The set of Deliverance was a man’s world: Burt Reynold’s muscular physique bulging from his sleeveless vest, Jon Voight’s courage, Ronny Cox’s stunts, Ned Beatty’s guts – and, of course, director John Boorman, who encouraged all of them to reach beyond their limits. The gang wanted to prove to one another that they stood a chance in the face of the violent rapids of the Chattooga River.
Their inflated sense of self-confidence and pride often came at a price. All of them nearly died at least once in the making of this film. One dislocated his shoulder, one injured his back, one almost drowned, and the other found himself unintentionally diving off a waterfall. It’s really a miracle any of these actors lived to see the light of day.
A twisted tale of an outdoor adventure gone wrong, Deliverance is a controversial film that you either love or hate. Here is how its actors managed to make it out alive.
Filmmaker John Boorman wanted the cast to do their own canoeing. He believed that the fewer stuntmen he used, the more viewers would appreciate and enjoy the film’s authenticity. He got around the fact that the actors were inexperienced canoers by shooting the movie in sequence.
“The easy rapids were at the beginning of the film, and the rapids get harder and harder as we go through the film,” actor Ronny Cox recalled. “So, by the time we got to the really hard rapids, we had had canoe practice and had been on the water for five or six weeks. So, by that time, we were all really good canoers.”
Burt Reynolds claimed that the director had a second motive for shooting in sequence – “If one of you drowns,” John Boorman told them, “I can write that into the script.”
Burt Reynolds was one tough guy. So tough, that for the scene in which his character, Lewis, goes over a waterfall in a canoe, he told John Boorman that there was no need for a dummy. He said he could do it himself… which ended up being a terrible, terrible mistake.
He told The Hollywood Reporter, “I went over the falls, and the first thing that happened, I hit a rock and cracked my tailbone, and to this day, it hurts.” As if cracking his tailbone wasn’t enough, the second Reynolds hit the water below, he got caught in a whirlpool. Unable to get out, he had to swim all the way down to the bottom until he was forcefully shot back up. He emerged from the river butt naked and flustered.
Actor Jon Voight wanted to ensure that dangers in the movie were palpable for the audience. But his quest for authenticity nearly ran him off a cliff! The star told The Guardian that he wanted one of the rock-climbing scenes to be filmed up close, which meant – no stuntman.
“I was about 10 feet up on the face, which was slippery and almost perpendicular,” he revealed. “I told the two grips below me: ‘If I start to fall off, I’m going to push off the rocks. And you’ll catch me.’ I started to slip, called out and one of them caught me.”
Author of Deliverance, James Dickey, wasn’t too happy about Boorman directing it. Then again, the notoriously fussy writer would not have been happy with anyone doing the work but himself. In any case, things got so bad between the two that at one point, his anger got the best of him and he ended up physically assaulting the poor guy.
Dickey frequently bumped heads with Boorman over the film’s tone and staging. One night, he decided to punch Boorman right in the face. His blow was so hard that it cracked four of the director’s teeth.
Despite the clash, James still did his cameo as a sheriff in the film.
Putting actors in an actual river was a dangerous deed. Ned Beatty almost died because of the filmmaker’s quest for authenticity. In the DVD audio commentary, Boorman revealed that the actor got caught in a violent current and spent over one minute underwater before finally finding his way back up.
The crew was so nervous that they sent a diver to try and locate him. When recalling his near-drowning, Beatty stated, “I thought, ‘This is where I [meet my end],’ and my wife was pregnant, and I thought about how mad she would be that I [perished] in a river in Georgia.”
The movie was filmed on the Chattooga River. The waters lacked a section that the filmmakers needed for a crucial scene where the characters’ canoes are rammed into a gorge by the tough waters. So, to put the sequence together, the crew took advantage of a local dam and, more importantly – Burt Reynolds’ willingness to fly high into the air.
A hydroelectric dam upstream from the filming location had gates that could be opened to send water rushing down as needed. Special effects technicians magnified the river’s intensity with a catapult that launched Reynolds 30 feet into the air and then down into a pool of water.
