An Actor from New Mexico (My Improbable Journey) by Ronny Cox

Portales, NM  where I grew up in the fifties and sixties, was only nineteen miles South of Clovis, and Clovis was a hotbed of recording in those days.  Norman Petty was recording Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, The Fireballs, Jimmy Bowen and Buddy Knox, Charlie Phillips… and the list goes on and on.  “Sugar Shack” came out of there, as did “Bottle of Wine” and “Sugartime”. I had a rock n roll band back in those days… Ron’s Rock-Outs. The Rock-Outs never got to record at Norman Petty’s Studio, but Norman saw a singing group I was in at an “exchange assembly” at Clovis High School and hired us to sing back-up vocals on Hope Griffith’s record, “Only Once in a While”.  She was a young rising star from Lubbock.

Three of us in the Rock-Outs were brothers.  My older brother Rick, was our bass player… *(by the way, after I left Portales Rick joined another band, The Chandelles, and they recorded the surf guitar legend…“El Gato”)*.  My younger brother, Mike was our lead guitarist. Thirteen years old and he was easily the best musician of us all. Our drummer was Bob Kinsey and our bongo player, (yes, what’s a band without a bongo player), was Pat Hunt.  We won the “Battle of the Bands” at the Tower Theater and got our very first fans… Tillie and Ollie, two young girls who, from that moment on, attended all our shows. (Not that there were that many). When you live in a community that frowns on dancing, especially to the sinful beat of rock n roll,  we ended up rehearsing a lot more than we actually performed. But it got me through High School and College.

Eventually, I graduated from ENMU and Mary and I moved to D.C…. Mary, working on her Ph.D. at Georgetown and I started my career in theatre.  By this time, I had discovered folk music and had found a couple of places to play in Washington D.C. There was a club on Capitol Hill called Mr. Henry’s and he had two music rooms.  Very few people know this, but Roberta Flack and I played there. She was KILLING in the big room upstairs. Five-part harmonies, incredible band… AMAZING! Mr. Henry’s also had a much smaller room downstairs with a small stage and enough room for a chair, a mic, my guitar and me.  I played there on the “dark nights” at Arena Stage.

I believe I was the only “folk singer” at President Johnson’s, First (and only) White House Festival of the Arts in 1965. If you recall that’s when the poet Lowell refused to attend because of our involvement in the Viet Nam War. Arena Stage was doing Millard Lampell’s play, “Hard Travelin” and I was playing a fictional Woody Guthrie character.  I sang one of the songs from the play. In my first Broadway show, “Indians”, I picked and sang a song in the saloon scene. I was cast as Drew in Deliverance partly because I could play the guitar. In my first TV series, ”Apples Way”, I picked and sang a song every week.  So early in my career people knew I was an actor from New Mexico who also played music. But then, all those authority figures I played made people forget. Now I was a cop or the president, or a military colonel, or a serial killer, or the corrupt head of OCP, or the dictator of Mars.  And it made heads explode in disbelief when someone saw me with a guitar in my hand.

In the early ‘90s, I longed to have music be more of a factor in my life.  I’ve done eleven albums since then. I look for opportunities in film and TV for me to combine music with acting. 

I won’t let any movie or tv show interfere with any folk music gig I already have booked.  I know a lot of actors who also play music have an escape clause in case a big movie comes along…. I DON’T. The possibility of the one on one sharing with an audience is an opiate that is extremely compelling to me. 

Which brings us to now… I’m being inducted into the New Mexico Music Hall of Fame on Nov. 2.  I haven’t a clue why this came about. I have achieved very little of note in music. Oh, sure… “Dueling Banjos” is an incredible song in a truly iconic film, but all I did was “match the playback”… the guitar player on the recording, Steve Mandell, taught me the song, note for note because John Boorman wanted to be able to cut to fingers playing the right notes. (Billy Redden… the banjo boy couldn’t do that… it’s not even his left hand on film) So did I play it… yes… is that me on the soundtrack… no…. did it cost me a million dollars… yes!!! Oh, and my song “Bus to Baltimore” won the Round Glass Music Award for Best American Roots Song in 2018.

Anyway…. I’m coming to New Mexico the first week in November and my friend Jaime Michaels has agreed to induct me.  I’d like to invite all my friends to come out and say hello… Getting to visit ahead of time is half the fun for me.  I’m gonna put up a map I’ve drawn… start at 1 and go through 10… those are also the dates in Nov.  

