Burt Reynolds was one of Hollywood’s quintessential “macho” stars. He was a man’s man, often being filmed on horseback or in a speeding car while dressed in all-American attire. But the late actor could be just as tough in real life – and in one case it proved to his detriment. You see, Reynolds would live to regret filming a particular scene on the set of 1972 movie Deliverance.
Deliverance was up for three Academy Awards following its release, including honors in the Best Picture and Best Director categories. And even though Reynolds didn’t receive a nomination himself, the overall success of the movie arguably brought him both further attention and greater fame. In a way, then, the glittering career that followed was down in part to his star turn as Lewis Medlock.
Yet despite any positive impact that Deliverance may have had on Reynolds’ time in Hollywood, the film’s shoot was far from a piece of cake for the star. What’s more, the late actor actually had one particular regret about the experience. And in the years leading up to his death in September 2018, Reynolds publicly spoke out about what had happened on set. The incident was, you see, something that had continued to haunt him – even in his dreams.
Deliverance centers around four businessmen who go on a recreational canoeing trip along a river in Georgia. Owing to the impending construction of a dam in the area, the waterway is set to soon become a lake, leaving the group with the impression that they’ll never get another chance to make the journey again.
Yet along the way, the faction encounter not only the wrath of the elements but also some unfriendly hillbillies. In a particularly grim scene, one of the protagonists is raped at gunpoint. And while Reynolds’ alpha male character, Lewis, manages to kill one of the attackers, the other gets away.
The four men decide not to let the police know about the incident, however, and instead they conceal the remains of the rapist. Then they take off again, rowing down the river and getting caught up in some strong currents and rapids. In one sequence, Reynolds’ character is left seriously injured after his canoe smashes into some boulders.
Eventually, one of the group’s own number is killed – leaving only three of the men as survivors. The trio decide to lie to the police about what happened, though, and swear among themselves to never reveal the truth of what took place to anyone.
At the end of July 1972 Deliverance was released to great success. It was among the highest-earning movies of that year, in fact, making a total of over $46 million at the U.S. box office on a budget of just $2 million. And critical acclaim came the thriller’s way to boot.
Gene Siskel was among those lauding Deliverance, with the noted critic declaring that the film was more than just a series of grisly set-pieces. Yes, in a contemporary review for the Chicago Tribune he proclaimed, “It is a gripping horror story that at times may force you to look away from the screen, but it is so beautifully filmed that your eyes will eagerly return.”
Furthermore, Deliverance went on to rack up a slew of award nominations, including five at the Golden Globes as well as those three Academy Awards. And even though the movie didn’t actually manage to take home any of these esteemed trophies, its success seemed to thrust one person in particular into the limelight.
Even before Deliverance had been released, Reynolds knew that he had been a part of something special. In fact, he expressed as much to The New York Times just prior to the film hitting theaters. “I’ve waited 15 years to do a really good movie,” the actor said. “Most of my stuff, I don’t say how good it is, because mostly I don’t think it’s good. But this time…”
At around this point in his career, moreover, Reynolds was becoming a household name. For instance, the actor’s appearances on chat shows had boosted his profile, as did his relationship with famous actress and singer Dinah Shore – a woman 20 years Reynolds’ senior. But the actor had also made waves in 1972 with an appearance in Cosmopolitan magazine – even if the outcome wasn’t all that he had intended.
The now infamous photo spread was printed in April of that year – so, before Deliverance had actually hit theaters. And the shot revealed Reynolds completely nude and smiling while spread out upon a bearskin rug. Even if the photograph appears comical in retrospect, though, Reynolds believed that its release had more serious ramifications. You see, the star was convinced that the image actually stopped him from being nominated for an Oscar.
Reflecting on the photo, Reynolds told The New York Times in 1981, “I figured Deliverance would come out first and establish me. What happened was that [Deliverance director John] Boorman spent forever editing the film, and the Cosmo spread came out first.” And owing to the unfortunate timing of the article, the star suggested that it had cost him any chance of being taken seriously as an actor.
Nonetheless, Reynolds realized that the reaction to the photo spread certainly wasn’t the end of the world. He added to the newspaper, “[On] the night of the Academy Awards, I counted a half-dozen Burt Reynolds jokes. I had become a household name [and] the most talked-about star at the award show.”
This was all despite the fact that Reynolds was apparently far from movie executives’ first choice to be cast in Deliverance. Indeed, according to Boorman, a couple of huge stars had been in line to play Lewis before Reynolds was even considered. Yet as the director later recalled to The Hollywood Reporter, the studio simply couldn’t afford to get either of these actors on board.
Speaking a few days after Reynolds’ passing, Boorman told the publication, “The studio was very unenthusiastic about casting Burt in Deliverance. They wanted a big star. I had gone to Jack Nicholson, but he wanted a half-million dollars, which was outrageous in 1972.” And more seemingly bad news was to follow for the director, as he went on to explain.
Indeed, Boorman continued, “And then I went to Marlon Brando, [who] told me [that] he’d do [the movie] for whatever Jack [Nicholson] was asking for. So, in the end, the studio told me to go ahead and make [Deliverance] with nobodies for no money. They had very little confidence in the material.”
One of the so-called “nobodies” who Boorman eventually cast was, of course, Reynolds, who apparently received $50,000 for taking the role. Jon Voight signed on, too, and primary shooting then took place in Georgia’s Rabun County, with some particularly vital scenes captured along the Chattooga River and in the Tallulah Gorge.
It’s perhaps fair to say, though, that the production of Deliverance didn’t pass without event. For instance, IndieWire has related that the author of the novel upon which the film is based showed up on set drunk. And after that, James Dickey reportedly got into an angry row with Boorman that seemingly didn’t end well for the filmmaker.
