trying to leave the river. But, rather than being drawn into the web of fear and murder that the story portrays, the two were actually helped out of their troubles by the mountain folks.
We talked white water all evening, making equipment and location suggestions. Our first river choice was the Little River Canyon in Alabama, but in the end the Chattooga and Tallulah would be picked. We tried to emphasize our white water experience on all area rivers and that we would be available if Warner Brothers should need further advice. Would they? And if they did, would they even glance our way?
As fortune would have it, they did. The film crews had already been shooting since mid-May (of ’71) when we were called to appear in July. With much of the cabin, camping and archery scenes behind them, Warner Brothers was concentrating on the river. Mishaps had occurred already at Rock Jumble and Deliverance Rock on Section IV, where equipment had been lost to the River.
In Tallulah Gorge, where, in the story, the rope breaks and Ed (Jon Voight) plunges from the cliff face to the river, a local man had agreed to take the fall. After viewing the spot from below, he told the chief cinematographer (Vilmos Zsigmond) that he needed to see it from the top of the cliff. Three days later, when they finally found him again, he had “remembered some errands that my wife asked me to do that day.” He was replaced by Ralph Garrett, a professional stunt man.
Warner Brothers had already envisioned using Ralph, teamed with a Rabun County fisherman, for canoeing stunts. The fisherman knew the Chattooga and Garrett would handle the canoe. Neither had ever paddled in moving water before. When they finally emerged at Earl’s Ford after a disastrous day on Section II(!), it was Ralph who demanded that those “white water experts” be brought in. We later became good friends and helped him learn enough canoeing to add that to his portfolio of stunts.
And so, expert or not, we found ourselves in the right place at the right time. On some days — at First Falls, Corkscrew, Jawbone — we were called on to be doubles, Payson and I for Ned Beatty, Claude for Jon Voight. We would report to the makeup station at 7 AM, dress appropriately, have our hair colored and then have “cuts and bruises applied.” Instead of Burt Reynolds lying in the bottom of our Grumman, it would be his dummy, known affectionately as “No Balls,” for the large void in the hinged crotch area!
On “Five Falls Days,” we often did not return to Clayton until 10 PM, where we would grab dinner and stumble to our rooms at the Heart of Rabun Motel. On other days, we might act as demonstrators, running the easier rapids several times until the principals felt they could do the run themselves. Or again, we might be called on for technical advice, such as, “Where can we find a rock face with a swift current running past, that Jon Voight can be clawing at for a finger hold — and where we won’t lose him down river!” Thus the naming of “Deliverance Rock.”
Our advice was not always accepted. Claude and I were made up as doubles for Jon Voight and Ned Beatty, respectively, and kneeled in a green Old Town canoe awaiting instructions from director John Boorman. Actors Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty waited in a Grumman canoe. Claude had just paddled the Old Town through several rapids, fighting against the flat water keel and the load of waterlogged gear to keep the boat on track.
“What they (Warner Brothers) ought to do,” he expounded, “is rip the keel off of this canoe, substitute Styrofoam for the camping gear, cover it with a tarp and stick the bow and arrows on top.” A good suggestion from an experienced canoeist, but spoken in a moment of frustration.
Reynolds swiveled around in the stern of the Grumman, fixed his eyes on Claude and snapped, “Look, Candy-ass, you don’t go into a scene driving a greyhound bus and come out riding a bicycle!” The silence that followed was profound — it was one of the few times I’ve ever seen Claude at a complete loss for a reply!
Later that same week, I was to get my comeuppance in Jawbone Rapid. I was ferrying the Grumman and No Balls to the next shooting site and dropped into the large top eddy on river left. However, I had violated a cardinal rule of paddling any craft — never take to the water with loose rope in your boat! There was a tangle of perhaps 80 feet of 3/8 inch line in the bottom of my canoe, tied to a thwart and tossed in with unnecessary haste.
As I peeled out into the surging current, I leaned hard on a left draw and… my paddle snapped completely in two, plunging me headfirst into the “jaws,” the canoe on top of me. In the next moment, as I was taking my lumps from the rocks, I realized that No Balls, the Grumman and I were all still connected by rope.
Fortunately, very fortunately, we passed to the left of Hydroelectric Rock, but the canoe was still hell-bent on running Sock-em-dog! It was only through a well-timed assist from Claude that we made the eddy above and I was able to get enough slack to slip the coils of rope from my ankle.
The Warner Brothers crew was excellent in looking out for our safety, also. They had been hand-picked for fitness and their desire to work in a remote setting away from the usual conveniences. When we were making hazardous runs, there were always alert eyes and ready arms tucked out of camera view along our route. “Jimmy the fish” was the best.
Not all days were as long or as tedious as the ones worked in Five Falls. Often we would sit for an hour or two while Boorman and Zsigmond decided how a particular scene would be set up. If the day ended at a reasonable hour, we would be invited to Kingwood Country Club to see the “rushes” (the previous day’s shooting).
