The making of Deliverance was a survival story to rival the one on screen. The 1972 movie, based on James Dickey's novel of the same name, is about four friends - Lewis (Burt Reynolds), Ed (Jon Voight), Bobby (Ned Beatty), and Drew (Ronny Cox) - who take a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River. Rapids are the least dangerous thing they have to face. After an unpleasant encounter with aggressive hillbillies, the men find themselves running for their lives.
Director John Boorman insisted on making his film feel as authentic and real as possible, and his efforts made Deliverance one of the scariest movies ever. The following anecdotes will take you behind the scenes of Deliverance to show you how he accomplished that mission. During production, all the main actors nearly perished, and there was a fair amount of drama off-camera, as well. Deliverance is to wilderness survival movies as Goodfellas is to mob movies - a prime example of a film that gets every last detail exactly right. More than 45 years later, it still retains its raw, unforgettable power.
Billy Redden wasn't an actor. He was an average kid who was picked to play Lonnie (also known as "Banjo Boy") during a casting call at a local elementary school. Because Redden couldn't play the banjo, John Boorman had to find a way to make it look like he could on screen.
To achieve the effect, a child who played the banjo sat hidden behind Redden, his hand stuck through the actor's sleeve to reach the fretboard. He did the fingering while Redden pretended to strum.
John Boorman wanted his actors to do their own canoeing. He believed the lack of stuntmen would make for a visceral viewing experience. He got around the fact that the stars were novices by shooting in sequence.
Ronny Cox recalled:
The easy rapids were at the beginning of the film, and the rapids get harder and harder as we go through the film. 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 of six or seven, eight hours a day. So by that time, we were all really good canoers.
Burt Reynolds, meanwhile, claimed Boorman told him there was a second motive for shooting in sequence: "If one of you drowns, I can write that into the script."
Burt Reynolds was known as a tough guy, and he reveled in the reputation. So for a scene in which Lewis goes over a waterfall in a canoe, he rebuffed John Boorman's plan to use a dummy. Reynolds said he'd do it himself. That was a big mistake.
The actor 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. Then I went down to the water below, and it was a whirlpool. I couldn’t get out and a guy there said, "If you get caught, just go to the bottom. You can get out, but you can't swim against it." So I went down to the bottom. What he didn’t tell me was it was going to shoot me up like a [geyser]. So I went out.
Adding embarrassment to injury, the force of shooting up out of the water caused Reynolds' costume to be completely torn off. He emerged from the water bare.
Because it took place in real backwater locations, Deliverance needed people with unusual looks to play the villainous hillbillies who pursue the heroes. Of them, the most well-remembered is the "Toothless Man" who utters the immortal line, "He got a real purdy mouth, ain't he?" Burt Reynolds was personally responsible for finding the actor.
Knowing they needed someone to fulfill the small but pivotal role, Reynolds remembered Herbert Coward, a guy he once worked with at Ghost Town in the Sky theme park in North Carolina. Coward played a gunfighter there. Since parts of Deliverance were being filmed at the park, Reynolds recommended his old pal for the job, then helped him prepare his lines before filming.