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.