RoboCop exploded onto movie screens on July 17, 1987, or 35 years ago last week, and Deliverance roared into theaters on July 30, 1972, or 50 years ago later this month. The two films share a common denominator in Ronny Cox, one of America’s most enduring character actors.
Cox made his acting debut in Deliverance, John Boorman’s pulse-pounding action-drama about a quartet of big-city men (Cox, Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, and Ned Beatty) who venture into backwoods Georgia for a canoeing expedition that turns deadly when they’re attacked by a group of local hillbillies. In his early 30s at the time, Cox was sublime as the low-key, guitar-strumming Drew Ballinger.
Twelve years later for RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven’s blood-soaked sci-fi black-comedy about a nearly dead cop (Peter Weller) resurrected as a cyborg, Cox not only played against type but chewed the scenery as Dick Jones, whose homicidal ambitions to take over OCP put him in RoboCop’s crosshairs. Cox figures into several of the movie’s best bits, including showdowns with both RoboCop and his creator, Bob Morton (a terrific Miguel Ferrer), as well as a death scene for the ages.
Cox has more than 140 film and television credits, including The Car, the first two Beverly Hills Cop comedies, Total Recall (where he also played a villain), Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dexter, Nashville, and, most recently, Being the Ricardos. While Cox, who turned 84 on July 23, still acts occasionally, he has focused more on recording music and touring since the death of his wife Mary in 2006. The A.V. Club recently caught up with the folksy and candid Cox for an exclusive interview via phone from his home in California. For an hour, he looked back at Deliverance and RoboCop, revealed a fondness for anonymity, and admitted that he’s occasionally done “crap,” but “not on purpose.”
The A.V. Club: When people recognize you on the street, what shows or movies do they want to discuss?
Ronny Cox: It doesn’t happen that way with me, ever. I can’t really explain it, but people almost never recognize me as an actor. They just think they know me. People are always coming up and saying, “You’re from Des Moines, Iowa, aren’t you? Because I’m from Des Moines.” I say, “No, I’m an actor. You’ve seen me in movies and on television.” They tell me, “No, I never saw you in a movie. There’s a guy that looks exactly like you in Des Moines...”
AVC: Which is crazier to you, Deliverance celebrating its 50th anniversary or RoboCop celebrating its 35th anniversary?
RC: What’s so funny about those two films is that they are, in a way, intertwined in my mind. Deliverance was my big breakout, but in many ways, RoboCop was as big a boon to my career. In Deliverance, Drew is the sensitive one. In those days, if you played a guy with any sensitivity—which I loved doing—you were known as a soft actor. If any role had any guts or balls, I didn’t get it because I was Mr. Boy Scout Nice Guy. For those 15 years until RoboCop, I was chasing it. I’m an athlete. I did my own stunts in Deliverance. It bothered me that I was never given good roles that had any guts. Oddly enough, when I met with Paul Verhoeven, who’s brilliant in a lot of ways, we talked about this a bit. One of the reasons he wanted to cast me as Dick Jones is because of the residual goodwill my persona had with actors and the public. After 15 years of Deliverance and playing Mr. Nice Guy, when Dick Jones comes on the screen you think, “Oh, here’s a nice guy.” When he’s not a nice guy, that makes him twice as evil.
AVC: Deliverance marked your first time in front of a camera. Most people don’t realize it was Ned Beatty’s first film, too…
RC: And we were cast totally independently of each other. They didn’t know we’d already been best friends for six or seven years and had done plays together. John Boorman was adamant about wanting to do the film with … not unknown actors, but actors that weren’t that well known. Every actor in the world wanted one of those four roles. In those days, if you had a big name wanting to do a film, you had to pay attention to him. John had to fight that off. I was actually the first actor they found. I was in New York. I’d done a play for Joe Papp at the Public Theater. When (casting director) Lynn Stalmaster and those people from Hollywood came out there, they went to Papp’s office and asked if there was an actor he’d recommend. He recommended they see me. I met with Boorman. Eventually, they flew me and 14 or 15 others out to California and tested us for the four roles. Out of that 14 or 15, I was the only one they liked. A couple of weeks later, they were testing in New York and found Ned.
This was probably the first time in the history of Hollywood that they found the two guys below the title before they found the two guys above the title. Ned and I waited another three or four weeks until they decided on Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight. It sounds cliché, but it was life-changing for me. My wife Mary was a Ph.D. chemist from Georgetown and then had a four-year post-doc with Sloan Kettering in New York, doing cancer research. I was a struggling New York actor and a stay-at-home dad a lot of the time. When I got Deliverance, I’d never made more than $6,000 in one year. It changed our lives drastically because Mary and I had two small boys, too.
