For weeks, Tampa Bay's filmmaking grapevine buzzed with rumors that a movie starring Burt Reynolds would be locally produced in July.
Tuesday afternoon, writer-director Jim Fitzpatrick confirmed it.
A Fonder Heart, based on a true story that Fitzpatrick knew firsthand as a Seminole High School freshman in the mid 1970s, is slated to begin principal photography on July 13 and will include several Pinellas County locations.
Six weeks of shooting is expected for the $5.5 million production, at locales including Clearwater Beach, Morton Plant Hospital and St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport.
Reynolds is expected to be joined by a cast that includes Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr. and nominees Stockard Channing and Charles Durning. Other names listed on the film's Web site (www.afonderheart.com) include Daryl Hannah, model Rachel Hunter, James Brolin and Cheers co-star Shelley Long.
"This movie is about a buddy of mine named Joey Boone who passed away from bone cancer when we were freshmen at Seminole," Fitzpatrick, 49, said during a telephone interview. "Joey and this guy ended up being hospital roommates, and developed this pseudo father-son relationship. It's really a beautiful story."
Reynolds will portray the paternal figure, a wealthy land developer, with Alexander Ludwig (Race to Witch Mountain) as the boy.
Fitzpatrick said A Fonder Heart is chiefly financed by a private investor in California with longtime ties to Reynolds.
"A very wealthy individual who used to hang out with him 30 years ago," Fitzpatrick said. "I can't (reveal his name) because he doesn't want other people coming after him for money."
The $5.5 million also must cover costs of other actors, a crew, equipment rentals, food, transportation and lodging for at least the major stars.
By comparison, 2004's The Punisher that filmed around the Tampa Bay area with John Travolta carried a reported $33 million price tag.
A representative of Reynolds didn't reply to an e-mail request for confirmation of the actor's involvement.
Hannah's manager, Chuck Binder in Los Angeles, confirmed his client has signed on but knows little else. Gossett's assistant also confirmed the actor's involvement.
St. Petersburg-Clearwater film commissioner Jennifer Parramore recently said her office hasn't been formally approached by Fitzpatrick or anyone else associated with A Fonder Heart. Film commissions are typically the first ally for filmmakers, to help establish production offices, hire crew members, scout locations and pull permits for parking or public property use for shooting scenes.
Fitzpatrick said the locations he'll use are "private-practical locations," meaning permits aren't required. "The only place I actually need permits for is St. Pete-Clearwater Airport, and that's one of our very last shots," he said. "I'll want to worry about that with our location manager after we start shooting."
Fitzpatrick said production on A Fonder Heart had been expected to begin in May until two actors in the cast fell ill. Ron Silver died in March of esophageal cancer and his role was rewritten for Channing. Impressionist Fred Travalena dropped out when he relapsed into non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Travalena died Sunday in Encino, Calif.
After delays and setbacks, and with an obviously tight budget for such an ambitious project, Fitzpatrick understands if some people doubt he can pull off A Fonder Heart.
"The only thing I can say is that they don't dream big enough," he said. "I always shoot for the moon. If I can pull a couple of stars down with me, I'm doing pretty good."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.