It was interesting to see how folks were worked into the filming. James Dickey, a large, imposing figure, plays the country sheriff. A Rabun County man who had been hired to drive cast and crew to various locations, caught Boorman’s eye and was slipped into a deputy’s role. Louise Coldren, who fed paddlers for so many years at her Dillard Motor Lodge, played a similar part, serving food to guests near the end of the film.
And for the dueling banjos scene, the boy, Billy Redden was found waiting tables locally. The scary mountain men, Herbert Coward and Billy McKinney, came from the ghost town at Maggie Valley, NC, where they worked as gun-slinging cowboys. There were others, of course.
But not all were cooperative. Warner Brothers had found their “perfect” backwoods cabin and gas pump location for shooting the “That river don’t go to Aintree!” scene. When they returned a week later to start fine tuning the set, they were met by the owner who quickly sent them packing with, “I just read the book and you’re not shooting that filthy story on my place!”
What took place in Tallulah Gorge was a tribute to persistence and ingenuity. Besides the cliff scaling scene, it was here that the two canoes collide and the Old Town breaks apart. Having picked their ideal spot, the crew set about building an artificial rapid of boulders and logs, taking care to not make it into a strainer. A track was added so that the Old Town would slide into a broached position in the rapid, the canoe having already been rigged to separate into two halves when a cable was pulled from shore.
Those who have hiked or paddled Tallulah Gorge will appreciate the difficulty of getting boats, camera equipment and related gear to river level — not to mention getting them out again. This was accomplished with a cable and pulleys, a Grumman canoe being the “basket”. The system ran from the top of the climbing cliff down to the south shore of the Tallulah, 300 feet below. The process was slow and physically demanding, but no comparison to the alternative of lugging things in and out by hand!
When the artificial rapid was ready and safety crews set in place (including us), the director would radio Georgia Power for perhaps 3/4 of a gate of water to be released from the Tallulah Falls dam to make the rapid come alive and hide any signs of construction. “Too much! Too much! Reynolds and Beatty have swamped! Give us half a gate!” and another bullhorn would go sailing into the river. It took many “takes” to finally get it right.
Working in the shadow of the principals was a good learning experience and a lot of fun. Burt Reynolds was relatively unknown at the time, having had just had his first “exposure” as Cosmopolitan’s centerfold. He had a quick wit and plenty of self-confidence. Already an accomplished actor of considerable reputation, Jon Voight was also a caring person with class. Ronny Cox was down to earth and a pleasure to listen to with guitar and song. Ned Beatty was my favorite.
Most of the cast and crew had gone to Underground Atlanta to party one weekend. The bus left early Monday morning and Beatty, with two others, missed it. When Boorman learned that he was absent, he asked if I would fill in for Ned in a non-canoeing scene. It was simple enough — one of the early film scenes — following Reynolds and Voight in their jeep, and driving the station wagon with Ronny Cox as we “head for the river,” negotiating the hairpin turns above Betty’s Creek. When Beatty arrived that afternoon, he took time to track me down and personally thank me for filling in. It was a gesture I’ve carried in my heart ever since.
Deliverance premiered in Atlanta the next summer (’72) and of course we were there. It soon was in theaters across the country. My mother called from Maryland. “You know, Doug, I’ve been telling friends at church for a year that you’re in Deliverance. I just saw it, and I don’t think I’ll tell anybody else!”
Our screen time could be measured in seconds, but the effect it had on our lives was far-reaching. That same summer, Claude and I started Southeastern Expeditions, running folks by raft down the Chattooga while still hanging onto our jobs in Atlanta. Payson and his family took an even bigger leap as they broke all Atlanta ties and threw themselves into transforming the old Tote-N-Tarry Motel/Restaurant into one of the premier white water communities in the world, the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
Two years later, Mark Warren wrote a hilarious play named Son of Deliverance, as a GCA fund raiser for the defense of river navigation rights. The story was a reversal, as three mountain boys (Claude, Mark and myself) make an epic journey down river to the big city for one last ride on the Six Flags log flume before it is inundated by the new West Point Reservoir. We end up being swindled at the used car lot (Clyde Woolsey), wowed by Miss Raft Race (Falma Moye), threatened by a tear gas pen (Maggie Osborne), intimidated by Livingston, the log flume attendant (Miller Templeton), insulted by Mr. Flags (Ross Wilson), and finally robbed and raped by an Atlanta mugger (Barbara Walmsley).
As Mark said in the benefit invitation, speaking of the play, “The journey becomes a nightmare of adventure that would wilt Burt Reynolds cigar. In this performance, you’ll see some of the top names in Georgia canoeing ruined — the giants of white water degraded to a ship of fools.” ….and so it was.
by Doug Woodward
From The Eddy Line, January 1997