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

I’ve read a lot of autobiographies by actors and comedians talking about their desperate childhoods, but that just doesn’t apply to me. I had a really happy childhood. Oh, sure, we grew up poor. My dad never made more than $4,000 in one year in his life, and he and mom had five kids: four boys, and one little girl. When my sister Luanne was born I was already 17, so it always felt like I grew up in a family of boys. I love my little sister Luanne, but I was already grown by the time she came along and she and I had a very different relationship than I had with my brothers.

My older brother, Harold, was three years older than me so he could kick my ass anytime he chose and since I didn’t like anyone bossing me around, there were always ego problems between us. (Mainly caused by my stubbornness). Rick was my next oldest brother and he and I had a really special relationship. My little brother, Mike, was five years younger than me. By the way, in my band, Ron’s Rock Outs, even though he was the youngest, (five years younger than me, and seven years younger than Rick), he was the best musician. At 13 years old, he was our lead guitar player.

So… four rowdy boys for my parents to deal with, and we lived a simple paycheck to paycheck existence. My dad was a jack of all trades. He was a carpenter, a bus driver, a maintenance man, drove a cattle truck, and worked as a cowboy… it seemed he did everything. We lived in Roswell, NM until I was in the fifth grade… yeah, we were actually living there in July of 1947 when the UFO’s visited earth, as a matter of fact, my dad was working as a bus driver at Walker Air Force… so we were THERE, which might explain something about me. We then moved to Hot Springs, NM… (Rick had polio and we moved there to be near him while he was in the Carrie Tingley Children’s Hospital). While we were there, Ralph Edwards, a Hollywood radio and tv producer came to town and talked the city fathers into having a referendum, which passed overwhelmingly, and they changed the name to Truth or Consequences. Yeah, I was there when that happened. We moved again when I was in the seventh grade. I went to Junior High, High School and to Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, NM. Even though I was born in Cloudcroft, NM… I consider Portales my home town.

I said I was a happy kid, so I don’t know where this memory comes from but I can remember one day when I was in the second grade at East Ward Elementary School in Roswell. It was after school… I was in the playground, just sitting there on the see-saws. To this day it gives me such satisfaction to think about this: for some reason I started saying every cuss word I could think of. It gave me such a feeling of entitlement and of power that I could say these forbidden, naughty words…. all of them!! Now, in those days, those naughty words were probably, “damn” and “hell”, and not much beyond that. “Son of a bitch”, maybe. But I can remember it just felt so good for me to be out there cussing.

I’ll tell you something else. It’s a wonder I lived to be 14 because when I was 13, I knew everything, and I was perfectly willing to let everybody know that. In fact, it was an imperative. The year I was in the 8th grade at Portales Jr High, the school administrators had decided to stop corporal punishment… (a couple coaches had been going overboard so they decided giving licks with the paddle would be discontinued). So now, if you got in trouble, you had to serve detention. They would give detention in 30-minute increments, and I once had accumulated 42 hours to serve. No matter how hard I tried, some teacher would invariably say something that forced me to respond.

What’s a kid to do?

I can remember talking to myself on the way to school. I’d say, “Okay… Listen, you’re going to shut up today. Don’t say anything, just sit there, be quiet, listen, and don’t get in trouble today. Don’t do it again today.” And that would last until I got to school, and then the teacher, or a student, or one of my friends, or just some …something would happen. It was almost like Tourette’s. It would just leap out of my mouth.

Forty-two hours of detention… and you could only do away with them 30 minutes at a time because school started at 8:40. You could come in at 8:10. You got an hour for lunch, so that you could take only 30 minutes for lunch, and you could stay for 30 minutes after school, so if you came 30 minutes early, stayed in for lunch, and stayed after school, you could work off an hour and a half, but still, 42 hours. Finally, the Principal came to me with a possible solution. Maybe he could reinstitute corporal punishment just for me. I reluctantly agreed… but then never showed up to get my licks. I wonder if I’m a fugitive from justice from Portales Junior High. I don’t know.