For more information: https://www.ronnycox.com/shows/

I love smart and smart-alecky women. I know, I know… they can be a challenge. I was married to one for lots of years. I think most men are intimidated being around really intelligent women, so they feel a need to celebrate their boorish bubba-isms. Mary, was the smartest person I have ever known, and some people think I’m sharp enough, but I couldn’t hold a candle to her. So, if you couple her intelligence with smart-alecky wit, then you have a whole bunch of stuff to deal with. And…now that Mary is gone, if you know anything about my relationship with Catherine, (my granddaughter), then you know that I still have my hands full with a smart and smart-alecky young woman.

Several years ago, I was writing a song about this guy who was clueless and he had finally “ripped it” and his woman had left him. It was gonna be based on an old jazz/blues bass pattern: a throwback to the tunes the big bands were playing in the 40′s and 50′s. The title was going to be, “Since My Baby Walked Out On Me”… and it was gonna be so cool, and jazzy, and bluesy and completely sophisticated. I didn’t exactly know how I was gonna pull that off … a guy from New Mexico (who grew up listening to old timey country music trying to write a big  band jazz type tune)… but what the hell? I worked on it for several months…. my problem was that I knew what I wanted it to sound like, but I’m a really limited guitar player and I didn’t have the vaguest idea of how to play the chords I was hearing in my head. So…. I spent a fair amount of time, painstakingly moving my fingers around the fretboard playing mystery chords that sounded like what I was hearing in my head.

As you all know, I’m a film buff and one night I was watching an old movie on TV, and one of my favorite actors, Walter Brennan said a line that just stopped me cold. He said…”Dadgummit”, and it just kept reverberating in my head. I said to myself, “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard dadgummit in a song”. So here I am… working on a jazzy, bluesy, big band song and it occurred to me that dadgummit was the perfect thing for the clueless guy I was writing about to say. The antithesis of the sophisticated, hip guy he thinks he is. I knew I had to try to work it into the song. So, I’m working on the tune and a week or so later I heard Cary Grant say: “peaches and cream”. Okay, that sealed it for me.. I vowed to work both of those disparate lines into the song. The title “Since My Baby Walked Out on Me” is now long gone… it’s called “Dadgummit”… don’t know why anyone would call it anything else.

The final irony is that there’s a scat section in the middle of the tune… I always intended to do the scatting myself, but I’ve been playing with Karen Mal for several years… I love her, she’s like a daughter to me and since the song celebrates a smart and smart-alecky woman… (and she is certainly that), it seems only right for her to do the scatting.

If you’d like to hear it… it’s on my “Ronny, Rad and Karen” CD

  1. Dadgummit Ronny Cox 2:51

In the spring of 1971, my life was about to change in the most unimaginable way in the world.

Mary and I were living in Rye, NY, with our two small boys, Brian and John, and Mary was in the second year of her postdoctoral fellowship with Sloan-Kettering. I had worked at Arena Stage, off-broadway and Shakespeare in the Park, but was basically a struggling actor, when one day I got a call to go into the city and meet with John Boorman about a film called Deliverance.

Lynn Stalmaster, who cast the picture told me that I was the first actor they saw in NY. Not because I was at the top of their list. I was at the bottom. They were going to start seeing people at 10 am… Lynn asked me to come in at 9, for a pre-meeting with him to determine if John Boorman should meet with me. John was anxious to do the film with some unknown actors, and god knows I was unknown.

Lynn gave me a copy of the screenplay and asked me to go away and come back in an hour. I had read the novel so I hastily read through the script and came back at 10 to meet with John Boorman, a wonderful little Irishman who was not only directing, but also producing the film. It sounds like such a cliche, but we really hit off, and during the course of the week, they called me back in a couple of times to meet with John. We read some scenes and talked about his feeling about the role of “Drew”, but he also wanted my “take” on the character too.

In those days, preliminary meetings were scheduled in ten or fifteen-minute intervals. One of the ways we young actors kept score about auditions was how long your meeting lasted. If you got the full fifteen minutes, that was a feather in your cap. Well…I spent almost a full hour with John and felt really good about his approval of my talent and of his fascination that I was, at least at home, with a guitar in my hands. And later that day, I got an excited phone call from my agent going on about how well my meeting had gone. He said that the film company had already determined that they wanted me to return for a follow-up meeting in a couple of days. I was being treated very differently than before by my agent. I admit it was really good for my ego.

