Melissa Rae Wilkeson unfurls the aqua colored T-shirt with the well-traveled theater slogan, “I can’t, I have rehearsal.” The fabric has thinned over the years, the print has faded, and a gaping hole has opened between the collar and the right shoulder.
“The only reason I haven’t turned this into a dust rag is the sentimental value,” Wilkeson says.
That value comes in large part from who gave it to her — literally handed it to her: Burt Reynolds. And the iconic actor gave it to her at the place she and her husband, Jim Wilkeson, met: the Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training in Tequesta, Florida.
“We wouldn’t have met, if it hadn’t been for the school,” Melissa says, and Jim adds, “unless some miracle happened.”
It was 1993. Jim was a 28-year-old TV journalist in Florida, looking to make a move into acting. Melissa was a 25-year-old aspiring actor from Lexington, who had just moved back from home from Chicago, with plans to save some money and move to New York.
Through various connections, they both ended up auditioning for the company at Reynolds’ theater in Florida, a nine-month, unpaid, life-consuming training program that was sometimes literally 24-hours a day, particularly when Burt showed up.
“Our days would start at 8 a.m., with class,” Melissa says, “and that would last most of the morning.”
Jim interjects, “Unless we had a children’s show, and then that would be first. On Saturdays, we would do a children’s show, a main stage matinee, main stage, black box and then, if Burt showed up, we’d be in class all night with him.”
Melissa says, “We would be on what we called, ‘Burt alert.’ Because we never knew when he was going to show up, because he was in California filming ‘Evening Shade.’”
In the mid-90s, Reynolds was about a decade removed from his silver screen heyday, when he was the top draw at the box office with hits like “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) and “Cannonball Run” (1981). But he was still a big star, in the final season of “Evening Shade,” his CBS sitcom co-starring Marilu Henner and Hal Holbrook.
But the Wilkesons say Reynolds made a point of getting to the theater to see shows and hold extended, all-night classes.
“He did it on purpose,” Jim says. “He wanted us to be vulnerable, so he wanted us to be so tired we couldn’t see straight. His big thing was, ‘You can sleep when you’re dead.’”
Melissa says, “He would say our rehearsal room, which was our classroom, was a ‘safe place,’ we can ‘put our blood on the walls here and it’s safe, it’s just us.’”
“I think he really just wanted to give back to future actors,” Jim says, “and he saw this theater as the way to do it.”
Out of the intense environment a romance grew between Melissa and Jim. The institute started in September, they had their first date in November and were engaged on the eve of Christmas Eve in 1993. They did wait a couple years to tie the knot, wanting to get used to life together outside the pressure cooker of the BRITT, as the institute was known.
Now, they are living in Versailles and coming up on 23 years of marriage. Jim is the office manager for a Lexington health care company and Melissa works with the standardized patient program at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, which has people portray different illnesses to help train medical students to diagnose them.
She recently played Mrs. Paroo in the Lexington Theatre Company’s July production of “The Music Man,” and she will be in the Woodford Theatre’s upcoming production of “The Producers.”
While social media was not a thing when the Wilkesons were at the Burt Reynolds Institute, the people in their group and other groups of BRITT alums have reunited on Facebook, and when Reynolds died Sept. 6, the memories came pouring out.
“It’s the end of an era,” Melissa says. “There has not been a Hollywood icon like him in a long time.”
“I’m still processing it,” Jim says. ”He was responsible for me meeting my wife, and I will always be grateful for that. It was great going to his school and everything, but meeting your wife is top priority.”