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

Typical of my songs… I don’t allow the truth to get in the way of a good story. I wrote a song called Grady that’s a compilation of three different guys in my hometown of Portales. It’s mostly about a man named George but when I was writing it, Grady worked much better for me lyrically. There were aspects of each that I wanted in the song. They were George, Burt, and Grady, but in the song, they’re just one guy. Grady lived two or three miles out of town and he didn’t own a car, so he walked into town just about every day. He wore an old worn out, John Deere baseball cap …. and he wore it backwards. Sure… everybody wears their baseball cap backwards these days, but in 1950 that was considered really weird. That wasn’t the only thing that made him “different”… he also had an almost comical way of walking that was an endless delight to me and the other kids who followed him around town like he was the Pied Piper. In the 50’s people often made fun of that slow, eccentric guy. Looking back, it was often mean, and unthinking. And a lot of the time, it was us kids who could be the most cruel.

Grady was a delight to us as we all ran to greet him… begging for his song. If you gave him a penny or a nickel or a dime, he would sing Woody Guthrie’s song “Oklahoma Hills”. He also had a dance that was the most incomprehensible jumble of gyrations, kicks and random movements that seemed to come out of nowhere, and were in no way connected to the rhythm of the song. It was wonderful and amazing. He would finish with an elaborate flourish… leaving us kids pleading for more. And here’s the thing…. if we gave him another penny or nickel …. he’d do the same song again …it was the only one he knew… ( the dance was always different, though). It was an incredible dance. Sometimes we’d have him do it two or three times.

Anyway, that was the genesis of the song…. it’s on my album
“Songs with Repercussions” if you’d like to hear it.

  1. Grady Ronny Cox 4:01

My brother, Rick, and I were really close as young boys. Rick was diagnosed with polio when he was three. Early on he was 90% paralytic…. and spent 6 months in an Iron Lung. He spent a lot of those early years in the hospital, and because of that, he missed a couple of years of school. So, he and I ended up being in the same grade. Everyone thought we were twins… Rickey and Ronny. And because of that, he and I were naturally together more than any of the other brothers. We teased each other and were always pulling tricks on each other. I complained mightily about having to push him around all the time and he was always saying can’t someone else push me? Why do I have to spend all my time with “Him”….. we were constantly bickering.

I remember once when we were kids… I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. We were going to a movie in town. It was about eight or ten blocks to the theatre. I was pushing him along and we were fussing with each other, as we always did, and when we got to the railroad tracks, I was pissed off at him, and I said “If you mess with me, I’ll leave you on the railroad tracks.” He said, “If you do, you’ll never get out of trouble”! “Oh yeah”, I said…. “Watch this!!” And I left him on the tracks…… , I mean, I was only a few feet away… there wasn’t a train coming, and he was only on the railroad tracks for two minutes, tops. Typical eight or nine-year-old boy crap.

I had forgotten this story until one day when my mom was visiting me out here in California, and we were laughing and reminiscing about the crazy things we did when we were kids. And I told mom the story… she did not think it was funny. She got mad at me, and I mean really, really angry. “How could you leave your brother on the railroad tracks? I am ashamed of you.” I’m not sure I had ever seen her as angry as that.

I said “Mom, I was eight years old, and I didn’t leave him. I was just messing with him.” She was unmollified! As a matter of fact, a couple of years later we were at a family gathering, and Mom brought that story up and was still angry at me for leaving my brother on the railroad tracks. So my advice is to listen to your brother when he says, “You’ll never get out of trouble”… and to be very careful what you tell your mom.

Pat Garrett was the sheriff who killed Billy the Kid: New Mexico’s most famous desperado… and when we were living in Roswell, his family owned a ranch a couple of miles out of town. I don’t know how we got permission, but the owners of the Garrett ranch allowed some of us kids to come out and swim in their irrigation tank. I guess I was six or seven and my mom’s brother, Uncle Bob, took me and my brother Harold, out there. Harold and Uncle Bob were gonna go swimming. I just came along for the ride. I didn’t know how to swim, didn’t even bring a bathing suit.

When we got out there, Harold and Uncle Bob vaulted out of the car and jumped in. I sat on the bank watching as they “horsed around” in the water. When they climbed out, Uncle Bob came rushing at me… grabbed me by the seat of my pants, and threw me into the irrigation tank.

I was terrified and thought I was gonna drown as I sank several times as I flailed and struggled trying to make my way to the bank. Both Uncle Bob and Harold were rolling on the ground laughing at my distress. And then when we got home, he could hardly contain his laughter as he told my folks it in great and exaggerated detail. He said he had decided it was high time I learned to swim…. after all that’s how he learned. I can still remember how panic-stricken I was… I had never been in water over my head… didn’t have the vaguest idea of how to swim. I was fully clothed. It scared the hell out of me and he couldn’t stop laughing. Yes, I finally managed to make it to the bank… coughing and crying, and I didn’t drown… but I’ll tell you something… I’m 80 years old now… I’m still angry at that son of a bitch.

Roosevelt County, New Mexico…where I grew up in the ’50s was a dry county. And here’s something most people don’t realize about dry counties. Bootleggers couldn’t care less if they sell to kids. So… in Portales, if you hadn’t been drunk by the time you were in the eighth grade, you were definitely un-cool. It was just too easy to get booze. All you had to do was go to the nearest phone booth, give a bootlegger a call, and pretty soon he’d bring you a bottle. Another thing that added to the ease of obtaining booze in Portales was that a lot of kids started driving when they were very young. A lot of kids could get early driving permits because they needed to drive a tractor on their dad’s farm. Hell…some kids were driving when they were twelve or thirteen. So… the deal was, you’d find some kid that had a driver’s license, and a bunch of us would chip in and buy a bottle of whiskey and a six-pack of soda pop, and drive the four miles out to the sand dunes.