Ned Beatty was the only guy in the cast with any canoe experience, and he and Burt Reynolds were often way ahead of the rest of the guys while filming. Beatty told Garden & Gun magazine that one day, while on the canoe with Reynolds, the two were about to hit dangerous waters, and when he attempted to turn the canoe around, he realized that Burt had fallen fast asleep.
He revealed, “I saw what was coming and knew the shelf was going to be small falls. We wouldn’t have a chance to get out of there – we’d go under. So, I just jumped in the water and took the oar with me. Burt really thought he’d done me in.”
Burt yelled out after his fellow actor, who ultimately came up out of the water and greeted him as if nothing major had happened.
Filmed on the Chattooga River, Deliverance was a challenging and dangerous movie to make. Despite the safety precautions on set, there was always an element of extreme danger in whatever scene they shot. Actor Ronny Cox discovered this the hard way when he was nearly washed away one time.
To create rapids, the crew released a flow of water from a nearby dam. The water was so violent that it flung Ronny right out of his canoe. The actor hit a rock, hurt his shoulder, and couldn’t swim anymore. He was supposed to grab hold of a rope at one point but didn’t have enough strength to hang on with just one arm.
A backup rope was placed a short way down the river, a little before the waterfall, yet Cox couldn’t hold on to that either. Luckily, a crewmember jumped in and saved the actor from going over.
Despite all the crazy stunts and near-death experiences, none of the cast members were seriously injured on the set of Deliverance. But one deer that was brought in for a scene wasn’t so lucky. Chris Dickey, son of Deliverance’s author, James Dickey, told the story of the unfortunate incident in his book Summer of Deliverance.
“A little deer was brought in from an animal park and heavily tranquilized so it could be controlled,” Chris wrote. “There was never any question of hurting it in any way. But it [perished]. It had been given an overdose. Boorman and his assistants were in a quiet panic.”
The cast used two canoes to go down the river. One was aluminum and had gotten all smashed up during the shooting, and the other was made of wood. In total, five canoes were destroyed until they got the final shot. When Boorman was asked how he got the actors to do something as crazy as canoe through those deadly rapids, he answered:
“My method [was] to talk about it simply: ‘I just want you to go down this piece of savage river.’ The actors turned their backs on me, their faces were white.” Boorman and his cameramen fell into the river countless times, and they had to stay up nights fixing and drying out their equipment.
When people think of Deliverance, the words “squeal like a pig” likely pop up. The line is muttered by one of Bobby’s abusers as he defiles the canoer. Many rumors have been circling about the source of that line. In the DVD audio commentary, John Boorman puts an end to the speculations by attributing it to a crew member.
He revealed that the studio wanted him to shoot two versions of the scene, one with lines appropriate for an eventual network television airing. But Boorman didn’t want two versions, so he came up with something bold yet “clean.” When he overheard someone on set say, “squeal like a pig,” he knew he found his line.
Burt Reynolds wanted the experience of killing a man in the film, and while not everyone agreed that Deliverance needed such a scenario, Reynold’s shooting scene ultimately made the final cut. When Lewis is injured, and in dire need of help, Reynold’s character becomes a hunter.
“The film is about basic masculine urges and how they are suppressed by modern, civilized life. Men have an underlying need to express deeper urges. Which is why the madness of war, why war is so exciting to many men,” Boorman explained.
After Reynold’s character kills a man, the four guys set off again in the canoes, but danger is lurking right behind them, and shortly after their departure, Drew (Ronny Cox) suffers a shot. Boorman wanted Drew’s collapse scene to be ambiguous. He wanted viewers to wonder, “Has he really been shot, or did he just give up and throw himself in, in despair?”
For this scene, shooting was done on a different part of the river where there is a dam, so the water could be controlled. When the water was first released, it simply dribbled. But the second time, Boorman released more water than intended and ended up hurting his actors (Reynolds injured his back). “I had a lot of angry actors because I let down too much water,” the director admitted.
The underwater scene where Jon Voight gets entangled with the dead man was shot in a swimming pool. In that scene, the whole gang is desperate to find Drew (Ronny Cox) and get the hell out of the river. It was a difficult one to shoot and required a lot of training.