A couple of weeks later, they flew me and ten or twelve other actors out to the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank to test us for the four leading characters. I think there were eighteen actors (total), that they tested that day. We did the scene where they are arguing about what to do about the dead rapist. Of the eighteen, I was the only actor they liked.. (*** caveat.. they actually liked Bill Mc Kinney((who ended up playing the rapist)).. he tested for Burt’s role), they just didn’t want him for one of FOUR principal roles.

A couple of weeks later, they were testing actors in NY and it was at that session that they found Ned Beatty. John Boorman had assured me that I was not being tested again at that session, but he asked me to come… so I was there for those tests too. The film people didn’t know it, but Ned and I had been friends for eight years and had done more than twenty plays together. Ned was actually a last-minute addition to the tests… Lynn Stalmaster had remembered Ned at the last moment and invited him to the screen-test. I had a friend in NY, Barton Heyman, who had met with John earlier in the week and John had said he wasn’t going to test anyone he was so taken with Barton… but when Ned showed up, out of courtesy to both Ned and Lynn, he sort of had to see Ned. Long story, short- Ned blew him away. It was sad for Barton but wonderful for us and the film that Ned got the role.

So… basically they had found Ned and me and we waited around for another couple of weeks while they were deciding who should play the other two roles. It might be the first time in the history of movies that they found the two guys below the title… before the two guys above the title.

I am a life-long “lefty” politically, so my evolution concerning the NRA, has come as a revelation. I suppose I fell into viewing members of the NRA as stereotypes… even though my brother, Rick, was an ardent member and so were most of the people I grew up with in New Mexico. It seemed as if there was a knee-jerk reaction to any suggestion that registration, or background checks or any other intrusion to their 2nd Amendment “rights” was not to be tolerated. To me… if you have to prove you are capable of driving a car, or show you’re conversant with the laws and safe driving habits, why you shouldn’t go through the same process with gun ownership. Sadly, I viewed the membership as a monolithic whole, rather than folks as diverse as any other segment of our population.

A couple of years ago, I was offered a gig… playing a concert for the NRA at their big Labor Day Weekend retreat on the thousands of acres just outside of Raton, NM. I took the job with no small amount of trepidation…. but it was in my native state… was a good paying gig… and I was touring the state anyway. When we arrived, we had to “permitted” into the vast compound by the guard at the gate. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was armed and fully loaded. We were shown to the concert venue… a low quonset hut, about a hundred feet wide, but was a couple of football fields long. Enough room for two picnic tables across, but then God knows how many rows deep. It was so far to the back that they had to put extra speakers halfway down the room. By the way, it was right next to the shooting range and the pop, pop, boom of gunfire echoed all around us during sound check. Between the stage and the audience there was a space of about 50 feet… for the gun displays and other NRA materials.

It felt like there was a moat between us and the audience… not exactly the ideal situation for my show where I try for as much intimacy as possible.

Before the show, the lady who booked us, gave me a briefing. Apparently, the year before, they had booked a country star (who happened also to be from New Mexico), and when I heard who it was, I was even more nervous about my show. He was a BIG star, and apparently his show had not gone very well. She warned us to.. 1. only play one set… 2. not longer than 35 or 40 minutes… 3. don’t be surprised if the audience starts leaving before the show is over.. 4. do not to expect an encore… 5. don’t expect
to sell CDs.

To make a long story, short… we played two hours… several encores… sold lots of CDs and they even came up to the stage to visit after the show. The lady hired us on the spot, to play the show the following year. Rad… one of my players, had an epiphany… he said…”Ronny, you could run for president, as a REPUBLICAN”!!!

Here’s what I discovered about those folks… and also about myself. We’re all grandparents, or brothers and sisters and parents. We all want what’s best for our country and for our fellow citizens. The vast majority of those folks, as opposed to Wayne Lapierre and the gun manufacturers, know our 2nd Amendment rights are not threatened by background checks, or by limiting the number of bullets you can have in an ammo clip or by restricting assault weapons…. they get it!!! That’s not to say, there aren’t crazies in the NRA… there are. But the majority of the folks I spoke with are decent, law abiding, reasonable people.

Years ago, I recorded a song, written by my son John. We recorded it in 2000… wow, almost 20 years ago. John’s political views are pretty much the same as mine. He wrote the song from the point of view of a vociferous NRA proponent whose unyielding view is that any law on guns is an affront to his rights. What I find interesting about this song is that… some people recognize the satire, while others see the song as the righteous truth!!! It is one of the few songs we play where people on either end of the political spectrum nod their head in agreement.

