Ronny Cox on ‘Deliverance’s’ 40th Anniversary and Why the ‘Total Recall’ Remake is a Bad Idea

The star of John Boorman's adventure film talks about canoeing, "Dueling Banjos" and why he decided to write a memoir about "Deliverance"

Released in 1972 and starring a cast of up-and-coming actors that included Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox, Jon Voight and Ned Beatty, “Deliverance” thrilled audiences with its unflinching look at a canoe trip gone horribly wrong.

It earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and became one of the year’s top-grossing films.

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On the 40th anniversary of John Boorman’s classic adventure nightmare, Cox — whose character Drew played guitar in the famous "Dueling Banjos" scene — has released a book, aptly titled "Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew" (Decent Hill), which recounts his experiences making the film.

It coincides with the June 26 release of a new Blu-ray edition of “Deliverance,” which boasts hours of featurettes and a 42-page book with behind-the-scenes photos.

Also read: Peter Weir: Why I Direct the Way I Do

TheWrap talked to Cox about why the story of modern man versus the elements still resonates, Hollywood’s propensity to remake his most famous films and the real story behind that "Dueling Banjos" scene.

You are a musician — did you actually play the guitar in the "Dueling Banjos" scene?
I did not, sort of by my own choice, although I’m not nearly a good enough guitarist. Billy Redden, who played the banjo boy, could not play. He had another kid behind him working the strings.

Since he was not able to play and we were going to just match the playback, I didn’t want to miss a day of canoe practice to go off and record it. I had no idea that it was going to become this number one hit record. Because it’s not me on the soundtrack, it probably cost me a gazillion dollars.

When your character Drew’s body is discovered, his arm is horribly mangled. That effect was not achieved with makeup.
It was my real arm. That scene turns a lot of people’s stomachs,but I had this light case of Polio as a child and I can do this thing where my shoulder comes out of place and just completely dislocates.

I was in Georgia getting fitted for false eyeballs, because Drew was originally going to be discovered face up in the water, and I told Boorman that I could do this weird thing with my shoulder. Well, he almost fell down. He just thought it was the greatest thing and we later got credit for all this symbolism, but it was just a happy accident.

Could a movie this brutal and uncompromising be made in today’s Hollywood?
It couldn’t be made the way the film was made then. We did all that canoeing ourselves. With today’s CGI, it would be done in a completely different way. That rape scene [with Beatty] was so raw, in some ways, I don’t know that films today would be able to pull that off.

This was your first film. How did you ever get a gig like this right off the bat?
It was Ned Beatty's first film too. It's unheard of. Boorman wanted to make the cast all unknowns, because he didn’t want any character to be safe. If it’s a big star, you know he’s going to make it.

Boorman did change the ages of the main characters, no? In James Dickey’s novel they are in their 40s.    
He wanted to cast younger actors, not just because younger actors in their early thirties are sexier. In 1971, we were coming out of the Vietnam War and people in their forties were seen as part of the establishment, while people in their twenties were linked with the hippie movement.

Boorman wanted to run it through the generation of guys in their thirties and that particular set of angst, because they didn’t really belong anywhere. He thought they were the most screwed up psychologically and in the film it pays off in ways you can’t imagine. 

Had you ever canoed before?
None of us had, with one exception. The only guy who had been in a canoe was Ned, which was ironic because in the film he was supposed to be the biggest klutz.

We did shoot the film in sequence, so after two weeks of canoe practice and being on the water 10 hours a day, we were pretty expert when we had to shoot on the rapids.

A number of your films are being remade like “Total Recall” and “Robocop.” How do you feel about that?
I hate sequels and remakes. I thought both films were pretty well realized, so I don’t see the point in finding something good and just doing it again. Someone once said that doing a sequel is like putting on a wet bathing suit. Same is true with a remake. 

Why did you decide to write this book?
It was my first film and it just changed my life. I’ve carried these stories with me for 40 years, and they just bubbled up to the surface.

This book has no pretensions about being a literary tome, I’m a storyteller, and I wanted it to feel like we were having a coffee or a beer and talking about this complete novice who got to be in a number one Hollywood film.

After four decades, why do you think “Deliverance” endures?
When you look at this film, it has a sort of timelessness. It hasn’t lost its power and the things it says about the world around us still resonate.

None of the clothes scream period and the cars may be a bit older, but besides that it could be four guys out on a boat trip today.