“The commitment of acting in this picture is so extraordinary,” Boorman revealed, “They attach rocks to him (Ronny Cox) and sink him into the river. All these scenes were rehearsed, and the actors practiced holding their breath for long periods of time.”
Actor Bill McKinney plays “Mountain Man,” the hillbilly who violates Bobby (Ned Beatty). The scene is so unsettling, mainly because of the sense of evil McKinney brings to it. His performance is so spot on that it doesn’t feel like a performance at all.
Apparently, there’s a good reason for that. McKinney attempted to scare Ned Beatty off-camera. He would sit during lunch and stare at Ned. He wanted to scare the hell out of him before they shot the scene. It’s safe to say, he nailed it.
The author of Deliverance, James Dickey, was an imposing figure to have around on set. Both physically and in terms of personality, his presence was tremendously felt (and not necessarily in a good way). His behavior didn’t sit well with Boorman or the four main stars, who grouped together to kick him off the set.
The author refused to call the actors by their real names, insisting on calling them by their characters’s names. He also requested that Ronny Cox perform a scene for some of his drunk friends. Dickey himself was often drunk on the set, crying out that Deliverance was his movie, not Boorman’s.
Eventually, the crew members held an intervention with Dickey, in which they told him he had to leave the set for good.
Billy Redden wasn’t really an actor. He was an average boy who was chosen to play Lonnie (also known as “Banjo Boy”) during a casting call at a local elementary school. But because Redden couldn’t actually play the banjo, filmmaker John Boorman had to find a way to make it look like he could on screen.
To achieve the desired effect, a kid who knew how to play the instrument sat hidden behind Redden with his hand stuck through the actor’s sleeve so he could reach the fretboard. The hidden banjo player did the fingering while Billy pretended to strum.
Because filming took place in real backwater locations, the movie needed to cast extras with unusual appearances to play the malicious hillbillies who are chasing the heroes. Out of the group, the most memorable guy is the “Toothless Man” who utters the iconic line, “He got a real purdy mouth, ain’t he?” Burt Reynolds was responsible for finding the star.
Knowing that Boorman was looking for someone to fulfill the small yet essential role, Reynolds remembered Herbert Coward, a man he once worked with at a Wild West-themed amusement park in North Carolina. Since parts of the movie were being shot at the park, Reynolds recommended his old friend for the job and even helped him prepare his lines before they began shooting.
One of the most gruesome scenes in Deliverance involves the discovery of Drew’s (Ronny Cox) body. The poor guy’s arm is twisted up around his head, which is enough to make even the most unflinching viewer nauseous. Unbelievably, that effect wasn’t achieved through make-up, prosthetics or any other kind of trickery. It’s Ronny’s real arm.
Cox told The Wrap magazine that when he was a kid, he contracted a mild case of polio which left him with an odd ability to “do this thing where [his] shoulder comes out of place and just completely dislocates.” When Boorman found out, he thought it would be great for his character’s demise.
Warner Bros. told Deliverance’s director that they would only agree to make the movie if he could cast two stars – Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. He set out on a mission to get the guys on board, but they ended up being too expensive for the studio. So, they told Boorman he could do the movie on a lower budget, but he needed to cast unknown actors instead.
The director found each of the leading roles himself and stated that securing Burt Reynolds as one of the leads proved to be a challenge. He told The Guardian, “[Burt] couldn’t make up his mind. In our last phone call, I told him: ‘I’m going to count to 10. And he finally said yes.'”
Warner Bros. hired Boorman as the film’s director after acquiring the rights to Dickey’s novel. Boorman and Dickey sat together to draft the screenplay, though they often struggled to get anything done, thanks to their excessive drinking habits.
Boorman recalled how “On one occasion, [Dickey] came to L.A. to work, but locked himself in a hotel room with a ballerina.”
The film is based on James Dickey’s first novel, a book that has consistently appeared in the top 100 best English language fiction lists. Dickey wrote the screenplay, made a brief cameo appearance as Sheriff Bullard, and both guided plus seriously annoyed the cast members. When Boorman and Dickey first met, the author told him, “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told another living soul. Everything in that book happened to me.”