It’s on my Acoustic Eclectricity Album if you’d like to hear it.

  1. Judgement Day Ronny Cox 5:12

In 1981 I was offered a role in Some Kind of Hero, which starred Richard Pryor. He was a god as far as I’m concerned. Nobody ever made me laugh more or connected to my sense of humor as completely as Richard. And of all the actors I’ve ever worked with, Richard and Ned Beatty were my two closest friends.

Some Kind of Hero was Richard’s first film after a horrifying accident in June 1980 when he suffered serious burns. High out of his head, he had somehow managed to set himself on fire. He was rushed to Sherman Oaks Hospital and doctors didn’t expect him to live, but somehow miraculously he survived.

Richard was, obviously, in a very vulnerable state when we were making Some Kind of Hero. He confided in me that he was really nervous about doing the film, mainly because it was taking him out of his comfort zone as an actor. It didn’t have a lot of comedy for him to fall back on.

I’m a little sheepish in confessing this: Richard’s view of my work was embarrassing to me. It sounds egotistical and I really don’t want to come across as bigheaded, but Richard told me he admired my work so much that he was nervous about being in a film with me! I still can’t get my head around that… here’s Richard Pryor, a huge star and he’s nervous about being in a film with me?

During filming, the producer, Howard Koch, and director, Michael Pressman became aware that in Richard’s fragile state, he was more relaxed and focused if I was on the set and the two of us were palling around. So, they arbitrarily arranged to write me into a couple of scenes to have me on the set more often. (In the beginning of the film, when Richard’s character is in a prisoner of war camp in Vietnam… if you look closely you might be able to make out that I’m in that scene as one of the extras).

We also did something that I’m not sure had ever happened before… You see, if there’s a telephone scene in a movie, they film the conversation as if they were two separate scenes. You film one end of the conversation, with the other actor on the other end of the line speaking from just off the set. Occasionally the actor on the other end of the conversation is not available for the “off-camera” dialogue, in which case the script supervisor reads the off-camera lines. I’m not trying to be mean, but acting opposite a script supervisor is challenging at best. Well… after we had completed my half of a phone scene with Richard, my character was wrapped on the film, but this was before they were ready to film the other side. (In fact, I was already in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania shooting Taps with Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, and George C. Scott). Neither of us wanted him to play his phone conversation to the script supervisor, so Richard and I stayed in touch and we arranged for me to be available on the day they were gonna shoot Richard’s half of the conversation. The production company in LA called me at Valley Forge Military Academy and he and I played the scene over the phone. Between takes, we visited with each other and then when they slated the camera for a new take, and the assistant director called “action”… we would slip back into our characters.

On the call sheet, in big bold letters, of just about every film or tv show I’ve been involved with is the admonition: “NO FORCED CALLS”. For those who don’t know what that means, here’s a quick explanation: when you’re shooting a movie, union rules dictate that you must have a 12-hour turnaround before they’re allowed to call you back to work. Let’s say they wrap you at 9 pm… they can’t call you before 9 am the next morning. And…if you don’t get those 12 hours, then you are on “forced call” and you come back at an immediate overtime salary… it’s as though you had never gone home. It can cost the company a LOT OF MONEY! It’s a hard and fast rule because it can ruin a movie’s budget.

One night, Richard and I were shooting a scene with just the two of us, and we were scheduled for scenes in the same location the following morning. We shot until about 10 pm and when we wrapped the production manager came to us and said they wanted to start with us the next day. He explained that our scenes were all they had to shoot at this location. He asked Richard, “Would you be willing to waive the ‘forced call’…” Richard took me aside and said “I’ll do it for $500… how about you?” I said, “Okay.”

The next morning, when we arrived back on the set, Richard took me aside and said… “Let’s have some fun”… and then he went up to the production manager and said,…”OK, Where’s my $500?”

“Richard, since we shot so late last night we haven’t had time to get the money! As soon as the banks open, we’ll get your money.”

“Uh-uh. I’m not working ‘til I get my money.”

Needless to say, he was dumbfounded and he scrambled around… ended up taking up a collection from the crew. I had to fight to keep a straight face as he frantically tried to rustle up the cash. When the production manager came to me with a pleading look, I quickly agreed that they could pay me when the banks opened. Later, Richard teased me unmercifully for my cowardice!

