Interviewing Burt Reynolds was a revelation which still shocksme today | Hadley Freeman

I interviewed Reynolds three years ago ready to be wooed by his breezy charm. Instead, his pain, pills and professionalism left me deeply moved

Burt Reynolds

If ever there was proof that fame does not guarantee a lifetime of happiness, then Burt Reynolds offered it up in life-size proportions. In 2015 he came to London to flog his autobiography, But Enough About Me, and I was so excited at the prospect of meeting the star of Smokey and the Bandit and Boogie Nights that I came out of maternity leave three months early to interview him for a Guardian Live event.

What other macho man had made more movies examining and undermining masculinity? And what other 70s heartthrob presented all that machismo alongside all that self-doubt? Arguably the biggest star of the 1970s and still my mental template of how a 20th century playboy looks I was so excited about meeting him I watched Deliverance twice.

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No sensible person expects a 79-year-old man to resemble the virile god he was 40 years before. But the gap between the fantasy and the reality that presented itself when I met him on that December night was so devastating I couldnt speak for a few seconds. Reynolds always was a professional, so he gave it his charming best, doing some obligatory flirting with me, reeling out the anecdotes when the interview started, but the physical evidence was too stark to ignore. Racked by pain from lifelong injuries, he could neither stand up straight nor walk more than five steps without reaching for his pot of pills. These, in turn, made him a little addled, and he stumbled several times as I walked him towards his seat.

Reynolds with Goldie Hawn in his heyday, on the set of 1982s Best Friends. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros.

All interviews are exploitative to some degree, but in my 20 years of being a journalist none felt more so than this. Reynolds had just auctioned off most of his memorabilia and there were rumours of bankruptcy, which he denied. His autobiography was really just a collection of stories about his famous friends from the past Fred Astaire, Sally Field and the interview felt less like a celebration of Reynolds extraordinary career and more like he was selling his loved ones to stay afloat. Within 10 minutes, Reynolds was crying. Im sorry, I wanted this to be fun, he said helplessly to the audience, trying to be an entertainer to the end.

Hadley Freeman (@HadleyFreeman)

I got to interview Burt Reynolds in 2015 and was so excited to meet him I could feel myself blushing. Afterwards, he signed his autobiography for me, and while his hand was shaky his flirting skills were undiminished

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September 6, 2018

After youve interviewed someone its almost impossible to separate the person you met from their public persona, and for a few months after the interview I couldnt even think about Reynolds without feeling almost dizzy with regret and sadness. But after a while the immediate shock of the encounter subsided into something else and what I ultimately realised was this: yes, his end was terrible, and yes, what made it even more painful how much he clearly hated being pitied.

But through the pain and the pills Reynolds still came across as, yes, funny, but also thoughtful, intelligent, caring, sensitive and generous. He could still wink and flirt as easily as he could talk and cry. He might have become less than he was, but he was also always more than most people knew.

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