In the summer of 1971, Hollywood descended on the little town of Clayton in the mountains of North Georgia to make a movie out of my father James Dickey’s best-selling novel, Deliverance, a film that Burt Reynolds hoped would give him a reputation as a serious actor.
I did not know Reynolds before then, and did not have any personal contact with him after. But I know that summer changed all of our lives, and I was reminded of it this week when I heard he had died, aged 82.
The plot of the book and of the movie was simple and strong: four Southern suburbanites decide to go canoeing in the last remnants of the Appalachian wilderness.
They are Lewis Medlock, the role played by Reynolds, a survivalist determined to master nature single-handed; Ed Gentry (Jon Voight), a friend whose only real acquaintance with the wild is what he sees reflected in Lewis’s fierce excitement; Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty), a soft denizen of sales meetings and country clubs who’s just along for the ride; and Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox), the conscientious family man who, like the rest, has no idea at all what he’s getting into.
These four plunge into a wilderness populated by few and brutal inhabitants—a terrifying place where one of them is sodomized at gunpoint, one is killed, one almost loses a leg, and all of them learn, of necessity, to murder.
Clayton was becoming something of a resort town and the stars were housed on the outskirts at a country club, as were my father, my mother, my younger brother, me, my wife and my infant son.
But after a few days, British director John Boorman told the author of Deliverance he had to go. Big Jim Dickey was too imposing in every sense and he acted as if this was his movie, which neither Boorman nor the actors were going to put up with for very long.
“I think it was largely Burt,” my father said years later when we were going over that ancient history. The publicist on the set “gave me to understand that I made Burt nervous.”
As I wrote in a memoir decades later, I think my father made everybody nervous, but Burt was in many ways the most fragile of the major players:
“The making of Deliverance was a big break for everybody connected with it. It meant more money, more work, more fame. But Burt was looking for respect. He wasn’t coming from the stage, like Ronny or Ned, or from an Academy Award-winning film like Jon.
“He was coming from one ludicrous television series after another, most recently an uninspired detective show called Dan August. Ned and Jon were accomplished actors, but Burt was a former stuntman who wanted to be a star. He was made by and for the screen. The question was whether he could make it from the little one to the big one.
“Burt was sharp, funny, self-deprecating, taking shots at himself before others could get them in. But he was excruciatingly sensitive about his height, supplemented by lifts in his boots, and his hair, which was disappearing fast. And if he was going to make it in this movie he was going to have to act. He was going to have to concentrate.
“He was going to have to feel just about as sure of himself as he ever had in his life. And Burt sure as hell didn’t need Jim Dickey, who really was big, who’d played a little football, too, who could be the redneck in the morning and the intellectual in the afternoon—who was half Lewis Medlock himself—to tell him anything, anything at all.”
“I just couldn’t handle his act—his Jim Bowie knife on this belt, cowboy hat, and fringed jacket,” Burt wrote in his autobiography.
When my father and mother and brother left, I was alone in Clayton with my little family. The Dickey. I was 19 years old.
Boorman probably would have gotten me off the set, too, if it had been worth the trouble. But I was just a kid. I wasn't threatening anybody. And I was slated to stay as a stand-in, a warm body around whom lights and camera angles are positioned so the actors can come on fresh for the actual filming.
As it happened, I was too short to do that job for Jon or Ronny, both of whom were over six feet tall, and too skinny to be Ned (although I did stand in for him when they were setting up the lights and cameras for the infamous rape scene). I was in fact the right height to stand in for Burt, but Burt, playing the star game, had to have his own personal stand-in. So I just went wherever I was needed whenever I was needed, walking through the moves of one actor or another, especially the rednecks.
You can learn a lot as a stand-in. I was on the set just about every day for week after week. And I was taking notes.
Among the chalets and cottages of the Kingwood Country Club, the director and the actors returned each night to lives of quiet domesticity. Jon Voight and Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox were married. But Burt, early in the shooting, was with a woman he referred to as “Numero Duo.”
As I wrote afterward, she was “polite, good-humored, had too-black hair, long nails and large breasts... and looked like she was as tough a cracker as ever waited tables at an all-night truck stop.”
But by the time the filming was really under way, she’d been replaced by “Numero Uno,” whose name was Miko Mayama. She, or her family, was from Japan and “before she came to the set in North Georgia, Burt was like a little boy waiting for his mama to pick him up at school for a party. It was part of his charm that, as much as he was fucking around—and wanted to be seen to be fucking around—he was so obviously in love with this woman.”