Once we were safely away from town, we’d sit in a circle, open the bottle, and pass it around. You’d take a swig of whiskey and then chase it with a gulp of coke and you just keep passing it around and around until the bottle was completely gone. And then you jump up and go running around the sandhills screaming “I’m drunk, I’m drunk, I’m drunk!” And then you throw up, and eventually, when someone is sober enough to drive, you go home. I did that once when I was in the eighth grade, and it just seemed so silly… so, even now, I’m basically a non-drinker.

Also in Portales, we didn’t have school-sponsored dances… I think primarily because it was a Baptist, Church of Christ community. So… no Junior-Senior Prom. However, halfway between Clovis, (nineteen miles North of us), and Portales, was the Midway dance hall. You could get booze in the parking lot there pretty easily too. On Saturday nights, when they had the big country barn dance there the place was jumping. (My mom and dad started taking me to dances when I was 10 years old… and to this day, I love it). But in the fifties, a lot of people went for the sole purpose of getting drunk and/or getting in a fight.

A lot of us kids would go out to Midway on Saturday nights and just sit in the parking lot, and watch the fights. The cowboys and farmers hated the guys from Cannon Air Force Base they called “fly jockeys”. The animosity was always bubbling in a way that could explode any minute. So, some of the guys from town would go out and sit in the parking lot and watch the fights. I only ever saw one of those fights, and it was sickening. Extremely violent. It wasn’t like the movies. These weren’t movie fights. These were awful, violent fights.

I remember one night we were at the only 24-hour cafe in Portales. It was on the outskirts of town: “The Truck Stop”. My band had just played a gig and we were getting some breakfast. It was like, one or two o’clock in the morning. Sitting at the counter were two guys, so drunk they could hardly sit up. They were loud and obnoxious and we couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. They were cussing… they had been looking for a fight all night long, and still hadn’t found one. Finally, one of them turned to the other, and said “Well, hell, let’s me and you fight!” And the two of them got up, staggered outside, and had a knockdown drag-out fight in the parking lot.

One last story about the culture in Portales where a whole bunch of guys always seemed to be looking for some kind of macho confrontation. As a way of setting this story up, I need to offer my perceived view of how the people in Portales reacted to my being in movies and tv. In all honesty, they weren’t overly excited that I had been in Deliverance. First of all, you have to remember that in 1972, Deliverance was considered by some people as bordering on pornography. So… my being in a movie didn’t impress them. Starring in a TV series, however, was a very big deal. I still don’t understand that phenomenon. I think it might be because you’re actually in their home and they talk to you and feel like they “know” you. Anyway, I was back in Portales visiting my mom and Rick and Luanne shortly after “Apple’s Way” started airing on CBS. There’s a favorite drive-up burger joint in town. Pat’s Twin Cronies, where you park, go up to the window, order your hamburger and milkshake and then stand around outside for a few minutes waiting for them to call your name. As I was waiting, I noticed a guy sitting in his pickup truck. He was staring at me and after a minute or two, he very pointedly gave me the “finger”. I looked around, wondering if he intended his gesture for someone else. Nope… I was the only one in the vicinity. I didn’t know what else to do, so I walked over… “Can I help you?” as he was getting out of his truck, he stopped and said, “Oh, hell, Ronny,… It’s you.. I thought you was some stranger. I was gonna kick your ass.

As long as I can remember there has been an enduring skeleton in our closet about the dreaded “Cox temper”. I almost never get really, really angry, but I’ve always wondered if that was my way of proving to myself that I didn’t inherit the gene. The one that makes you go into an uncontrollable rage, and blindly and brutally lash out as many of my relatives are rumored to have done. Hitting someone in anger was not only something I heard about but something I experienced as a kid. That “Cox “ trait is, sadly, present in this story.

The first time I heard this story, I was 9 or 10 years old. I heard it from my uncle Pete Mays. Uncle Pete was alternately revered or vilified for his wild… bordering on unbelievable… tall tales. My dad always said not to believe anything your Uncle Pete tells you. He said, “He just makes things up”. True… they were unbelievable but they sure were entertaining… (most of the time) This particular story was always adamantly rejected by dad and my aunts and uncles… obviously, it doesn’t paint the family in a very favorable light. But… If there aren’t snatches of truth in it, then why did my brothers and I keep hearing the details of the story.

In the late 1800s, according to Uncle Pete, my great grandfather came from some unknown place back East to homestead in New Mexico Territory. New Mexico didn’t become a state until 1912. Anyway, as he was on the way to New Mexico, he stopped and spent some time at a reservation and married a Cherokee woman. They settled on the Eastern New Mexico/West Texas border. They had three sons…. I don’t know any of their names. According to Uncle Pete, my grandfather was the middle son. This is where the “Cox Temper” enters the story:

When the youngest son was 18… by this time, the two older boys (my grandfather being one of them) had already left home. Uncle Pete said that my great-grandfather had an argument with his son and flew into an uncontrollable rage. He attacked his younger son… and in the brutal fight between them… the young son killed his father. There was a fairly quick trial, and there were several witnesses who testified that the old man attacked his son and that the son’s actions were clearly self-defense… the verdict was justifiable homicide.

Is the story true??? Uncle Pete always said the reason the relatives didn’t want the story to be told was because of the way the story ends. Even though my great-grandmother and great-grandfather had been married for over 20 years… the citizens of the Territory of New Mexico were not about to let a “squaw” own a house or property…. and she was sent back to “her people”.

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…