Deliverance’s Ronny Cox on RoboCop, Total Recall, and the glory of Cop Rock
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: In 1972, Ronny Cox made his film debut in Deliverance, where he and Ned Beatty, Jon Voight, and Burt Reynolds took a fateful canoe trip with director John Boorman at the helm. Cox continued to work steadily, eventually carving a niche for himself as a go-to actor for authority-figure roles. Although he acts infrequently these days, Cox tours the country as a folk musician, and he has also recently written the Deliverance memoir Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance Of Drew, which hit stores around the same time as the new 40th-anniversary special-edition Blu-ray of the film that started his motion-picture career.
Ronny Cox: That was my entrée into the film industry. They came to New York looking for good unknown actors, and God knows, I was unknown. [Laughs.] It was not only my first film, but my first time in front of a camera. It was Ned Beatty’s first film, too. Eventually, they tested me and however many other guys. I’d never made more than $6,000 a year in my life going into that film, so it changed my life dramatically.
The A.V. Club: Deliverance was and remains an intense piece of work. What did you think when you first read the script?
RC: I had read the novel, but I loved the script, too. The script was wonderful. We shot pretty much exactly as it was in the script. But it was based on Jim Dickey’s bestselling novel, and every actor in Hollywood wanted to do those four roles.
AVC: Was Drew the role you went in looking for? Or did you even have a favorite?
RC: Oh, yes, I was always drawn to Drew. I actually just put together a book: Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance Of Drew.
AVC: The booklet of the Blu-ray touches on a few stories from that book, in particular your ability to dislocate your shoulder at will. How did John Boorman react when you first demonstrated it?
RC: I mean, it is a shocking vision, you have to admit, to all of a sudden have this perfectly normal human being looking grotesque. [Laughs.] It’s just something I can do. My shoulder comes out of place. No pain involved, really. John loved the image of that. But to this day, a lot of people say, “Oh, that’s the most fake-looking thing I’ve ever seen.”
Drew is sort of the moral center of that piece. I mean, we used to joke about it, because the four characters are all these four aspects of Jim Dickey. There’s a lot about him as that sort of “outdoors macho-man challenging everybody, and everything’s a competition” in Burt’s character. And there’s the thoughtful, almost timid advertising man, the everyman that was Jon Voight’s character at the beginning of the film. And then there’s the buffoonish, klutzy Bobby [Beatty’s character]. But then Jim Dickey was also a poet and a guitar player who loved to play music, and all of his artistic aspects were in Drew. That’s what I was always drawn to. The big argument about what to do with the guy after they killed him… I mean, to this day, I agree with Drew that the thing to do was put the body in the canoe, turn themselves in, and tell them what happened. It’s certainly justifiable homicide. Drew didn’t have any of the fears and trepidations of the other guys about getting a fair trial or dealing with that. He just wanted to do what was morally right in the film, and I was drawn to Drew because of that.
Mind Snatchers (1972)—“Sgt. Boford Miles”
RC: You know, that was exactly right after Deliverance. It was based on a play I had done in New York. It was called The Happiness Cage, and it was with Marty Sheen and Charlie Durning and Harris Yulin. Then right after we finished Deliverance, they shot this film in Denmark, and I did the film with Chris Walken. A lot of people think it’s my first film, ’cause they came out at about the same time, but I shot that film right after Deliverance.
RoboCop (1987)—“Dick Jones”
RC: In lots of ways, Dick Jones was as big a boon to my career as Deliverance was, because from Deliverance on, since I did play the moral nice guy, I got almost typecast as playing the sweet, nice next-door-neighbor guys. And it wasn’t ’til RoboCop, when I got to play a really nasty, mean villain, that all of a sudden my career took another huge leap and I got to play all these bad guys. And I’ve got to tell you the truth: Playing the bad guys is about a gazillion times more fun than playing the good guys. [Laughs.]
Total Recall (1990)—“Vilos Cohaagen”
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1992)—“Captain Edward Jellico”
Stargate SG-1 (1998-2005)—“Robert Kinsey”
RC: Vilos Cohaagen, dictator of Mars! One of the things I’m fond of saying is that… I did that with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I don’t want to give away too many secrets, but I taught Arnold everything he knew about governing in that movie. [Laughs.]