AVC: How satisfied were you with your performance in Deliverance? Were you ready? Were you scared? And how was that reflected in your performance?
RC: I had absolute trust in John Boorman. He came to me early on. I knew nothing about filmmaking, but John said, “You just play Drew and I’ll take care of everything else.” He made me come with him and watch dailies. He’d say, “See that? I won’t use that,” or “That’s good.” I’ve seen people have different reactions to seeing themselves. Burt hated to see himself on film. He cringed every time because, to him, there’s always something wrong with his performance. I’ve seen other guys who, when they see their performance, pump themselves up. “Look how good I am!” Neither of those applies to me. I had such trust in John that it was almost like watching someone else play that character. If he said it was good, that was good enough for me. So, I am very uncritical of my work. I just try to be honest and truthful. I don’t get pumped up by seeing myself perform, nor do I get depressed seeing myself perform.
AVC: The guitar-playing is a huge part of the movie. Some of that was you, and some of it wasn’t. You still play guitar today. Break down for us how Boorman utilized your skills.
RC: It was instrumental—pun intended—in my getting the film. When they tested me, John had me have the guitar with me, and the fact that I was at home with it in my hands meant a great deal to him. I have to tell you the truth. I play what I play, but I play a sort of five-finger, picky style, which is strumming and percussive. I’m not a bluegrass picker at all. John actually wanted me to play the piece because he loved the idea that this savant kid showed up this total amateur, but it was a hard piece. The kid, Billy Redden, couldn’t play. It’s not even his left hand. There aren’t real strings on the banjo. There’s a kid with a wardrobe shirt on kneeling down behind him. Eric Weisberg and Steve Mandell played the piece, but John wanted to be able to cut to somebody’s fingers, playing the right notes. Steve Mandell taught it to me note for note, and I spent that whole weekend before we shot the scene going over that. If you look at the film, anytime they cut to my fingers, I’m playing the exact right notes. We were matching a playback. They pre-recorded it and when they got ready to shoot, they’d slide the camera and start the film. Did I play it? Yes. Is that me on the soundtrack? No. Did it cost me about a million dollars? Yeah.
AVC: OK, the other million-dollar question ... Was Drew shot?
RC: You tell me. John said, “Ronny, you can make up your mind. He can either be shot or not shot, but make sure you make it ambiguous.” That’s the dilemma. What if they went up there and shot an innocent man? What if they spent the time burying that guy and went up there to shoot an innocent man? That’s the moral dilemma for everybody and, in many ways, that’s where “deliverance” comes from. My own personal feelings are that he was not shot. If you notice when Ned’s character Bobby comes in, they look and say, “Was he shot?” There were no bullet wounds anywhere on his head. All we’ve got is Burt’s character saying he was shot.
AVC: How did you get on with Ned, Burt, and Jon?
RC: Ned and I, we were best friends then and would remain best friends until his death. Ned was maybe my closest friend in the film business. Burt was the most helpful guy because he knew that Ned and I knew nothing about filmmaking. He was a prankster and stuff like that, but he was just the greatest guy in the world. Jon Voight’s an idiot. So, what can I tell you?
AVC: Let’s switch to RoboCop. How was that pitched to you?
RC: It was a joke in a way. I’ve got to tell you the truth. On paper, it wasn’t that good. The only reason I jumped at it was it was a chance to play a bad guy. My agents told me, “There’s this film, RoboCop.” I met with Paul Verhoeven and I realized his vision of it. Everything that’s brilliant and wonderful about that film is Paul. He’s the one that made us care. He put the humor in there. All that humor, the social satire, was not written in there.
AVC: Some actors don’t see their bad-guy characters as villains, but rather as characters doing whatever they must do to get where they aim to be. What was your take on Dick Jones?
RC: They never think they’re bad. One of my favorite villains ever was the Tooth Fairy, who I played on Dexter. Now, there was a fun character. Bad guys are always a gazillion times more fun to play than good guys because I try to be a good person every day of my life, and that’s boring for a character. Good guys always do the right thing. Sometimes, they go down the wrong path for a while, but they always end up doing the right thing. Whereas the bad guys … I liken it to painting. Good guys get three colors: red, white, and blue. Bad guy gets the whole palette. I love playing as far away from me as possible.
AVC: The Robocop bathroom scene with Miguel Ferrer is a classic, from how it’s shot to your delivery of Dick’s line, “You fucked with the wrong guy.”
