last Movie Star. It’s a film about an older man named Vic Edwards, who once upon a time was the biggest
movie star in the world, but now has to accept the reality that his glory days are behind him. 

Vic is lured to Nashville to receive a lifetime achievement award from what he believes is a prestigious film festival, but when he arrives he’s humiliated to learn the event is a very low budget affair being put on in the back room of a bar by some overly enthusiastic film geeks. The story causes Vic to take stock of how far down he’s come in his life and career and forces him to face the mistakes of his past. Eventually he bails on the festival and makes his emotionally unstable driver, played by Ariel Winter, take him to his hometown of Knoxville, where he embarks on a tour of the landmarks of his youth.

As famous as Burt was in his heyday, I never felt he got his proper due as an actor. His performances were always brilliant and nuanced, yet he rarely got the credit he deserved. In fact, you can watch any Burt Reynolds movie from any era and you’ll see, he never delivers a false note. I wanted to create a role that would remind everyone, Burt Reynolds isn’t just an icon of a previous generation, he’s also a brave and relevant artist today. 

When I submitted the script to his manager I asked him to tell Burt that if he didn’t want to play the part I wasn’t going to make the film. I wrote it only for Burt. Much to my giddy elation, Burt accepted.

Photo: Bob Franklin

As you can probably imagine, I was pretty nervous going in. How does one approach directing an icon? But Burt has a miraculous ability to put all at ease in an instant. Before we started he told me we were making this movie together. That he needed me as much as I needed him. That we were partners in this endeavor and that we’d have each other’s backs. 

And Burt held true to his word. We were genuine collaborators throughout. For example, in one scene, Vic revisits Neyland Stadium, the hallowed ground where he was once a rising college football star until a career ending injury forced him to have to turn from sports to acting. I had created a yarn for Burt to spin but as it turns out, Burt’s own true life story about similar events was far more compelling, heartbreaking and ultimately life affirming. We agreed that Burt would just put the scene in his own words based on his own experiences, and it was magic.

Ariel Winter as Lil in “The Last Movie Star.”

At just 18 years old, Ariel Winter was already a seasoned veteran when we shot the movie last year. Grown up in front of a camera on Modern Family armed her with all the confidence and skills necessary to keep pace with Burt’s hilarious jabs and ad libs. But it was watching Ariel gradually realize just how culturally relevant her costar is that was a genuine thrill. 

She’s the first one to admit that even though she intellectually knew who Burt Reynolds was, Burt’s heyday as the biggest movie star on Earth was well before she was born. But much like her character Lil’s experiences, Ariel became aware of just how important Burt is to people by watching the reactions on their faces when they would recognize it was really him. She quickly understood, this isn’t just another famous person, Burt Reynolds is a true living legend.

Working with my childhood hero was the experience of my life. Burt Reynolds, the superstar, was in my movie! But it was Burt Reynolds the man who really touched my heart. His generosity, his creativity, his endless humor and amazing stories, it was artistically fulfilling and personally gratifying in ways I could never have imagined. And I’m a pretty imaginative guy. 

As a result, as much of a hero as he was to me in my youth,
he’s even more of a hero to me today. And just as I suspected as a kid, being able to claim Burt Reynolds as my friend…it just makes me a little cooler. Thank you, Burt. My 12-year-old self is doing back flips!  

Watch ‘The Last Movie Star’ on DirecTV Cinema now or catch it in select NYC and LA theaters beginning March 30.