Forty years after Deliverance enthralled movie audiences and made Burt Reynolds a star, the lead actors gathered in Los Angeles this week to recall the film shoot that left them soaked on good days, and nearly took their lives on bad ones. By Jordan Riefe.
Shot in merciless river rapids in the wilderness of Georgia Deliverance, starring Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, was the tale of four Atlanta suburbanites who decide to test their mettle on a disastrous canoe trip.
Directed by John Boorman, the movie was nominated for three Oscars, including best picture, and was a box office hit. A premium Blu-ray edition was released this week to commemorate the movie’s 40th anniversary.
Reynolds, who was 36 years old then, recounted one perilous scene in which he was thrown free of his canoe and sent skidding down a cascade wild, white water.
The scene was first shot with a dummy, which in daily film clips appeared unconvincing. So Reynolds, a former stuntman, volunteered to run the rapids himself.
“First thing I did was hit a rock, crack my tailbone, did a flip and I was in a hydro-flow. I couldn’t get out,” Reynolds, now 76, told Reuters.
Underwater, Reynolds quickly remembered the advice of a colleague: if you get caught in a hydro-flow, swim to the bottom and it will shoot you out.
“But he didn’t tell me it’s like being shot out of a submarine like you’re a torpedo!” laughed Reynolds. “Everybody thought I was gone. They looked down and saw this nude man who looked 75 or so, crippled, walking along, coming back. It tore every piece of clothing I had off, including the high-top boots. I said to John, ‘What’d it look like?’ And he said, ‘It looked like a dummy going over the falls.'”
As challenging as the river was, the late author James Dickey who wrote the book Deliverance and the film’s screenplay proved overbearing on set.
“He was huge and he was always standing over you, kind of boring in,” said Reynolds.
Dickey, who died in 1997, was ultimately asked by Boorman to leave but invited to return at the end of the shoot for a cameo role as a cop.
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Reynolds had been acting for 15 years at the time and had little to show for it other than the supporting role of Quint the blacksmith on the popular TV western Gunsmoke.
For him, Deliverance was a last chance at a film career.
Voight was an established actor at the time, having worked in movies like Midnight Cowboy and Catch-22, while Beatty and Cox had only done regional theater.
“When I met Boorman I knew I was in the presence of someone who knew what the hell they were doing,” Reynolds said of his first meeting with the director. “And then he brought Voight out, who was in the backroom.”
Reynolds said he knew instantly that if anyone could steal the show it was Voight, a rising star.
“This was a kind of starmaking role for Burt and he knew it,” Voight told Reuters. “And our friendship was based on a kind of competitive sense.”
By the end of the shoot, all four actors had become close friends.
Beatty, the wisecracking good ol’ boy, Bobby, who gets raped by a hillbilly, also had a close call on the river that left him underwater while his co-stars searched for him.
“It happened more than once,” laughed Reynolds. “Literally every third day one of us would fall over and the cast would have to pull him out. That’s why we’re all so close. We were truly like four guys that went to war together.” DM
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