Ronny Cox has his acting career right where he wants it: He’ll listen to any offer, provided the film or TV shoot doesn’t interfere with his first love: playing music.
Cox, who vaulted to fame as the guitar-playing suburbanite in the adventure movie “Deliverance” with Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight, was a musician before he was an actor, and he’s never stopped playing and performing music.
Cox, now 73, has been on tour, and he was driving to Vermont for a house concert when we caught up with him by phone. If you want to get a jolt, consider the fact that next year marks the 40th anniversary of “Deliverance,” which was based on James Dickey’s classic Southern Gothic/adventure novel about four callow suburban guys seeking adventure by shooting the rapids on an isolated Deep South river. But all these years later, Cox is not reluctant to talk about his first film. In fact, he’s already got 2012 dates lined up where he’ll be reminiscing about making it.
“I’ve just completed a book on my memories of the making of ‘Deliverance,’” said Cox. “We are editing it now, for release next year, and there are plenty of stories. Out of all the films I’ve done (125 film and TV movies by one count), more people want to talk to me about ‘Deliverance’ than anything else. There is a lot of stuff out there about the way the film was made, and most of it is false. So, my book will be a storytelling book about the way it really was, and believe me, I can remember it like it was yesterday.”
The unforgettable musical moment of that movie is the impromptu jam between Cox and a hillbilly musician, which became a hit instrumental as “Duelling Banjos.” Banjo virtuoso Eric Weissburg played the part mimed by the nameless hillbilly, but Cox was able to hold his own on guitar.
“Everybody likes to ask me to do that in concert, but I never do it,” Cox said, laughing. “That’s my one non-concession.”
Cox called making the movie a “double-edged sword.” It gained him fame, but many people think of him as an actor before musician.
“They think I couldn’t possibly be a serious musician. Obviously, there have been some moonlighting actors who, frankly, were pretty bad musicians, so I have to live that image down. But it is really the easiest thing to turn around –– all you have to do is sit down and play, and people can figure out pretty quickly that you’re a professional musician.”
“Deliverance” was Cox’ first film, and he got the role in large part because he could play a mean guitar. His second film was another watershed, Hal Ashby’s “Bound for Glory,” the biography of Woody Guthrie (played by David Carradine). Cox played a character named Ozark Bule, essentially Guthrie’s best friend.
“Back then, there was about a 10-year stretch where Hal had the best film of the year, every year, and very many people –– me included –– feel he is the best director they ever worked with,” Cox said.
Was there much off-camera jamming on that 1976 movie set, with Carradine and Cox and the many supporting musicians?
“Absolutely, we were jamming all the time, every chance we got,” said Cox. “Remember that movie had an original score by Leonard Rosenman, based on Woody’s music, and we had musicians on the soundtrack like Johnny Hartford, The Dillards, Byron Berline and so on. We sat around for days on end playing music to use in the movie. I worked a total of 10 months on that movie and loved every minute of it.”
As the years went on and his acting career blossomed with roles in movies like “Total Recall,” “Robocop” and “Beverly Hills Cop” and its sequel, Cox kept his music on the back burner. Gradually it began coming to the fore, despite lots of TV work on shows like “St. Elsewhere,” “Stargate,” “Cop Rock” and even “Desperate Housewives.”
He finally made his recording debut with a self-titled album in 1993. In 2007, he released an album of tunes from country songwriter Mickey Newbury, “How I Love Them Old Songs.”
Cox had known his wife, Mary, since he was 14. They were married for 46 years and had two sons. She died in 2006. Part of the way he’s dealt with that loss has been to dedicate himself more fully to his music. Cox’ sixth studio album –– he also has released two live albums –– was “Ronny Cox: Songs with Repercussions,” released in 2009 and includes three original tunes along with his other favorites.
“Over the past 20 to 25 years, most of my success in acting has come in playing bad guys, authority figures, business guys in suits and ties,” Cox noted. “Now, when people see me in a shirt with jeans and a guitar, it kind of messes with their minds. I’ve had a great career as an actor –– I’m not rich, but if I’m prudent, I’m probably pretty well set. Since I lost my wife 4 1/2 years ago, the most pleasure I get now is from making music.”