40 years later, Burt Reynolds remembers ‘Deliverance’

Monday, August 13, 2012

By Leslie Gray Streeter
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Normally, an actor would be concerned if four guys got up and walked out on a certain scene during one of his films. But when Burt Reynolds saw that happening during Deliverance, he was confident that the scene had made an impact.  And yeah…it’s exactly the scene you’re thinking about.

“I think it challenged a lot of men’s minds about their own manhood, about friendship, and about rape, as far as throwing that word around,” Jupiter’s favorite son said about the pivotal scene in the now 40-year-old John Boorman film where hapless canoer Ned Beatty is sodomized by demented backwoodsmen.
“(They) saw that picture and suddenly it shook them up,” Reynolds said. “They realized that it’s not something to laugh about.”

There were, indeed, not a lot of chuckles in Deliverance, about four friends whose weekend trip down a Georgia river turns into a nightmare that would make most nightmares run sniveling for their mamas. And as viewers of a special anniversary screening at Stuart’s Lyric Theatre on Thursday will understand, the 1972 film certainly changed the national discussion about rape. It also touched on subjects not always covered in Hollywood movies: sexuality, Appalachia, class-ism, regionalism, urban-based fears of rural folk, camping, canoe trips, and, of course, banjo duels.

The Lyric screening, after which Reynolds will answer questions about the film, isn’t the only thing happening in the world of the Bandit right now. There’s the recent announcement of the temporary closure of the Burt Reynolds and Friends Museum in Jupiter, home of Burt Reynolds Institute for Film and Theater and a lot of Burt-related memorabilia, including one of the canoes and other props from Deliverance.

On August 25, the facility will close its current location, a former bank building at US 1 and Indiantown Road, to make way for the future Harborside entertainment and office complex. The Palm Beach County Commission has given conceptual approval to a plan that would move the Institute and Museum, including a black box theater, to a 1-1.5-acre area in Burt Reynolds Park, adjacent to the fire station, according to Eric Call, director of the county’s Parks and Recreation Department.
The plans are still tentative pending contracts and firming up leases, fund-raising and construction schedules.

Meanwhile, several of the BRTIFT classes are being temporarily moved to the Lyric, which will also feature this season An Evening With Burt Reynolds, Part Deux, the sequel to the star’s well-received live career retrospective. The second night was needed, Reynolds says, because one just wasn’t enough.
“I hate to admit it, but I’ve been doing this for 60 years. I couldn’t cover my whole career in the first half. I didn’t get to an awful lot of stuff that’s happened in the second part of my career,” he says. “I get started, and the story branches off.”

One of the most significant branches in that story is Deliverance, which helped establish Reynolds, a former Florida State football star then known mostly for his television roles, as a major action star, as well as a bare-chested sex symbol. Many of his previous and subsequent roles, as cowboys, cops, athletes and charming bad boys, called for a degree of physicality, but Reynolds says that playing Louis, the most experienced canoer and defacto leader of the four friends, was “by far the most dangerous thing I’d ever done, or that any of us have done. They keep talking about a remake, but I don’t think you could find four actors crazy enough to do it.”
Reynolds remembers that at the beginning of the shoot, none of the stars was experienced with a canoe.
“Not by any stretch of the imagination were we white water experts” – but by the end, “we could out-canoe anybody. We’d quit for the day and come back and practice. We got to the point where we were more proficient, or at least we didn’t get tipped over all the time. I have to admit that, in spite of the danger, or maybe because of the danger, it was the most fun I ever had.”

And that’s a good thing it was fun, because Deliverance was a rough shoot, which had to be done in sequence as the real and fictional canoers made their way down Georgia’s Chattooga River. There were multiple accidents, injuries and a near-drowning or two. Reynolds himself cracked his tailbone “going over the falls. It was pretty stupid. I thought it would just shoot me out, but it was like being shot out of a torpedo.”

Reynolds ended up about a mile down river – “I got into the canoe a fit 30-year-old, and came back as a stumbling old nude man, (because) the water ripped every bit of my clothing off,” he says. “I asked John Boorman, ‘How did it look?’ and he said ‘Like a dummy going over the falls.’”

As hard as it was to make, Deliverance eventually joined the pantheon of films so burned into our pop culture conscience that even those who haven’t seen them can quote lines, or at least hum the beginning of Dueling Banjos. If you asked people of a certain age to “squeal like a pig,” or made reference to their “pretty mouth,” they’d probably know you were talking about Deliverance.  And 40 years later, it’s still having an impact.  “I went to a screening in L.A. recently, and there was a whole huge crowd. I’ll bet half of them were first-timers,” says Reynolds, who reunited with co-stars Beatty, Ronnie Cox and Jon Voight this past winter to record tracks for the anniversary DVD. “I think there was even more of an impact, with the applause that it got, and the realization of how hard it was to make.”