In the end, Boorman and Dickey’s apparent skirmish left the director with smashed teeth and a busted nose. According to IndieWire, things had come to a head after Boorman originally cut 19 pages of the novel from the film, while Dickey had also allegedly become “very overbearing with the actors” during the shoot.
Finally, Dickey was turfed off the set, leaving Boorman to lick his wounds. Even so, the errant writer was eventually permitted to return, and he ultimately featured in a brief role as Sheriff Bullard in the film. Boorman did not press charges against Dickey, either, with the pair eventually resolving their differences and becoming good friends.
In addition, Deliverance’s production was also notable for saving money; it had its actors undertake their own stunts – and allegedly without proper injury insurance. Voight scaled a real cliff for the purposes of the film, for instance, with this feat and others seemingly drawing the admiration of Dickey.
Indeed, the writer reportedly said that Reynolds, Voight and their co-stars Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox “had more guts than a burglar” by risking their lives for the sake of the movie. And during shooting, there was at least one hairy moment for Reynolds. He had been canoeing down the river for a scene that sees his character get injured on some rocks.
And performing this particular stunt ended up being a huge source of regret for Reynolds. He told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018, “It was memorable because it knocked the hell out of me. They had a dummy go over the falls and I said, ‘I can go over the falls.’” What’s not explained here, though, is that Reynolds had volunteered himself after the dummy hadn’t looked realistic enough in an initial shoot. So, what happened next to cause the actor so much grief?
Well, initially, the water that was to be used for the stunt had been held back by a dam, leaving Reynolds free to row out onto the river without incident. When the dam was subsequently opened up, however, a cascade of water flowed forth. “I dream sometimes of the water coming,” Reynolds told The Hollywood Reporter. “I looked around, and there was a tidal wave coming at me.”
Reynolds was then swept away by the torrent and was sent over the edge of a waterfall. He subsequently smashed into a boulder, breaking his coccyx, before being dragged into a whirlpool. And the star had been warned beforehand that he would be unable to escape the current if this was to happen – meaning he would just have to allow himself to be pulled into the depths.
“I went down to the bottom,” Reynolds later recalled. “What [a crew member] didn’t tell me was [that the water] was going to shoot me up like a torpedo. So, I went out. They said later that they saw this 30-year-old guy in costume go over the waterfall, and then about 15 minutes later they saw this nude man come out. [The fall] had torn everything – my boots and everything – off.”
Prior to recalling the incident to The Hollywood Reporter, though, Reynolds had also told the story of his “pretty hairy stunt” to Business Insider. And during that interview, the actor had revealed that the damage to his coccyx was still affecting him in later life – even more than four decades on from the fateful filming of Deliverance.
Astonishingly, though, Reynolds explained that he had initially concealed the nature of his injury from the film crew. In a revelation that perhaps speaks volumes about the actor’s personality, he told Business Insider, “I went on with the day and told [the crew] that I was fine. If I told them I was hurt, they would have gotten all over me for insisting on doing it. So, I just went on with the day.”
And as an older man, Reynolds expressed regret over some of the dangerous stunts that he had undertaken on behalf of his longtime collaborator Hal Needham. “When it’s cold, and I’m limping around, I think, ‘Why didn’t I let Hal make some money and I just sit down?’” he pondered to Business Insider. “But you can’t go back.”
In the same interview, Reynolds also paid tribute to a contemporary Hollywood star for also executing his own stunts. There, he praised Tom Cruise for being “very brave with the stuff that he does,” adding, “The stunts that [Cruise has] done, it’s obvious it’s him – and I’m very impressed.”
Regardless of how Reynolds had dealt with being badly hurt on set, however, Deliverance saw him go on to yet bigger things. After striking up a friendship with former stuntman and director Needham, the star went on to appear in the filmmaker’s 1977 comedy Smokey and the Bandit.
Smokey and the Bandit proved a big commercial hit, too, earning $300 million or so internationally – second only in U.S. box-office takings that year to the first Star Wars movie. Reynolds duly teamed up with Needham yet again for the following year’s Hooper, which delves into the world of stunt performers – a presumed nod to the filmmaker’s past career.
Reynolds then appeared in a couple of other features before returning to work with Needham once again. In 1980 Smokey and the Bandit II came out, with the pair also going on to collaborate on The Cannonball Run. The comedy flick was just one of three movies in which Reynolds starred in 1981, although he also sat in the director’s chair for the drama Sharky’s Machine.
Reynolds’ loyalty to Needham even saw him reject the chance to appear in the Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment; instead, he took up a role in his friend’s film Stroker Ace. Yet the NASCAR-themed flick was far from a smash, and Reynolds himself would later reveal that the movie marked a change in his fortunes. The commercial failure of 1983’s The Man Who Loved Women may not have helped the actor’s career, either.
And following a turbulent period in the 1980s that saw Reynolds seemingly lose some of his star power, he told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Getting to the top has turned out to be a hell of a lot more fun than staying there. I’m in my late 40s. I realize I have four or five more years where I can play certain kinds of parts and get away with it.”
By the middle of the 1990s, however, Reynolds successfully made a switch away from playing the leading man. He instead focused on taking up supporting roles, and his career started to see something of a resurgence as a result. This late-in-life comeback culminated, moreover, in an appearance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s cult classic Boogie Nights.
In fact, Reynolds’ turn in Boogie Nights was not only widely acclaimed, but it also led to his only Oscar nomination. And in the years that followed, he continued to add to his filmography through the likes of the well-received The Last Movie Star, Miami Love Affair and Shadow Fighter.
In 2018 Reynolds also signed on to star in Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming dramedy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – although he sadly passed away before filming had commenced. The actor remains a legend of film, however, and he’s left behind a legacy that arguably started with the success of Deliverance.