UT alumni Gordon Whitener and Brett Thomason brought Hollywood home this summer with Dog Years, a feature film starring acting legend Burt Reynolds.
Whitener and Thomason, both natives of Dalton, Georgia, who now live in Knoxville, have known each other for several years and have worked together on multiple projects.
Whitener received a baseball scholarship and entered UT in the fall of 1982.
“I was a terrible outfielder and got cut,” said Whitener. “But I got a job working for Coach Johnny Majors as an equipment manager and recruiting assistant.”
Whitener graduated in 1985 with a degree in political science and went on to coach football at Oklahoma State for three years.
A list of his postcollege leadership and professional experience in business, technology, and sports media reads like an actor’s resume full of leading roles—president, CEO, chairman, investor, founder, and adviser.
As principal of the Whitener Company, which he founded in 2009 to invest in media and marketing businesses, he has built his career on an ability to bring together successful teams—something that’s come in handy as executive producer for Dog Years.
In the drama, Reynolds plays an aging former movie star who is forced to face the reality that his glory days are behind him. He’s invited to receive a lifetime achievement award from a small film festival but is embarrassed by the event. He befriends an emotionally unstable girl assigned to be his driver (played by Modern Family star Ariel Winter) to take him on a soul-searching journey to visit his hometown of Knoxville.
Thomason transferred to UT in 2006 to study international business and entrepreneurial management. He played fullback for the Volunteers until 2008.
“As a serial entrepreneur myself, I’d always aspired to work with Gordon, but came on full time to help run Whitener Entertainment Group, an extension of the Whitener Company, which financed the film,” said Thomason. “We’d dabbled in film before but wanted to play on our own turf to help generate revenue and jobs in Tennessee.”
Thomason and Whitener worked with Tennessee legislators, the state’s film commission, and Knoxville’s film office to bring the project home.
“We decided this would be a great first project for us and that Knoxville would be a high-quality place to shoot,” said Thomason.
The majority of the film was shot in Knoxville earlier this summer. Some of the filming took place on the UT campus.
Both Whitener and Thomason said it was surreal to work with Burt Reynolds.
“He’s incredibly generous and sweet,” said Whitener. “It was a thrill for him to film inside Neyland Stadium because he’s a huge football fan. He also knows the Majors family well and played with Johnny’s brother at Florida State.”
Reynolds began playing football for Florida State in 1954 until multiple injuries forced him to end his promising career as an athlete and turn to acting, where he found his true passion.
“He blew every expectation out of the water,” said Thomason. “Both he and Ariel were a joy to work with.”
As for the film’s premiere, Whitener hopes to do something in the area later this year.
“We’ve had tremendous support from UT and the Knoxville community, and to see this project come together is a thrill,” he said. “It’s a privilege to bring something like this back to Knoxville and the university.”