AVC: Have you enjoyed the experience of doing these big-budget science-fiction blockbusters?
RC: Yeah, but I like it all. You know, I did nine seasons on Stargate as Senator Kinsey, and I did a couple of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In fact, I’m a trivia question: I’m one of the few who’s actually done a captain’s log on Star Trek. I also have some relatives who think that’s the only thing of any worth I’ve ever done. [Laughs.]
The Onion Field (1979)—“Detective Sgt. Pierce R. Brooks”
Taps (1981)—“Colonel Kerby”
Murder At 1600 (1997)—“President Jack Neil”
The Agency (2001-2002)—“Director Alex Pierce”
AVC: You’ve had the opportunity to play the president more than a few times in your career.
RC: Oh, yeah. I think I’ve played the president about five times now, probably most notably in Murder At 1600. I’ve generally played these people who are heads of authority. Dictator of Mars, second richest man in the world… I played the head of the National Guard in Taps. In The Onion Field, I was the head homicide cop. I’ve even played the head of the FBI! So I’m generally known as these men of authority wearing suits and ties—which is why, when I’m out there playing folk music, people can’t quite reconcile seeing me with a guitar around my neck. [Laughs.]
Bound For Glory (1976)—“Ozark Bule”
RC: There is, however, at least one role out there where I did get to be associated with a guitar, and that was Bound For Glory, the Woody Guthrie film.
AVC: Were you a Guthrie fan prior to that film?
RC: Oh yeah. I grew up in New Mexico, and I… Well, actually, I didn’t even know those songs as Woody Guthrie songs when I was growing up. They were just the songs I grew up with. I didn’t ascribe any writership to them. [Laughs.] I just thought of them as the songs I knew from my childhood.
St. Elsewhere (1987-1988)—“Dr. John Gideon”
RC: Oh yeah, I had a great time on that show. I was the head of the hospital for the last year, and that was a really interesting time. I loved St. Elsewhere. What good, interesting, thought-provoking television.
AVC: What memories did you take away from the experience, aside from Ed Flanders’ ass?
RC: [Laughs.] Ah yes, when he mooned me. Well, it was just one of those shows where it was fun to go to work every day. Because you knew the writing was going to be great. The joy of doing films and television has always worked around how good and how interesting the writing was.
Cop Rock (1990)—“Chief Roger Kendrick”
RC: I’ll tell you one I’ll bet you aren’t going to ask me about, but it was one of my absolute favorites. It was a miserable failure, but I did a series called Cop Rock.
AVC: More people asked me to ask you about Cop Rock than any other project you were a part of.
RC: [Laughs.] Are you kidding me? Well, I’ll tell you, I had more fun doing that show than any other show. That’s the only time in my 40-year career that I went to work every day, whether I was called or not. Even if I wasn’t called that day, I still went in and watched them shoot. My God, we just had so much fun. The learning curve on that went straight up. I think Glee owes all of its success to Cop Rock!
AVC: Steven Bochco unabashedly views it as his favorite project that didn’t get the love it deserved.
RC: And so do I. I had more fun playing the chief of police on that show than you can even imagine.
AVC: Do you have a favorite number?
RC: Yeah, my favorite number in that whole thing was when Carl Anderson and Louis Price, the former lead singer of the Temptations—they had that song that goes, “He’s guilty, judge, he’s guilty…” All of a sudden, they cut over, and the jury’s in choir robes. Oh God, that’s just as good as it gets. [Laughs.]
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)/Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)—“Andrew Bogomil”
Imagine That (2009)—“Tom Stevens”
Mr. Sunshine (2011)—“Mike Walsh”
RC: It’s always great being in a film that you know is gonna make a gazillion dollars, and we all knew going in that Beverly Hills Cop was going to be a big hit film.
AVC: You got sidelined somewhat for the second one, though.
RC: I did. He was sort of the raison d’être for having the second one: Andrew Bogomil gets shot, so Axel Foley comes out to help solve that crime. He’s chief of police in that one. They wanted me to be in Beverly Hills Cop III, but… I read the script. [Laughs.]
AVC: How was it working with Eddie Murphy, given that he’s such a notorious improviser?
