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John Boorman, Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight & Ned Beatty Talk ‘Deliverance,’ Casting, Marlon Brando & More

John Boorman, Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight & Ned Beatty Talk 'Deliverance,' Casting, Marlon Brando & More

The 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival recently wrapped and we’re still catching up on a number of great events that we got to sit in on. One of them was a screening of the ’70s classic “Deliverance,” hosted by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. Organizers managed to wrangle director John Boorman and three-quarters of the cast’s leads  – Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight and Ned Beatty (Ronny Cox was off somewhere playing folk music,) to introduce the film.

Although we have seen the movie many times and delved into it deeply (read our “5 Things You Might Not Know About “Deliverance” feature,) we still learned a few more things about the landmark film … Warning — massive spoilers ahead, if you’ve managed never to see the film. There’s no need to get nervous, it was only a movie, although we could swear we hear some “Dueling Banjos” in the distance…

1. Sam Peckinpah Was Author James Dickey’s First Choice To Direct
Ben Mankiewicz began the proceedings by mentioning how he had read in Christopher Dickey’s book (“Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son”) that Dickey and his father (“Deliverance” author James Dickey) were so excited that Sam Peckinpah was going to direct the film. Contrary to these hopes and plans, Peckinpah did not end up directing the film. Turns out Warner Bros. weren’t so keen on Peckinpah (possibly due to the over-schedule, over-budget “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”) and they turned to relative newcomer John Boorman to helm the project. Also, in an interesting turn of events down the road, Dickey and Boorman reportedly got into a fistfight on set that resulted in Dickey breaking Boorman’s nose and knocking out some of the director’s teeth. 

2. The Marlon Brando Rumor Is True 
John Boorman confirmed that Marlon Brando was in serious consideration to play macho outdoorsman Lewis Medlock, the role that later went to Burt Reynolds. Boorman said he spoke to Brando about the part and Brando asked, “I wouldn’t have to get into one of those canoes, would I?” which apparently killed the chance of that gig every happening.

The group discussed other “Deliverance” casting rumors, including Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and Jack Nicholson. Boorman shirked the Fonda and Stewart rumor, but confirmed that he had been considering Jack Nicholson. Not discussed, but deserving of mention is the fact that Lee Marvin was Boorman’s first choice for Ed (Voight’s character) while James Dickey wanted Gene Hackman. According to the film trivia rumor mill, other actors up for roles in “Deliverance” included Charlton Heston, Robert Redford, Donald Sutherland, George C. Scott and Warren Beatty.

3. How John Boorman Convinced Jon Voight To Star In The Film
For pipe-smoking shaky-handed Ed Gentry, Boorman wanted to cast temperamental Jon Voight and evidently succeeded, but not without some struggle – Voight admits to giving the director “a hard time.” Boorman revealed that after the “disastrous” production on “All-American Boy,” Voight was contemplating giving up on acting all together. Luckily for Voight and for us, he didn’t, largely thanks to his casting in this movie. Boorman elaborated that Voight tells people, “You know John saved my life to do this film and then he spent 8 weeks trying to kill me.” 

Now how did Boorman convince Voight to sign on? He began by name-dropping other potential actors – Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, etc. to little avail. Finally, Boorman said, “Jon, I’m going to count to ten and you have to make up your mind, yes or no, by the time I’ve counted ten.” To which Voight responded, “10? Why not 30?” Boorman started to count and when Voight hadn’t given him an answer, he hung up the phone. Prudently, Voight called him back and the rest is history.

4. Ned Beatty Is Not So Cuddly
Seeing Ned Beatty, one cannot help but think of Lotso, the magenta strawberry-smelling teddy bear from “Toy Story 3.” Within a few seconds of hearing Ned Beatty, that image is quickly shattered. Crossing into ornery territory, Beatty called out Voight (“Marcheline [Angelina Jolie’s mother] was always smarter than Jon!”) and Reynolds (“Of course Burt was happy to get into a movie like this. It was a movie! John Boorman happens to be a director, no doo-doo!”), along with disparaging female PR professionals in a practically incoherent ramble (“They have a guy with them sometimes, but you never hear them open their mouth. Women do all of the ‘All right, let’s go here. Let’s go over here. Oh come on.’ Shut up and goodbye.”) If you think this ranting could be chalked up to the toll of advancing years, it turns out Beatty haa always been like this. Boorman said, “I cast Ned because he was angry. He walked into the interview saying, ‘I don’t want to be in your fucking film.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m casting you anyway.’”

Once you got into the right mindset, Beatty could be rather hilarious, calling the crowd “a Hollywood Boulevard audience” (whatever that means) and offered insights when he told a story about how he and Reynolds had some trouble when their canoe hit a snag with one of the falls – “I see Burt flying over me, sort of like in a wonderful well put-together insect-like thing. He hit the water out there and I came up under the canoe and everything seemed to be fine. There was calm water just on the other side of this little falls and I was in there thinking, ‘Ah, okay.’ I started hearing Burt’s hollering for me. He thought I was gone and there was a little bit in the sound of your voice that said it could have been my fault.” Reynolds interjected, “I was really worried about you,” and the story turned into a touching moment between two old friends.  

5. Burt Reynolds Is Awesome
Where others might have balked and walked at a discussion about the other actors up for their now-iconic role (see above), Burt Reynolds took the casting chat on the chin and even helped clarify a few points, particularly that Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart weren’t named specifically during pre-production. As the conversation moved forward, Reynolds explained with a remarkable sincerity, “I just wanted a job. I thought it was the best script I had read. Unlike Mr. Voight, I didn’t get these kinds of script all the time.” Even more endearing, Reynolds shared a moment that sounded like it came right out of a movie. After an audition of sorts, Reynolds said “I walked down the street at Warners and I screamed, ‘I think I got it!’” to the surprise of a few tourists who shouted back ‘I think you got it!’ ”

You have probably seen Reynolds being a badass onscreen, but we can happily report that he is also that same badass in real life. During production on “Deliverance,” Reynolds risked life and limb for a good take. Reynolds explained that after watching a dummy going over the rapids, he asked Boorman if he could take a stab at the dangerous stunt. Responding to Reynolds near-ridiculous amount of humility, Mankiewicz stepped in and pointed out that this was after a professional stuntman had refused to perform the feat. In turn, Reynolds answered, “Well, the professional stuntman had some brains.” Ultimately, said stunt cracked his tailbone, separated one of his kidneys and “a couple of other things got jarred,” and still looked like a dummy did it in the next day’s rushes.

As a closing note, Reynolds began to say, “I’ve done 70 movies,” to which the crowd applauded. Reynolds clarified self-deprecatingly, “Don’t applaud unless you’ve seen them,” and continued, “I’ve done four television series and out of all of them, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve only been in one movie.” Aww.

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