It’s not uncommon in the film business for actors to forge strong bonds on the set. And then we drift apart once the film is finished. Several years after we worked together I was at a screening in Hollywood. As I was walking down the aisle, I heard a gentle voice call my name. It was an incredibly emotional moment for me. He was very frail at the time.

I was a theatre major at ENMU and in the summer of 1960, I landed my first professional job. There was a tourist town in Colorado, near the Royal Gorge: Buckskin Joe… it was laid out like one of those old western towns and we did gunfights in the street during the day and at night we presented Melodramas, with a vaudeville olio after the play. I made $20 a week and room and board. I worked there 4 summers.

My first job at an “Equity Theatre” (Equity is the stage actors’ union) was at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. I started out as a production intern, then became an assistant stage manager and on occasion, I got to play a small role. It’s hard to make good where you start out, for some reason they always see you as that kid from NM with a southwestern drawl…. not exactly the midAtlantic accent that “stage actors” were expected to have. So, in the six years Mary and I were in DC, I almost never landed a good role in the plays. I did learn my craft there, though… I would cast myself in the part I thought I should have and I’d go home and work on it. I would studiously watch rehearsals… locked onto every nuance and gesture from the guy THEY had cast. Sometimes he was really good and I would work his ideas in my interpretation… but sometimes, I had a better handle on the character than he did. (Even then, my ego knew no bounds). It wasn’t until I got to NY that anyone of note took an interest in my talent. It was Joseph Papp… Mister NY Theatre… but that’s a story for another time.

In the 1960s The Ford Foundation awarded Fellowships to famous writers outside the theatre, in hopes of kindling an interest for them to write a play. Our Playwright in Residence for 1963-64 was Shelby Foote, the great Civil War novelist and historian. Shelby was an incredible human being as well as being, for my money, the great writer of the Civil War. He arose at 4 am and wrote until 8 am… every day, without fail. He also had a really quirky approach to writing. He wrote his books at a stand-up desk with a dipped pen. He gave a talk about that one day. He said that he had tried typing his manuscripts (this is obviously before computers and word processors), but he said it just didn’t work for him. He said that his thinking process depended on the dipping, blotting, and care in keeping the page he was working on “neat”. He also said that this particular ritual helped keep him mindful of the historical period he was chronicling. He said he wished there was a more convenient way, but nothing else worked for him. It was always fascinating hanging out with Shelby and listening to his stories.

One day Shelby came to me and said, “Ronny, I know you really love music… we’re having a party at my house tonight and a singer from my home state is going to play… you might want to come”. I showed up, not having the vaguest idea of who might be playing. And when he did start playing, I still didn’t have a clue. He had been recorded in his home state in the ’30s but had disappeared for several decades. He had been re-discovered in 1963 and was in DC recording in 1964. I’m embarrassed to say, I didn’t know who he was… had never heard of him. So here I was sitting 3 feet away from this shy, self-conscious little man who would hide his smile behind his cupped hand whenever he spoke. The music was…. unbelievably moving… simple… stirring and magical. He played for almost an hour. I sat frozen, in awe at the artistry and humanity of this wonderful man. One of the biggest thrills of my life was being asked to sing “You Are My Sunshine” with Mississippi John Hurt.

I was fourteen when I got my first job… Oh, I had spent four or five desultory days the previous summer, wandering around a field under a blazing sun, chopping cotton, and I had helped the Porterfields get their hay into the barn when their son broke his arm, but this was a “town” job. On Saturdays, I was the shoeshine boy at Ivan’s Barbershop. I charged 25 cents… 30 cents for boots, and I could make a couple of dollars on a really good day. The shop was just off the corner of the Square… next to the Greyhound Bus Station and across the street from the bank. Sooner or later everyone in town would pass by that corner. I was there at the barbershop the first time I ever saw Mary. Everyone had heard that a new family had moved to Portales (nothing much escapes scrutiny in a small town). She was this weird little girl, eleven years old and she had a paper route. This was 1952… little girls didn’t have paper routes. Whoever heard of such a thing? Every Saturday morning, I’d see her across the street as she trudged catty-corner across the Court House Square to the News Tribune to turn in the money she’d collected and get her money.