When Burt invited me and my wife and baby over for dinner, the food was ordered in and he would sit and talk in a big armchair like he was sitting on a throne.
Miko would sit at his feet, as if there were no other place for her in the room, but also as if she were keeping an eye on everything he did from as close as she possibly could be. They both seemed happy enough with the arrangement. And when conversation flagged, he pulled out his “secret party surprise.”
I don’t know what I expected. He’d been talking a lot about how Miko walked on his back. But the surprise, in fact, was Skittles. I’d never seen it before: a wooden top spinning its way through a wooden maze knocking over little bowling pins.
Whatever happened on the river, life was deliberately, almost desperately tame at the Kingwood Country Club.
The most famous scene in the movie Deliverance is the rape, when Ed, played by Voight, and Bobby, played by Ned Beatty, are attacked by a couple of “mountain men,” who might have been hiding from the law in the first place.
Bobby is made to “squeal like a pig” before Lewis (Burt) comes on the scene and kills the rapist with a broadhead arrow. The other man escapes and, soon, starts to hunt down the four suburbanites.
One of the “mountain men” was played by Bill McKinney, a serious character actor whose main obsession off the set seemed to be looking after his body. Each morning he swallowed dozens of vitamins and mineral pills, and when he talked to you he’d study the veins and sinews standing out on his own forearms. Burt claimed he saw Bill running naked through the Kingwood golf course in the early mornings.
The other was Herbert “Cowboy” Coward, who had worked with Burt a few years before at one of those Wild West shoot-out shows in a rickety amusement park in the Smoky Mountains.
Cowboy was no actor, but the script called for the character to be missing his front teeth, and Cowboy looked like his had been knocked out with a ball-peen hammer. The character had to seem at once terribly stupid and terribly frightening. Cowboy could do that.
He never left character. But when he talked, he usually stuttered, and when he tried not to stutter, words came out in weird orders. “You ain’t a’goin any damn wheres” was a line that stayed in the movie. “I’m g-g-gonna lay a b-b-big long dick right in your mouth” was one that didn’t.
On the mythical Cahulawassee River, where the action in Deliverance transpires, the four suburbanites bury the man that Lewis (Burt) has skewered with an arrow, and then head down into a very deep, very narrow gorge.
The sound of the rapids is rising in their ears when Drew (Ronny Cox) looks like he’s been hit in the head with something. Without any warning he tumbles out of the canoe. Now they are all caught up in a rush of white water too powerful for any of them to handle.
The Chattooga River, where most of the film was shot, did not have a suitable location for this action. But Tallulah Falls, not far away, was perfect. There was a hydroelectric dam about a half-mile upstream with gates that could adjust the ferocity of the torrent to suit the needs of the shot.
Burt, the former stuntman, wanted to take his own risks, do his own “gags,” as stuntmen call their stunts. For the breakup of the canoes going into the gorge, the special effects men devised a catapult to launch Burt 30 feet in the air, hurling him toward the pool below. He was well padded, but still came out of the water pretty badly beaten up.
There in the gorge, the making of the film was becoming a macho gamble in which each man on the set seemed to be out to prove he could take the risks the characters were running, and then some.
The experience was unnerving, and members of the crew and the artificial family of filmmaking at Kingwood began to go home. An assistant producer, both assistant directors, a camera operator, and two nurses left for reasons of health, or weariness or frustration.
Burt’s Numero Uno left, too, during the most dangerous part of the filming. But it was so important to him to be seen with a woman, even if no woman was at hand, that one day he came to the set in Tallulah Gorge with a handful of love letters written to him by women he’d slept with. He passed them around to the crew for their reading enjoyment.
One collection was from a pair of young women who called themselves Franny and Zooey, after the characters created by J.D. Salinger. Another more depressing set of letters was from an exotic dancer in a Newport News service club who was trying to launch her son’s career as a musician by having him play backup during her dance routines. Burt was going to be her ticket out of all that, she thought.
I don’t think I ever saw Burt again, after the wrap party. But celebrity is such that one feels, oddly, that one is “keeping up.” Burt had been talking on set about his ideas for a chase film, which would become chase films: Smokey and the Bandit, The Cannonball Run, and so on. His nude foldout in Cosmopolitan magazine; his romances with Dinah Shore, and Sally Field, and his marriage to Loni Anderson, made more headlines than his later movies, until his big, brilliant comeback in Boogie Nights.
Burt had learned not to be afraid of self-parody. He knew he could act, even when he didn’t bother. That was what he took away from that summer in Clayton. That was his deliverance.