The songs of Ronny Cox

March 8, 2017

MICHIGAN CITY — Many myths and legends surround the making of the 1972 film “Deliverance,” according to star Ronny Cox.

Among them, the infamous banjo duel, and who actually played it.

In the scene, Cox’s character Drew pits his acoustic guitar talents against the banjo playing skills of an apparently inbred resident of the Georgia wilderness. They square off, the movie cutting between the two as Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight watch and a group of locals gather around.

Cox is clearly seen playing the correct notes. But he’s not who you hear on the soundtrack.

“That’s Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell,” he said during a recent phone call from L.A., “and the reason for that is the kid, actor Billy Redden, couldn’t play. He didn’t know anything about the banjo. Matter of fact, that’s not even his left hand during the scene. He’s got his arm behind him and there’s another little kid that knows something about the banjo that’s up there sort of faking things. And we don’t even have real strings on that banjo. They were a sort of rubberized string. That’s what they call movie magic.”

Cox said Mandell taught him the song note for note, so director John Boorman could cut to at least one person’s fingers playing correctly.

“So did I play it? Yes. Is that me on the soundtrack? No. Did it cost me about a million dollars? Yes,” he said with a laugh.

And area residents and visitors will be able to experience some of that talent and humor Sunday, March 12, when Cox, a musician for more than 40 years and an actor in such films as “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Taps” and the original “RoboCop” and “Total Recall,” performs at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in Michigan City starting at 5 p.m.

Describing himself as a singer-songwriter, Cox said he will be bringing a brand of folk music to Michigan City most people may not be familiar with.

“I have sort of the weirdest instrumentation for folk music you’ve ever heard,” he said. “There are only three of us, but we have a muted coronet, we have harmonicas, we have spoons, a fiddle, a piano, accordions, you name it, and the whole idea of my show is … a shared evening that we all have.”

Many of his songs are either preceded or followed by a story, and before the show even starts, he said, he tries to have a conversation with everyone in the venue. He even requests the house lights be left on so he can see everyone he’s communicating with.

Raised in Portales, New Mexico, a community only 19 miles away from the then music recording hub of Clovis, Cox said he was still in high school when he was hired by Norman Petty to sing backup in his studio. This was the same studio where Buddy Holly cut “Peggy Sue.” But Cox’s father was a maintenance man at the Air Force base there, so he had a mostly rural, working class background. An early hero of his was protest folk musician Woody Guthrie.

After high school, Cox started a band with his brothers called Ron’s Rockouts. He played guitar and sang. But success did not immediately follow him when, at age 25, he graduated from Eastern New Mexico University with majors in theater and speech correction.

He said he initially got work at the Arena Stage, a non-profit theater company in Washington, D.C., where he became friends with Ned Beatty, his eventual costar in “Deliverance.” For about six years he worked there, living hand to mouth with his wife, Mary, who was still studying to get her Ph.D. in chemistry. They had two sons during this time.

But then he moved to New York City where he eventually got a role in the play “The Happiness Cage,” which also starred Martin Sheen. It was a production by Joseph Papp, a major producer in the area. And it was through Papp that the producers of “Deliverance” heard about Cox and his guitar skills.

“They came to New York looking for good unknown acts,” Cox said. “And God knows I was unknown, and I was actually the first actor they saw in New York, not because I was at the top of anyone’s list, but because I was so far at the bottom.”

He was then flown to California where he was tested and eventually cast in “Deliverance” as Drew Ballinger, a sensitive and moralistic musician who accompanies his three friends on a canoe trip in northern Georgia that ends in a fight for survival. A couple weeks later the producers found Beatty and cast him, too. Cox said the castings were independent of each other and the filmmakers were unaware the two were friends or had worked together.

Filming began in 1971, when Cox was 33 years old. It was his first film role, and his first time before a camera. And it gave him a career he never thought he’d have.

“It opened doors that I didn’t even know existed before that,” he said. “All of a sudden I was not only being considered for movies and television shows, I was being offered movies and television shows that I would have never been on the radar for. So it was truly a life changing situation.”

From there he went on to star alongside David Carradine in the 1976 biopic of Woody Guthrie called “Bound for Glory.” This time Cox’s singing and playing could be heard on the soundtrack. In 1979, he appeared in “The Onion Field” with James Woods, and in 1981, “Taps” with Tom Cruise and Sean Penn.

In 1982, he appeared in the low-budget horror film “The Beast Within,” where he not only got to play the caring father to a boy turning into a giant, humanoid cicada in a transformation scene reminiscent of “An American Werewolf in London,” but to collaborate with veteran film composer Les Baxter on several songs used on the soundtrack.

But it wasn’t until 1987’s “RoboCop,” Cox’s first collaboration with Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, that his career hit its next stage. This was because he got to play the role of the ambitious and megalomaniacal senior president of OCP, Dick Jones, a man bent on replacing police officers with malfunctioning killer robots in a rundown, near-future Detroit.

“Drew, the character I played in ‘Deliverance,’ was the good and moral one,” he said. “And what happens in Hollywood oftentimes is the good and moral one, or anyone with any sort of sensitivity, gets equated with weak and soft. So I got known as a soft actor because if a role had any guts ... to it, I generally didn’t get it. I loved being able to play sensitive people, but that followed me around like an albatross. And so, when I got to play Dick Jones in ‘RoboCop,’ all of a sudden that changed.”

He followed this up by playing Vilos Cohaagen, the corrupt governor of Mars, opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mind-warped secret agent in Verhoeven’s 1990 film “Total Recall.”

“The most fascinating characters are the bad guys,” Cox said. “I liken it to painting. The good guys get three colors: Red, white and blue. The bad guys get the entire palette. ... (But) bad guys never think they’re bad. They think they know all the answers. If everyone would just listen to them, they could straighten this stuff out.”

But some of the productions Cox had the greatest hopes for were not as successful as he thought they could have been.

This included the 1990 version of “Captain America,” which featured the first appearance of the Red Skull in a live action movie. Cox played the President. It also featured Beatty again, and gave Cox the opportunity to help battle the Red Skull’s henchmen atop an Italian castle.

But the film, which didn’t even receive a U.S. theatrical release, was a letdown compared to the script, Cox said.

“The script for ‘Captain America’ was one of the finest scripts I had ever read in my life,” he explained. “... (The film) forgot all the wonderful qualities that make us all love comic books — naive patriotism, that sort of innocence. It was in the screenplay in spades, and it was not in the movie.”

A more satisfactory appearance for Cox was his role in the short-lived TV show “Cop Rock,” which mixed police drama with musical performances.

“It was the only project I had ever been in where I went to work every day whether I was called or not,” he said. “I went in every day to watch. Now some days it was like watching a train wreck, but it was 20 years ahead of its time.”

About how he got back into music, Cox said it had to do with his return from “Cop Rock.” His youngest son had left home and he had no one to play music with. So he went to Nashville, managed to cut a country music deal, and five years later, found where the folk music community was.

He has since released eight CDs and even published a book about “Deliverance,” titled “Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew.”

Although he still acts, he said he prefers hitting music festivals and playing with his band.

“With movies, TV shows and plays, there must be that imaginary fourth wall between you and the audience,” he said, “but with the kind of show I do, there is the possibility of a profound one on one sharing that can take place with the audience. It’s an opiate that is undeniable and there’s nothing more satisfying to me than doing that.”

If you go

Who: Ronny Cox

When: 5 p.m. March 12

Where: The Lubeznik Center, 101 W. 2nd St., Michigan City

How much: $12 for LCA members. $15 for non-members

Contact: 874-4900 or www.lubeznikcenter.org

Artist info: www.ronnycox.com

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