So, Mary always claimed that we had known each other since she was eleven and I was fourteen… but let me tell you something… fourteen-year-old boys don’t know any eleven-year-old girls! Oh, I might’ve owned up to knowing her brother John who was a year younger than me, we played on a couple of ball teams together… but an eleven-year-old girl with a paper route… never.

Mary and I started going together when she was fifteen and I was eighteen… I had flunked out of school my first junior year and had joined the Navy and was back in school after not being able to stay in the Navy. ( ***That episode has a story of its own, which I’ll tell another time.)

So, by that time I had repeated the second semester of my Junior year, gone to summer school… I was now senior, Mary a sophomore. Ironically, Mary died fifty years to the day from our first date. Mary was, and probably still is, a legendary student at Portales High. Of course, she was the Valedictorian… made the highest scores on all the state-wide tests… and I can say with absolute honesty she was the most intelligent human being I’ve ever known in my life. Here’s what’s funny about the two of us going together. I was in a Rock’n Roll band… had a reputation of not being the sharpest knife in the drawer… as a matter of fact had been jokingly voted, “most likely to end up in prison”. This no lie…. when Mary and I started going out… teachers would stop her in the hallway and say… ”Mary, you’re breaking your mother’s heart”. Mary was my first and only love. I have never had another girlfriend… had never been on a date before Mary.

Her parents naturally were concerned that we had become “too serious”… she was only fifteen and was such a brilliant student that they took the drastic step of forbidding us to see each other. (Incidentally, they were probably right). For one year, we couldn’t go on dates. I’m not religious at all, but I was allowed to see her in church. So for that year, I went church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and even went on Wednesday night. There’s was one other way we could see each other. Her dad loved to play bridge, so I learned to play and I could go over to their house one night a week and play bridge. After a year, her parents realized we probably weren’t gonna fall out of love, and they lifted the restriction. After Mary’s graduation, they moved to Albuquerque… her dad worked for the paper there… and Mary attended UNM for one year. So we didn’t get to see each other much during that year. Being apart was intolerable, so after her freshman year, Mary and I got married and moved into the Vetville Apartments at ENMU.

A few years ago I was invited to a songwriter’s retreat… actually I was sort of hired along with four or five others, to mentor and encourage aspiring songwriters. There were about sixty or sixty-five of us at a beautiful retreat in upper Michigan. I agreed to do it with a certain amount of dread and trepidation, because I had just gone through a long bout with “writer’s block”. After Mary’s death, I went almost three years without being able to write anything. Nothing seemed worth finishing. Anyway, I talked myself into it… hoping the old cliche: “them that can, do…, them that can’t, teach…”, would pull me through. I was hoping that even if I didn’t write anything that maybe I could offer some encouragement and a couple of ideas to the others. What I didn’t know… was that everyone, faculty included, was supposed to write and perform the song they wrote while they were there.

John Lamb, the director and moving force of the retreat did his homework: He had a long, detailed suggestion sheet for each and every songwriter here. He took the time to find out, not only where we were from, but some interesting facts about our town or state. (some of it we didn’t even know ourselves). He was able to give us tangible things to go to when we were stuck. Each person’s assignment was to write a song based on their town, and each one had specific information to keep us connected. He also encouraged the use of colloquialisms that revealed the essence and rhythm of our town. And he also had several suggestions in case you got stuck and ran into a brick wall. I was impressed. It was so obvious how his process could be extremely helpful to aspiring songwriters. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for me.

I’ve always known that I write differently… most writers get an idea for a song and do one of two things: 1. they write a poem and simultaneously write a melody to go with it, or 2. they write the poem and compose the melody later. Either way, the process of writing the song is a fairly well connected whole. With me… a melody comes to me long before anything else. I might have a melody in my head for weeks or months before I figure out what the song is about. Here’s the problem… by this time, I’m in love with this melody that’s endlessly running through my mind, and that means I’m forced to find words that fit EXACTLY. Not the best way to write. Also… I don’t write quickly. Elephants have babies faster than I write songs. So the idea of writing a song in a finite period of time was terrifying to me. All of the wonderful guideposts that John Lamb gave everybody to keep us on the problem at hand worked against me and just… well… paralyzed me.

On the final night of the retreat, we all gathered and performed the songs. Some were fantastic… standing ovation fantastic, and all of them were quite good and affirmed that John Lamb was onto something. That most of us could write a really good song with some guidance and the desire to do it. MOST BUT NOT ALL !!