It came as a shock to Boorman, who decided to share the story with the others. He eventually found out that Dickey had been telling everyone the same thing, and not only that, but that it was a complete lie and that none of it had actually happened to him.
Boorman intended to hire a full orchestra to do the same soundtrack, but he had to simplify his plan due to budget constraints. Banjo was always on his list of instruments he wanted to add in the background, so he went into a studio with a banjo player and a guitarist and had them record the whole thing in just two hours.
When the film was released, the head of Warner Records told Boorman, “This isn’t Rock and Roll, and if radio stations don’t play [the music], it won’t be a success. This isn’t Country, it isn’t middle of the road, so no one’s going to play it.” But that didn’t scare the director. He convinced them to put out the banjo tune in a test area and, to his delight, he was proven right. Every radio station at the time played the catchy tune. “When anyone finds themselves on a dark road or raging river,” he explained, “they play this tune.”
The filming of Deliverance took place in Georgia and parts of North and South Carolina. Boorman commented that, “The woman character’s home, the way they lived there, was just exactly how it was. It was not set up, just us peering through the window with a camera. The old man who dances and many others were hillbillies.”
Boorman discussed the notorious inbreeding in those communities, explaining that because they were shunned by both the white and the Native American community, they were left with no choice but to turn in on themselves.
As filming progressed, the cast begged Boorman to shoo Dickey away. The director had already cast himself as the sheriff, but he still ended up telling Dickey that most people wanted him gone because he was a nuisance. “He raised up and glared at me,” Boorman revealed, “I thought he would hit me.”
The author told the guys, “It appears my presence would be most efficacious by its absence,” after which he turned around and left. Reynolds, still unclear whether Dickey had actually left, asked, “Does that mean he’s going or he’s staying?” Eventually, he left.
The four characters apparently reflect four aspects of James Dickey’s personality. Ed (Voight) is the careful, responsible one. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is the outdoorsy macho man. Drew (Cox) resembles Dickey’s gentle, artistic side. And Bobby (Beatty) is aggressive and even a bit cowardly.
After Dickey passed away, an author who was hired to write Dickey’s official biography, noted that Dickey lied a bit about who he was and the things he had done. For example, he said he was a fighter pilot in the Korean war, yet he served as a radar operator and navigator. Close, yet not quite the same thing.
Shortly after the film’s release, Dickey’s son Christopher wrote a piece for The New Yorker discussing his father. He shared that during the first time they rowed on the river together, their canoe capsized, and they landed on harsh terrain. Dickey got really sick. He was a diabetic and began to foam at the mouth.
Christopher, who was just twelve at the time, was traumatized by the experience. Christopher Dickey also wrote the book Summer of Deliverance, about his dad and the making of this notorious movie.
The movie’s cinematographer, Zsigmond, was a Hungarian who got out in 1956 when the Russians moved into Budapest. His life experiences and the footage he had shot in the past made him the perfect fit for a movie like Deliverance. “He shot footage of Russian tanks and students throwing Molotov cocktails at them,” Boorman revealed.
“I thought, ‘Here’s a man who’s seen that and had been fired on by Russians. [This] is the kind of man I need for a film like this.’” Despite the extremely difficult scenes to shoot, no shot proved impossible for Zsigmond. Nothing could intimidate the man who had been shot at by Russian tanks.
Granted, they also had the better canoe (the aluminum one). Jon Voight and Roony Cox made way more mistakes. Their worst one lead to a total wipeout, with Ned disappearing underwater for over a minute. When Ned realized he might drown, he thought to himself “How will John finish the movie without me?”
Not exactly the thought you would assume a drowning person would have seconds before he might pass out. Ned Beatty, always the professional, was determined to live! For both the movie and, obviously, himself. He gave it all he got and rushed to the surface for a gasp of fresh air.
The scene of the mountain men rushing to attack was rehearsed most of the day and shot in one four-minute take. Boorman revealed that it took a whole day to shoot the scene because of all the many moves in and out of the frame. According to Boorman, the mountain men symbolized the “malevolent spirits of nature.”
Boorman also struggled with other scenes in which he had to change the language so the film would be appropriate for TV. For example, the awful line “Squeal like a pig” was actually an alternative to a much harsher phrase that had to be censored!