A thing about growing up in New Mexico is you come to grips pretty early with the concept of rattlesnakes. When I was in elementary school we lived in Roswell, it was town, so we heard about rattlesnakes but hardly ever saw one. But our parents always put the fear of God in us about rattlesnakes. As my dad was fond of saying, “Rattlesnakes might not hurt you, but they can damn sure make you hurt yourself.”

As a kid I lived in abject fear of running into a rattlesnake. I had never even seen one until I was about 10 or 11 when we moved to Hot Springs, which then became Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. It’s on the Rio Grande River, which goes through the Elephant Butte Lake and then on down to Las Cruces, El Paso and Mexico.

When we first moved to Hot Springs my parents were the care-takers of a motel. It was a very small motel. Only had six, or seven units. It was across the street from the river.  It was one of those really, really cheap motels. My dad worked as a carpenter/ handyman or whatever job he could find in town, and he also took care of the maintenance around the motel. Mom was in charge of cleaning and managing the rooms.

We never had very many customers. You’d think since we were right across the street from the Rio Grande, we might have had more customers, but we weren’t on the best side of town. Across the street nestled against the bank of the river was a small tackle shop that my friend Joe’s dad owned.

Unless you’re on the river, it is a parched, bone-dry desert all around T or C,… so whenever it rained the gullies would immediately fill up, and the resulting flash flood would wash all the rattlesnakes into the river. After a big rain, there would be a gazillion rattlesnakes floating down the river. We’d watch them make their way to the bank and try to slither out, and for the next two or three days, you’d better be careful where you stepped.

My friend Joe was Native American… I think, Navajo, but I’m not sure. He and his parents lived about four miles out of town, and sometimes I’d go out there and spend the day. Most of the time I was scared to death because their place was smack dab in the middle of rattlesnake country. Joe had told me that a couple of times his mom had gone into their laundry room and found a coiled rattlesnake among the clothes. That’s when he introduced me to Max! 

Joe had a black Lab named Max… and Max could kill rattlesnakes. I saw it happen. We were in Joe’s back yard and Max, always on the lookout, saw a rattlesnake. He noisily went charging toward it. The snake coiled as Max came running toward it, enticing the snake to strike, (Max made sure he stopped short of the distance the snake could’ve struck him). The snake quickly coiled itself up again. (I found out later a snake can strike about three-quarters of its length.)

Max had lured the snake to strike in order to establish the distance it COULD strike. Max, then stayed just far enough away that both he and the snake know it can’t strike that far. Now Max starts circling the rattlesnake.  He walks very slowly… The rattler’s eyes are glued to Max’s movements,  and as Max goes behind the snake, it quickly swivels it’s head to pick up Max on the other side as he passes behind him. At first, it’s so fast, that it almost seems like the snake’s head can endlessly turn. Now, Max slows down even more… slowly… slowly… even slower. Max is hypnotizing the snake. As he walks slower and slower… the snake begins to get a little lazy.  It doesn’t whip it’s head around quite as quickly… and when the snake finally gets sluggish enough and turns his head slowly enough, Max lunges in from behind and doesn’t let go until the snake’s head is off.

I asked Joe if Max had been trained to kill rattlesnakes… Joe said, “Talk to my dad, and he will tell you the myth of the coyote who could kill rattlesnakes”.

My dad (on right) and his brother

My dad was born in the Territory of New Mexico in June of 1911, some seven months before it became the forty-seventh state. He had a terrible childhood. I don’t have much first-hand knowledge since he almost never talked about it. There were five girls and two boys, he was the youngest son. His parents were homesteading ten acres of hard scrabble on the Texas border near the town of Rogers. They were trying to scrape out an existence where the average yearly rainfall only yielded a crop about once every seven years.

The requirements of the Homestead Act were that the occupants were required to live on the property for five years, to make improvements by building a dwelling, and the cultivating the land. In those hard times, only a few families were able to hold on for five years. Many farms were abandoned within the first two or three years and oftentimes nearby families would move in and continue to work the land in an attempt to complete the five years required in hopes of combining it with their own.

