By Clark Collis
September 06, 2018 at 10:13 PM EDT

Writer-director Adam Rifkin fulfilled a decades-old dream by working with his hero Burt Reynolds in this year’s The Last Movie Star, the tale of an aging Hollywood megastar who accepts an invitation to appear at a film festival in Nashville.

“Burt Reynolds was my childhood hero, so getting to work with Burt, getting to know Burt, becoming friends with Burt, was truly a lifelong dream come true,” Rifkin says. “I spoke with him a week ago, two weeks ago. He was in Tennessee for a screening, and he was having a great time.”

Rifkin was working earlier today when he discovered that Reynolds died at age 82.

“I was writing, and I got a text from one of my producers saying, ‘Check the news,’ and that’s how I found out,” he says. “It hit me hard. It’s devastating. It’s heartbreaking. I just didn’t see it coming, and it’s really, really sad.”

The filmmaker recalls that working with Reynolds more than lived up to his childhood dreams.

“He was everything I hoped he’d be like when I was 12 years old, fantasizing of riding off with him in his Trans-Am,” Rifkin says. “He was just as great in real life as you see him on screen. But also he was a real generous actor with the rest of the cast, and the crew, and with me. He was a real collaborator. He loved the creative process, he loved working with people.

“I mean, the actual nuts and bolts of making the movie together was so inspiring because he was not walking through it,” Rifkin continues. “He was there working harder than anybody else. He was there earlier, he left the set later, he always wanted to do more takes. When it looked like he was getting tired out or I was worried that his arthritis was hurting him too much, and I’d say, ‘Burt, I think we got it,’ he’d say, ‘No, let’s do another one, let’s keep doing it until we get it. I will go till I drop.’ He was so committed to doing a great job, it inspired everyone.”

Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

Rifkin wrote the character of onetime movie star Vic Edwards specifically for Reynolds, and the actor found the experience of watching the finished film an emotional one.

“Burt saw it for the first time at the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and he cried like a baby,” Rifkin says. “His words: ‘I cried like a baby.’ He said this in the Q&A. And he said he’s embarrassed because you’re not supposed to cry at your own movies, just like you’re not supposed to laugh at your own jokes. But he said a lot of the movie hit close to home, and he could relate to it, because a lot of it echoed part of his real life. He loved it. He felt exposed and vulnerable. But he loved the way it turned out, and he loved the reaction the film got. He loved the way audiences reacted to his performance, he loved the way the reviewers reacted to his performance. He was so happy with the film, and if there’s one thing that I can take a little bit of solace in knowing, it’s that my film and the role that he played in it made him proud, and that makes me proud.”

Reynolds was recently cast by Quentin Tarantino to play a real-life rancher named George Spahn in the director’s upcoming film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Although the actor died before he could shoot his part, Rifkin says Reynolds was delighted to have been chosen for the role.

“He was so excited to be working with Quentin Tarantino,” the director recalls. “He told me that when he came for the table read — there was Brad Pitt, there was Leonardo DiCaprio, there was Margot Robbie, there was Kurt Russell. Everybody was there. And Quentin Tarantino made a huge deal in front of everybody about how beautiful a performance Burt gave in The Last Movie Star, and went on and on about how wonderful Burt was in the film, and even acted out scenes that Burt did, and that just tickled him to no end. Burt was in a great place these last few years, from our movie and Quentin. If nothing else, at least if he had to go now, he went feeling great, he went [out] on top again, which was really sweet.”

Rifkin believes Reynolds’ death will prompt a positive reappraisal of his talents.

“When Burt was the biggest movie star in the world, his larger-than-life offscreen persona overshadowed his talent as an actor,” he says. “He’s a brilliant actor, he’s as good an actor as any of the great actors. He was a true actors’ actor, but he became a big movie star and did all these big popcorn movies, and so that’s what people saw when they saw him, and they didn’t even pay attention to how good he was as an actor at a certain point. Now that people have a little bit of distance, they can look back on his body of work. I think it will be lot easier for people to see what a brilliant actor he’s always been.”