In the end… I wasn’t able to write a song. I ended up with two lines. It was embarrassing. I just couldn’t do it… everything worked against me. All the information John gave us, which was so helpful to others, just stopped me dead in my tracks. I left the retreat vowing never to attempt to write a song again.

You see, John had found out I was from a small town in New Mexico… Portales, and that we grew peanuts there. “Portales, New Mexico: Peanut Basin of the Nation”. What he didn’t know that some damn visiting professor from Dallas, in his inimitable wit and wisdom had dubbed us “Goober Gulch” and the nickname had stuck, so I had grown up cringing at the name… he also wanted the song to be a “slice of small town life”.. a love story…. he wanted me to work a holiday into the song… and something about the financial circumstance of our hero… anyway, it was just too much stuff… so all I wrote was..”You ain’t got no money… your Visa was declined”… I didn’t get a standing ovation.

About four months later John came out to visit me and was threatening to put the word out that I didn’t live up to my obligations unless I wrote the song. He told me about others who’ve struggled with songwriting. There was one lady… she had gone through some sort of religious experience and would only write about St. Francis of Assisi. John also told me about a football nut who only wanted to talk about the Dallas Cowboys… I hate the Dallas Cowboys! Oddly enough when John told me of the religious lady and the football nut, it helped me… I finally wrote the damn song.

If you’d like to hear Portales…. it’s on my “Lost in the Words, Lost in the Music” CD.

  1. Portales Ronny Cox 4:07

Vilos Cohaagen was a really fun character to play. Paul Verhoeven, the director of RoboCop, and I had gotten along famously when I was playing Dick Jones in Robocop, so naturally I was thrilled when he wanted me to play the “Dictator of Mars” in his next project, Total Recall, which we started shooting in 1988.

Most people don’t know this, but things could easily have worked out much differently with the movie. Total Recall had gone through several different incarnations before Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger became attached to it. First of all, it had been in “development” for fourteen years. Every studio loved the story, but couldn’t figure out how to make the movie and stay within a manageable budget. Several actors, William Hurt and Richard Dreyfuss had, at one time or another, been considered for the lead role and directors like Ridley Scott to film it. I had been told by one of the screenwriters that production had, at one point, actually begun in Australia with Ridley Scott directing and with Patrick Swayze set to star. My understanding is they only shot for a short time before producer Dino De Laurentiis shut down production. So when we started shooting in Mexico City, the film was already six million dollars in debt. By the time I got onboard, Total Recall was fast on its way to becoming the then most expensive production in the history of film.   

After the plug was pulled in Australia, it was decided to shoot the movie at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, clearly as a penny-pinching exercise. Even though, at that time, it was the most expensive film ever with massive sets, the production company tried to cut so many corners they made it feel like the lowest low budget film I’d ever been on. I remember getting a call to ask me, “Ronny, the actors have agreed to fly coach down to Mexico. I know we’re supposed to fly you first class, but would you agree to fly coach too?” Dumbfounded, I replied, “Are you telling me that Arnold Schwarzenegger has agreed to fly coach?” There was a pregnant pause: “Oh, well, not Arnold”… I said: “Well, no – not Ronny!” I also heard the production team actually called some of the actors to say with a wink… “Listen, we’re gong to be shooting on x and x dates. If you happen to be here in Mexico, there’s a good chance we’d hire you.” Actors were literally going down to Mexico on their own dime and they weren’t receiving a per diem – a daily rate – or lodging. And on the days they weren’t working there was no compensation. Talk about cutting corners!

There were certainly no shortcuts for me with this picture. I literally faced the longest commute you could imagine. At the same time we were shooting Total Recall, I was also making Captain America in Yugoslavia. So, I was flying back and forth between Mexico City and Dubrovnik, Croatia. Ironically, in Captain America I played the heroic, honorable, and patriotic President of the United States…(perhaps the nicest man on earth)… while in Total Recall I was the meanest man on Mars… (perhaps in the universe). It sometimes felt like I had to look down and see what I was wearing to remember who I was playing.

My haircut threw an expensive monkey-wrench into the works of their budget. I was called to Mexico a week or so before most of the other cast arrived. They needed me for a couple of days of preliminary shooting: Cohaagen addressing the citizens on Mars TV, and those well-known scenes of him barking out orders on the monitor to Richter… simple scenes that required only me and since they were close-ups, and a very simple background…. not much of a set. Here’s the deal, when we shot those scenes I had a fairly normal hairstyle, not slicked back like, as Mary used to say: “the Lizard King look”, that ended being how I looked in the final version of the movie. And that haircut caused me no small amount or trepidations, which I’ll explain later.