RC: He was great. I’ve done three films with Eddie, actually. I did Cop 1 and 2, and then I did a little children’s film—well, a young person’s film—maybe four or five years ago called Imagine That. But I love working with Eddie. He is a notorious improviser, and one of the biggest problems for a fellow actor on the set is not breaking up and spoiling the soundtrack when they’re shooting on him, because he really is just so funny, and comes up with some of the most… The thing I love about art, especially comedy, is surprise. And Eddie always surprises you.
AVC: Speaking of reunions, you also did an episode of Mr. Sunshine with John Ashton.
RC: Yeah, but that was a real quick-turn for both of us. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was that a case where they just wanted to reteam you for the fun of it?
RC: No, in fact, when John and I saw each other, we were like, “Holy crap, here we are together again,” but I’m not even sure they realized until we both showed up!
Captain America (1990)—“Tom Kimball”
RC: We all know it wasn’t a very good film, but I will tell you this: Captain America remains to this day maybe the finest script I have ever read. Stephen Tolkin wrote the script, and it was a brilliant, and I mean brilliant script. Funny, naïve… It captured that whole sort of World War II naïveté, the innocence, as well as what it’s like to be a superhero. And it had a good cast. Ned Beatty was in it, Melinda Dillon was in it, Darren McGavin was in it. It had really good people involved with it. It was a fine budget. We shot it in Yugoslavia, in L.A., in Alaska, in Canada. All I can say, and I won’t cast any aspersions on the director, but he obviously didn’t understand what it was. He was more fascinated with the Red Skull than he was with Captain America, and it took that film two years just to go to video. [Laughs.] But I’m telling you the truth: The script was brilliant.
Spencer (1984-1985)—“George Winger”
RC: Mmm. Spencer, yeah, that was a thing I sort of got talked into doing, got cajoled into doing under false pretenses. Chad [Lowe] and I got along really great, but I got on there and realized they just wanted me on there to be a glorified extra. And I wasn’t interested in doing that, so I left the show. In fact, I actually left the show rather rancorously. It wasn’t a very good or happy experience for me.
Tell Me You Love Me (2007)—“John”
The Starter Wife (2008)—“Pappy McAllister”
RC: Tell Me You Love Me was an incredible thing. That’s about as close to X as you’re ever gonna see a television show be. [Laughs.] And Jane Alexander and I had been friends, and had worked together on the stage back in the days when Ned Beatty and I were there, and Janie and I had done a couple of other things together as well. We’d done a television film called Lovey: A Circle Of Children together, and we’d stayed friends through the years, so I really enjoyed working with her. That and The Starter Wife were edgy sorts of shows.
Dexter (2011)—“Walter Kenney”
RC: Boy, did I have a great time playing that! Here’s a guy that has no redeeming qualities. I was just playing at the Kerrville Folk Festival, because I play a lot of folk music nowadays, and I’m walking along, and this lady came up to me, and she was almost in tears as she said, “Mr. Cox, I just saw you in your tighty whities!” [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you enjoy the opportunity to do these occasional one-off roles on TV series?
RC: Yeah, that’s about all I’ll do anymore, because I spend most of my time playing music. I don’t really want to do a movie or a long-running series anymore. I do something like 100 or 125 shows a year nowadays, and I love doing those. So if something like Dexter comes along and it’s something I can really have fun with… Otherwise, I’m just not interested in working a whole lot anymore. I probably turn down 90 percent of the stuff I’m offered. It’s really got to be something I really want to do and something I think I can have a lot of fun with, or else I’m going to go with the big bucks that folk music brings in. [Laughs.] There are just dozens of dollars to be made in folk music!
Apple’s Way (1974-1975)—“George Apple”
RC: That was the role that brought me out to California. I was still living in New York after we did Deliverance. That was my first television series, and I liked playing that character. It basically was a modern-day Waltons. John Boy was Earl Hamner as a young boy and young man, and George Apple was Earl Hamner as a grown man. Earl Hamner was a brilliant, brilliant writer, and I liked playing that character a lot.
AVC: Did you enjoy the regularity of a weekly series?
RC: I did. [Hesitates.] I’ll tell you the truth: I’ve been in this business for a little over 40 years now, and either as an actor or a musician, I have never had a single day that I’ve dreaded going to work. I love acting, and I love playing music. How lucky is it that I get paid—sometimes pretty good—to go and do what I love to do and what I would do for free?