That decision to work two homesteads was blamed for the tragedy that befell my dad’s family. The family living on the adjoining homestead had finally given up and were abandoning their place. My grandfather decided that he would try to work both farms. He took three of the kids: his oldest daughter, his middle daughter and my eight-year-old dad to the new farm. He left his oldest son and three daughters to help my grandmother work the one they were on.

This is hard to talk about.. and it left life-long scars, not only for my dad but for his entire family. My grandfather started sleeping with his oldest daughter… and she became pregnant. My grandfather was arrested for raping his own daughter. There was a trial, he was convicted and was sent to prison. The sheriff came to the farm and arrested him while they were working in the field. The only time I ever heard my dad talk about this was when a relative asked dad if he remembered how he felt that day. My dad finally said. “Just happy”. I’ve heard from other relatives that my granddad would hit you with whatever he had in his hands if he was mad. More proof of that legendary “Cox temper”.

So… with the old man in prison, my grandma eventually lost both homesteads and the family was scattered to the winds. My dad started living with his older brother… quite a bit older, actually. (I think 8 yrs., but I’m not sure). And I don’t know really know what happened to the other siblings and my grandma. Dad never talked about this very much either. I do know that when my dad was eleven, he and his older brother got into a fight and my dad won the fight. His brother kicked him out…. So, at eleven years old, my dad was out in the world on his own. He started work, as a man, on the Heart Ranch in Texas. (the second largest ranch in Texas). I’ve seen pictures of him when he was eleven…. and he looked like a man. There was nothing boyish about him.

My dad and I had a really stormy relationship, and now that I’m older I can see how I could have been more understanding of my dad and of his views of parenthood. You see, I’ve always been a bit of a smart-ass, which got me into a world of trouble with dad. His view was: he was the Dad, that By God that meant he was the “boss”, and anything that challenged his authority meant he wasn’t being respected and that was not to be tolerated. My brothers, and of course my little sister, got along with my dad a whole lot better than I did. Dad would say something that we all knew was ridiculous and my siblings would bite their tongues until they got outside and then giggle about it and go about their business. Why couldn’t I do that? Why couldn’t I see that he needed us to respect him… why was I such a pain in the ass?

There was a quirk about him that was always dangerous… especially for me. Anytime you asked permission to do something, even as simple as going across the street to play with a friend, his first answer was always “No”… it was expected, and then the ritual would start… you would go through the reasons why it was no big deal… you’d be right back… etc. etc. and then he would eventually, although grudgingly, say “Okay”. Ninety-five percent of the time, that was the predictable outcome…. BUT… every now and then you would ask and it would be as though you had committed the most unforgivable offense. He would come down on you in a very bad way… sometimes violently. “How dare you talk back to me”… and the full force of his anger and violence would rain down on you… it was terrifying. So… ninety-five percent of the time, it was easy as pie to sweet talk dad into almost anything, but always lurking in the background ……not pretty when that happened.

In hindsight, I wish I had understood my dad better when I was younger. He died before we ever patched up our differences. I’ve talked to my brothers and sister about their relationship with dad. It’s shocking that their view and their relationships with him are so different than mine.

It wasn’t until I became friends with John Huston, in the last year of his life, that I realized how much I loved my father and could look at our relationship in a different light. It took me lots of years to get there, but I finally tried to write a song about our relationship… I haven’t played it in years and I listened to it the other day… I’d like to revisit it someday. It’s on my Acoustic Eclectricity album….. “To Say Goodbye”.

  1. To Say Goodbye Ronny Cox 4:45

The Car Movie Poster

Other than Deliverance, the only time I’ve had a real close shave on set was while making The Car with James Brolin back in 1977. It was directed by Elliot Silverstein.

At the end of the film, we are scrambling to escape as the car plunges over a cliff as it’s trying to run us down. The script called for a huge explosion when the car hits the ground. The FX crew had put a gazillion gallons of gas down in that canyon to guarantee a spectacular cinematic fireball. We actors were a good 40 or 50 feet back from the edge of the cliff and we were essentially just being foreground extras witnessing our spectacular final triumph over the Car.

