By Robert Kostanczuk
An enduring cinematic moment — and a pop-chart smash — were spawned from the “Dueling Banjos” scene in the 1972 movie “Deliverance.”
The harrowing tale of four city guys out of their element in the wilds of Georgia included a buoyant give-and-take of musical notes.
The characters involved in that exchange were the famous backwoods “Banjo Boy” (played by Billy Redden) and a guitar-playing urbanite named Drew Ballinger, portrayed by Ronny Cox in his first big-screen role.
“We knew the film was going to be pretty special,” Cox recalled in a recent phone interview, “but none of us — and I mean none of us — thought about that becoming a hit song.”
A bluegrass instrumental, “Dueling Banjos” reached No. 2 on Billboard’s pop singles chart in 1973.
Originally recorded as banjo vs. banjo in its initial form, the tune later brought in a guitar — but kept the title “Dueling Banjos.”
Although Cox could play guitar, the actual licks heard in the movie are the work of guitarist Steve Mandell, a noted session musician at the time.
“I’m not a hot picker like Steve Mandell,” Cox explained.
However, the New Mexico native has established himself as a major-label folk artist, and — at 75 — he still hits the road to perform live, with an April 9 date set for the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in Michigan City, Ind.
Cox realizes, though, that he missed an opportunity to cash in on the hit single “Dueling Banjos,” which featured the talents of Mandell and banjo player Eric Weissberg, another seasoned session musician from the early 1970s.
“Is that actually me on the soundtrack? No,” Cox asked, then answered.
“Did it cost me a whole bunch of money? Yes,” he added with a laugh.
Any lost money aside, appearing in “Deliverance” with the high-profile Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight was a springboard to a lucrative movie career that has included key roles in “Beverly Hills Cop” with Eddie Murphy and “Total Recall” with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“RoboCop” (1987) was another of Cox’s commercially successful ventures.
“Of all the films I’ve done, more people want to talk about ‘Deliverance,’ ” Cox related.
The public specifically remembers the impromptu guitar-banjo duet that prompts smiles in an otherwise grim movie about a canoe trip taken by businessmen who have a head-on collision with nature and rural culture.
Sitting on a porch with his banjo, Billy Redden portrayed a distinctive looking kid who could dazzle on the instrument, although in real life, Redden could not play.
“We were always going to have to prerecord the song,” Cox said of the “Dueling Banjos” track. “All we were doing was matching the playback.”
The finger action needed to be in sync.
“I matched the playback note for note,” Cox assured.
Redden, though, was a teen who needed help to make his banjo playing convincing.
There was a more musically savvy “little kid behind him,” said Cox.
That concealed boy did the fretboard fingering which is seen in the movie.
Redden’s facial features — highlighted by haunting, narrow-slit eyes — conveyed an image of inbreeding.
In the movie, Ned Beatty’s character, Bobby Trippe, comments about the boy’s “genetic deficiencies.”
Cox cited another riveting aspect of Redden’s look: “There was sort of a sly, impish intelligence lurking behind there that came through.”
Besides the injection of Americana music, the Cox-Redden segment of “Deliverance” incorporates nuances that portend ominous things for Drew Ballinger and his buddies.
“You let your guard down; it doesn’t seem to be a precursor of what’s going to happen later in the film,” said Wes Gehring, a film professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
“It’s a misdirection,” Gehring continued. “I think that particular scene just works on a lot of levels.”
The movie, as a whole, has garnered acclaim for its culture significance, having been selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the United States National Film Registry.
“How many unknown actors get to play one of the starring roles in an iconic film?” Cox said of his good fortune.
Many movies later, Cox still acts.
“I just finished a film with Michael Douglas that we shot in New Mexico,” Cox said.
Still, he makes it clear that playing music is now his main passion.
Mercury Records released his debut album, “Ronny Cox,” in 1993.
When playing live, Cox asks the venues to leave the house lights up.
“I don’t like to be behind a wall of light performing at people,” he said. “I want my show to be as informal as possible.”
Cox has released live albums with few overdubs and corrections.
“I’m a singer-songwriter and a storyteller,” he said. “There’s two schools of thought about folk music: One is just shut up and let the music speak for itself, and the other is tell a story.”
It’s evident which school of thought he follows: “Shutting up doesn’t work for me.”