RC: I’ve got to tell you the truth about that. Miguel adamantly did not want me to grab his hair and say that line to him. He came to me and said, “Ronny, don’t do that. If you do that, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. Don’t you dare do that.” I said, “Miguel, you’re an actor. I’m an actor. This sets us both up.” After a lot of stuff, I ended up doing it. To Miguel’s credit, after we did the film, he came to me and said, “Ronny, you were totally right doing that.” It did set both our characters in exactly the right place we wanted to go. RoboCop was a fairly low-budget film for that time, with all the special effects. On two or three separate occasions, the studio was thinking about pulling the plug. They went to the producers and said, “Cut together a scene we can show the investors,” and that’s the scene they cut together. In some ways, it was responsible for getting additional money for the film.
AVC: As insane as your death scene was, my understanding is you felt it might have been even better. How so?
RC: My death scene could’ve been the most spectacular thing you’ve ever seen. Their idea was I was going out of this 40-story window. They built a model of that building. They were going to have Dick Jones coming out and the camera was about 20 stories down. They’d film him as he’s flailing, and he falls into a closeup at the camera, screaming. Then they flip the camera and follow him all the way down to the pavement before he thuds. Now, for that shot, they actually made a little three-foot dummy that looked exactly like me, with the three-piece suit and everything. It was creepy. He falls into that closeup and then they go on down. When they tried, it just didn’t work. Since it didn’t work, they gave me that dummy. For years, I had that little dummy in my house. I’m so angry at myself for not having it encased in plastic or something because eventually the latex and rubber deteriorated. We finally had to throw it out. I’d give anything to still have that little dummy.
AVC: There was talk a few years ago of a RoboCop TV prequel focused on Dick Jones, when he was younger and in Detroit…
RC: I had no idea. When they were going to do RoboCop 2, they called me. “Ronny, we’re gonna do RoboCop 2. Are you interested?” I said, “Didn’t you see RoboCop? I got shot out of a 40-story window.” They said, “No, we fixed up RoboCop. How would you like to be a Robo-villain?”
AVC: To which you replied?
RC: I have a standard line about sequels. I hate sequels, or prequels. It’s like putting on a wet bathing suit. I was in Beverly Hills Cop 2, but not RoboCop 2. I did Beverly Hills Cop 2 because Bogomil (Cox) was the reason Eddie’s character came back. They offered me Beverly Hills Cop 3, but I turned that down. I understand they’re doing Beverly Hills Cop 4! They’ve got no shot of getting me.
AVC: If we could magically make a film or two in your filmography as popular as Deliverance and Robocop, what would they be?
RC: There are several. I like Murder at 1600 and Beverly Hills Cop.
AVC: Beverly Hills Cop did pretty well…
RC: I hate to be bragging too much, but there was a time there where I was in every film made. There was a period between the early/middle ’80s and late ’90s where they used to keep track of the top actors in the world. This sounds self-aggrandizing, but they kept track of the top 100 actors, and the way they kept score was with the actors who’d been in the movies that made the most money. I was number 49 out of 100. I did a lot of stuff. I loved nearly everything. That’s not to say I don’t do crap. I do crap. I just don’t do it on purpose.
AVC: You and your wife Mary were high school sweethearts and married for 46 years. Since her passing, you’ve seemingly spent more time recording music and touring than acting. In what ways does music fulfill you that acting does not?
RC: I love acting, but I don’t love it quite as much as music. Whether it’s movies, television shows, plays, there is and must be that imaginary fourth wall between you and the audience. You can’t step through the lens and talk to them. Even on stage, you can talk, but you have to stay within the character’s confines. Now, I’m a storyteller as well as a performer, and with music, with the kind of show I do, there’s the possibility of a profound one-on-one sharing. I don’t like to play huge places because I want there to be 300, 400, or 500 people. I’m with the audience as soon as the doors open. I’ll have had a conversation with everybody in the audience before the show starts. That allows the possibility of a shared evening. That’s an opiate that is undeniable.
AVC: How open are you to acting again if someone offers you a juicy role?
RC: It’d have to be something I really wanted to do. I’m still open to anything.
AVC: We started by talking about people recognizing you and you said people think they know you, but not as an actor. Does your ego want to be recognized, or do you prefer anonymity?
RC: Here’s the thing. I delight in playing a character, and they know there’s something familiar about me, but they think I’m their next-door neighbor or something. I was in LaGuardia Airport waiting for my luggage at the carousel, and this lady kept looking at me. Finally, she stood in front of me and put her hands on her hips. She said, “Aren’t you going to speak to me?” I said, “Forgive me. I’m sorry. Hi, how are you?” She said, “You’ve just been my gynecologist for 14 years!”