None of us thought that it was going to be a dangerous shot. Sure, there was gasoline down in the canyon, but that was a couple of hundred feet down THERE and we were up HERE. On paper, the explosion was just supposed to be a big fireball that we deputies who had been terrorized by The Car, finally got to exult in the damn thing meeting its doom. But… somehow when they detonated the explosives and gasoline –  instead of a ball of flames shooting high over our heads, they folded over the edge of the cliff, only six or eight feet off the ground and soared straight towards us.

The heat was incredible as we scrambled away from the edge and dove to take cover behind the fake movie rocks, the film crew had strategically placed. Once we were behind the rocks, I looked back toward the camera crew and saw that they were leaving the equipment and running for their lives too.

There were about six or eight of us actors in the rocks and we all got blistered during the scene. Nothing serious, but we had to be treated by the medic on the set. Looking back, we may well have dodged a bullet on that one, if those flames had come down another foot or two. A few actors – including yours truly – could’ve ended up being fried.

In a roundabout way, I might owe my life to Stephen Spielberg! I still find it kinda spooky whenever I think about how it could’ve been me who was killed in a freak accident on a movie set back in 1982. Even more unsettling, this tragedy occurred on my birthday. I’m only talking about this because I lost out on the movie role.

My agent called and told me that John Landis wanted to meet with me. This was not a typical casting call. It was late on a Friday afternoon, and there were no other actors there… only me. He wanted to discuss a role in a new movie he was directing and co-producing with Steven Spielberg. I was a big admirer of both, so I was excited by the prospect of getting to work with them.

Landis and I hit it off immediately. (I’m struck more and more how casting decisions often come down to the personal chemistry between the people involved) At the meeting, he enthusiastically told me about the big budget movie version they were planning to make of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.

During the meeting, since there wasn’t a script available yet, Landis told me about the segment that he was going to direct, which was going to be the first short story in the movie. It was about a racist character who ends up going back in time and redeems himself by rescuing two Vietnamese children.

It sounded like a wonderful part, and I was excited to be considered for it. At the end of the meeting he said, “Ronny, you’re the person I want for this .. The role is yours… It’s a done deal.” I went home with a bounce in my step and told Mary and the boys the good news.

But on the following Monday morning, I got a call from Landis.
“Ronny, I’m so embarrassed,” He told me. “I know that I said the role was yours but, over the weekend, Steven Spielberg met with Vic Morrow and offered him the role and Vic had accepted it. “Ronny, I don’t know what to say to you.”

Obviously, I was disappointed… but what are you gonna do? After all, Stephen Spielberg WAS the Executive Producer and he had final approval on all casting decisions. I wished them well… no use cryin’ over spilt milk.

I bounced back fairly quickly as I was deep into co-writing with Mary my first screenplay and making preparations for our next project – a film called Raw Courage. I ended up co-producing the film as well as starring in it. We shot the film in my home state of New Mexico, and we were there shooting in July of 1982. Raw Courage is an outdoor adventure film, reminiscent in some ways of Deliverance, which required us to run in scorching heat through the desert for hours on end. It was really grueling physically and required more stamina than I had ever imagined. On my forty-fourth birthday, after running all day…I had just collapsed on the bed in our hotel room in Las Cruces when Mary told me about the tragic accident on the set of The Twilight Zone: Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed when a helicopter crashed on top of them.

It freaked me out… but it bothered Mary in a way I’d never seen before or since. She was always the most calm, level-headed person anytime things went South, but it affected her in a really traumatic way. She couldn’t get it out of her mind of how instead of celebrating my birthday that she could be mourning my death. For years after that, the image of the tragic accident bothered her a lot. So much so that she avoided the details of the accident like the plague. If, at any time, anyone mentioned that movie… Mary would leave the room. So, my forty-fourth birthday is one that I’ll never forget.

This is what’s kinda sick about my reaction to the terrible tragedy. I’m such an egotist, (or maybe this is a defense mechanism), I believe that if I had been on that film set the tragedy might not have occurred. As I understand it, there were some safety issues with the helicopter hovering so closely over them – after several close calls and near tragedies we had during the filming of Deliverance …. I have never been shy about making sure that all safety protocols were being observed. I like to think I would’ve refused to let them shoot that scene under those conditions…