When I returned from Mexico the production wanted Rob Bottin, (the special effects make-up genius) to do a prototype full head mask of me for the film. ***I’m sure you’ve heard of people who have a photographic memory? Rob, has a photographic memory with his hands. He can sit with his pad and paper and draw a photographic likeness of you, or mould an absolute likeness of you in clay***. Arnold and I spent an entire day distorting our faces in every way we could imagine (our face muscles were sore the next day). They were for the scene when Arnold and I were on the surface of Mars (my dramatic death scene at the end of the movie when my eyes pop out of my head). Rob created exact masks of Arnold and me, and from those beginnings he put air bags at strategic spots inside the masks. He could then take our expressions and make them more and more grotesque. Which, on film, paradoxically is both exaggerated and fairly realistic at the same time.

It was a long monotonous and scary process making those masks. They completely covered your face with latex. I’m claustrophobic, it was torturous, being completely closed in with only straws in your nostrils for breathing tubes. I was pretty freaked out. Anyway, they slicked back my hair with gel and Rob took photographs of me to document the project. When I saw the photographs with my hair slicked back , I realized that was what Cohaagen should look like. But there was one big stumbling block: I had already shot two days of scenes in Mexico with normal looking hair.

I didn’t know how best to approach Paul …. as we all know, his reputation for having volcanic temper when things go South is well deserved…. as well as being well documented.. So, you can imagine my dread of how he might to react to my creative suggestion. Particularly in light of the fact that he was under increasing pressure over the budget. But I took a deep breath and said. “Paul, I want to show you something. I know we’d already shot a couple of scenes, but look…….. ,” I showed him Rob’s photograph.

He glared at me for a long time: “I’m angry at you Ronny!… you know why?… “Because I’m going to have to shoot those two days again!” he had an impish smirk .

An interesting sidelight about the look of Cohaagen… when I was at Churubusco for those first couple of days of shooting, I’d walk from the make-up trailer to the set and no one ever paid any attention to me. We had a huge multi-national crew… but most of them were Mexican. There were a gazillion actors, so obviously we were unknown to the crew. But… once Paul had settled on the “Lizard King” look for Cohaagen… whenever I walked from the make-up trailer to the set… all the crew guys would stop as I passed them and make some gesture, nod submissively and say, “El Jefe”…….

In many ways being cast as Dick Jones in RoboCop was as big a break in my career as being cast as Drew in Deliverance. Let me explain: Drew was the good guy, the moral one, and because of that, for the next ten or fifteen years, I was cast in “boy scout” good guy roles. Producers and directors, and studio executives in film business tend to typecast. And since Drew was the sensitive “moral“ one, it became a bit of an albatross for me. You see, if you play a character with “sensitivity”, that nearly always gets equated with weak or soft, so if there was a role with any “balls” I seemed never to get it. It was really frustrating for me. I’ve been an athlete all my life… tennis player, a marathoner and the four of us did all the canoeing in Deliverance. So you can see why I was mystified at being known as a “soft actor”… and why I was thrilled when cast as Dick Jones in RoboCop.

I try to be a good person in my ordinary everyday life, but it’s no fun playing the clean-cut, good guy all the time. Those guys make the right and predictable choice almost every time. Boring!! I liken it to painting: the good guy gets three colors – red, white, and blue. But the bad guy gets the whole palette… and those roles are way more fun to play. The most fascinating characters are nearly always the bad guys.

I have always wanted to play the whole gamut … good guys, bad guys, and everything in between. Some actors like being typecast. There’s comfort in playing a character that’s a slight variation of a guy they’ve played before. That has zero appeal to me…and because of that, the actors I admire most are the guys who play “character” as opposed to persona. I’ve done my damndest to carve out a career without getting pigeonholed. I want to play someone as far removed from me as possible. A lot of actors, when talking about their character, refer to that character as “me”. I’ve heard them say…“I did this or I did that.” That would never occur to me. It’s always he. “He does it,” because his actions have little or nothing to do with me. Oh, sure… eventually, the character moves out of my impulses… but there are a thousand other details that I’m having to deal with, (hitting my mark for the camera crew, being there for my fellow actors, and of always being aware of the rhythm of the scene)…. getting caught up in me, me, me can doom the scene… and, in my estimation, the movie.