While censors didn’t mind the scene of a man shot dead, they felt that the dying went on for far too long. But Boorman intended it to be that way. He felt Lewis (Burt Reynolds) should have to confront the reality of killing someone. It wasn’t just entertainment, this reality had to be faced.
“McKinney (the ‘dead’ actor) had tremendous discipline and control of his body. He held his breath and kept his eyes from blinking for two minutes—he’d trained himself specially for this shot. He was completely convincing as a dying man. It’s all about gesture and discipline.”
Cowboy Coward (one of the two sadistic mountain men in the film) would spend his evenings sitting on a toilet next to a bathtub filled with ice and about 24 bottles of beer. The actor would gradually work his way through the whole stash, and according to Boorman, would still be woozy the morning after.
He would have to be lowered down the side of a cliff. And to do so, they first rehearsed with a dummy to find a safe path down. Boorman told Cowboy Coward: “See what you have to do? You mustn’t move.” Cowboy replied, “Well I guess if he can do it, I can.” Like everyone else in this film, he did it. “Seeing the height, imagine doing this shot without twenty-four bottles of beer,” Boorman noted.
The shot was crucial to Boorman “because of [his] allegiance to the grail legend. [He] used it in Excalibur and in several films. “The hand is a force of the unconscious rising to the conscious world,” he explained. A rubber glove filled with water was placed over the hand to make it look bloated from being submerged.
Boorman’s friend and American film director, Brian DePalma, was a great admirer of Deliverance and used the image of the hand as a homage in the 1967 horror film Carrie.
The creepy hand was just what Deliverance needed to make sure the move wrapped up on a terrifying note.
Eric Weissberg, the man responsible for Deliverance’s great soundtrack, died in 2020 of Alzheimer’s complications. The ingenious musician played not only the banjo, but also guitar, mandolin, pedal steel, string bass and fiddle.
In 1972, Boorman hired him to cover Arthur Smith’s song from 1954, Feudin Banjos, which turned into a massive hit. Smith wasn’t too happy about it, and he sued Warner Bros. with claims that they had never secured therights to his song. He ultimately won the case and received the royalties he longed for.
One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when the men are preparing to set out canoeing but stop to witness a banjo duel between Ronny Cox and a local boy. The kid on the banjo, Billy Redden, was a typical local teen from Georgia who was handpicked by Boorman himself.
According to the director, Redden looked just like a country boy. From his mannerisms to his clothes to his gestures, the unknown teen had all the qualities Boorman was after, qualities that couldn’t be taught in acting school.
When it first came out in cinemas, reactions were either “What an incredible film,” or “What is this racist, macho-like joke of a film?” Not only did regular viewers have a hard time deciding whether they loved it or hated it, but film critics couldn’t fully agree with each other either.
The two New York Times critics who reviewed Deliverance appeared to have watched two totally different movies. Critic Vincent Canby threw in some kind words about the cinematography and acting performances, but he called it a “an action melodrama that doesn’t trust its action to speak louder than words.” Critic number two, Stephen Farber, begged to differ and said that he saw an “uncompromising adventure movie” that “also happens to be the most stunning piece of moviemaking released this year.”
Despite the film’s overall success, some things followed its release that weren’t too favorable, like the river’s condition for example. According to environmental historian Timothy Silver, the movie’s release “spawned a boom in tourism that inevitably led to overdevelopment, pollution, and a host of other environmental problems within the Chattooga watershed.”
In 1972, only 7,600 people had floated down the river. But that number nearly tripled the following year, climbing to an incredible 67,784 in 1989. This led to some predicaments and injuries, including the deaths of 22 rafters. Authorities eventually had to raise safety restrictions in the area.
The film seems to be a curse and a blessing to whoever took part in it. On the one hand, it brought money and tourism to the area. Still, it also caused severe ecological problems and some unfortunate deaths of eager people who tried to emulate the movie’s actors.
It also popularized banjo music and helped relieve it of its outdated and irrelevant stigma. But it also made way for more prejudices against rural, southern whites. In conclusion, it’s hard to know whether the pros outweighed the cons.