Burt Reynolds knew that Dinah Shore let him win at tennis — and that only made him love her more. “Dinah was a much better tennis player than me, but she would fake not being good and let me win sometimes,” Burt told Closer in 2017. “She was incredibly important to me. We were the best of friends and very close throughout her life.”

Burt met the singer and actress-turned-TV host when he appeared on her first talk show, Dinah’s Place, in 1970. Despite a 19-year age gap, he was instantly smitten and spontaneously invited her to spend the weekend with him in Palm Springs. Dinah, then 53 and twice divorced, declined, but they met up a little while later in Chicago. “A human relationship has nothing to do with chronology. It has to do with chemistry,” said Dinah, who felt the connection, too. “A man is a man is a man. And an attraction is an attraction.”

Over the next four years, the pair enjoyed a sweet, low-key romance and what Dinah called a “comfortable, ordinary life” together. They played a lot of tennis and golf. “I always wanted a jock for a lover,” Burt joked. They bonded over their shared Southern upbringing and career paths.

Burt’s stardom was just taking off, and Dinah, who had been one of the most popular female recording artists of the 1940s, had excellent insight. “She had experienced all that I was just going through, and she gave me some great advice,” recalled Burt. “I always took her advice, whether I believed it or not — and in the end, she was always right.”

Burt Reynolds Dinah Shore Photos

Burt Reynolds and Dinah Shore with First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Once the press got wind of their relationship, Burt and Dinah became tabloid fodder, but they tried to ignore it. “There was so much speculation about us. I never could understand the preoccupation with it,” admitted Dinah, who said that she and Burt made a pact not to read the things printed about them. “At least 90 percent of it wasn’t true.”

Eventually, it became obvious that they were at different places in their lives. Dinah had already raised two children with her ex-husband, actor and stuntman George Montgomery, whom she divorced in 1963 after nearly two decades of marriage. Burt, meanwhile, was divorced from Laugh-In star Judy Carne and looking to start a family. “We couldn’t have been more in love. But there was a snag. Dinah wouldn’t marry me,” said Burt. “She said it was because she couldn’t give me children, and it’s true I wanted them badly. But we could have adopted.”

Though Dinah shared his dream of building a house in Hawaii, she felt that there had to be an end date on their relationship. “I don’t want to grow old in his arms,” she reportedly told a friend.

Dinah never remarried, but Burt went on to wed Loni Anderson in 1988, and they adopted the child he longed for, son Quinton, 33.

But the actor never forgot Dinah and often said she had been the love of his life. They remained friends until her death in 1994. “My biggest regret is parting ways with her; it was so stupid of me,” said Burt before his passing in 2018. “We were soulmates. … I was so lucky to have had someone like that in my life. She was so young of heart and spirit in every way.”

For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.