Man vs Waterfall: The ‘Deliverance’ Stunt That Broke Burt Reynolds

"Insurance? I don't believe in insurance."
Deliverance Waterfall Burt Reynolds

Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains how they shot Burt Reynolds’ waterfall stunt in John Boorman’s 1972 movie Deliverance.

In his director’s commentary, John Boorman describes Deliverance as “a story about a river that is going to be killed.” It’s a telling synopsis that hints at both Boorman’s political allegiances as well as the film’s inherently ghoulish premise: that four men have come to dance on the Cahulawassee’s grave, ignorant of their faux pas.

Four “city boys” from Atlanta — Ed, Lewis, Drew, and Bobby — have arrived to canoe down the river before it gets dammed and tamed into a hydroelectric reservoir. Of the foursome, Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is the most seasoned outdoorsman. And yet, for all his kit and confidence, his enthusiasm reeks of a sinister over-eagerness: the kind of prepper mentality that yearns for the apocalypse in part because it would open the door to permissible manslaughter.

Sure enough, when tragedy befalls the group, Lewis’ itchy trigger finger is there to save the day. He’d never say as much but buried deep within his spinal column, he harbored a morbid need to take a human life. They were in danger and he acted, right? He saved his friends and that’s good, right? And so, the group finds themselves in the thrall of a corrupting influence: the enchanting thought that this crime, your crime, was justified.

It’s a shame that Deliverance’s cultural reputation fails to do justice to its thematic subtleties. The film’s infamous rape scene and Southern caricatures tend to overshadow what is, at its heart, a damning document of the violence bubbling beneath the surface of a specific breed of domesticated masculinity.

To this point, it’s impossible to overstate how well-cast Deliverance is. Jon Voight is totally convincing as Ed, who must perform mental backflips to make peace with his heel turn into savagery. Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, plucked by Boorman from the stage, are brilliant as rage-filled Bobby and moralistic Ronny, respectively. But it’s Reynolds, as Lewis, who feels the most at home in his character’s skin. Though, as we’ll see, Reynolds’ affinity for Lewis’ reckless bravado didn’t come without consequence.

The Deliverance waterfall stunt

With their victim hastily buried, the men urgently resume their journey. But while the others paddle swiftly, eager to put this horrible thing behind them, the same cannot be said for Drew.

Slumped at the bow, face drained of color, it’s clear that something isn’t right. As Ed urges his friend to put on his life jacket, Drew lurches wordlessly forward and disappears. In one of Deliverance‘s most ambiguous moments, it’s unclear if Drew was (as Lewis later insists) shot by an unseen marksman … or if he decided he couldn’t live with the group’s dark secret.

In the ensuing chaos, the three remaining men capsize at the mouth of a violent waterfall. Disoriented, gasping for breath, and frantically pawing at slick rocks in the hope of slowing their descent.

In the frothy chaos, we see Lewis rocket down the waterfall. He careens downwards, bouncing erratically in a way that can only be described as “uncontrolled.” And you’re never going to believe this, but it was exactly that.

How’d they do that?

Long story short:

Burt Reynolds launched himself down a real waterfall and immediately broke his tailbone.

Long story long:

Deliverance was shot on the Chattooga River, which bisects South Carolina and Georgia. While the film’s legacy in the region is complicated, the production’s presence in the latter state was responsible for the creation of the Georgia Film, Music, and Digital Entertainment Office, which is, if anything, a fun cultural wrinkle. The raging waters our protagonists find themselves in after Drew goes overboard belong to Tallulah Falls, a dam-controlled drop that anticipates a massive 1,000-foot (300 m) deep gorge.

Somewhat infamously, Warner Bros. tried their darndest to kill Deliverance by cutting off its blood supply to its budget. Among Boorman’s many cost-saving measures was the decision to not insure the production. This lack of a financial safety net led to the meta-line, ironically delivered by Reynolds: “Insurance? Shit. I never been insured in my life. I don’t believe in insurance. There’s no risk.”

When it came time to film the shots of Lewis plummeting down the falls, Boorman wanted to use a dummy (which, per Reynolds’ autobiography, was nicknamed “No Balls” by the crew). In what the actor would later dub “a dumb macho thing to do,” Reynolds convinced Boorman to let him go over for real, ostensibly because it would look better. And hey, there was a net at the mouth of the gorge (to avoid anyone going over the next waterfall). What’s the worst that could happen?

“They had control over the water [from a dam upriver],” Reynolds recalled to The Hollywood Reporter. “They shut it down and I went out and they had driven a spike into a big rock and I was holding onto it. Then they let the water go and I heard this sound — I dream sometimes of the water coming — I looked around and there was a tidal wave coming at me.”

As Boorman stresses in the film’s director’s commentary that they hadn’t planned on releasing that much water: “[We] had a lot of angry actors here because it really was too much water and it was raging … I feel terrible guilt that I put these men into more danger than they should have done.”

When Reynolds went over the falls, he immediately hit a rock and cracked his tailbone, an injury the actor claims never fully healed. When he finally reached the bottom of the falls, Reynolds found himself trapped in a whirlpool. Heeding the advice of a crewmember, rather than struggle against the current Reynolds swam downwards. This caused him to slingshot toward the surface. When he emerged, his clothes had been torn off. “I had no shoes, socks — the falls tore them off. It was a pretty hairy stunt,” Reynolds recalled to Business Insider. There are differing accounts of just how undressed Reynolds was when he surfaced. Over the decades, lost footwear has inflated to tales of full-blown nudity … which may or may not be related to the actor’s status as a sex symbol.

There is a conspicuous cut during Reynold’s stunt in the final edit of the film. And while it seems unlikely that Reynolds would have been immediately game to reshoot, given his shattered coccyx, it’s clear that we’re being denied some part of the catastrophe (be it Reynolds in some state of undress or a painful waiting period between shots).

American Cinematographer’s Herb A. Lightman happened to visit the Deliverance crew on-location not long after Reynolds’ accident. “I slid down a 40′ waterfall the other day,” Reynolds told Lightman. “It looked simple enough, but I lit right on my tailbone, on a submerged rock, and bounced about five feet in the air. Man, did that hurt. I could hardly move for several hours afterward.”

As a part of their pre-production training, all of the actors were taught how to canoe (only Beatty had prior experience). Meanwhile, it’s unclear just how much direction the gang had with respect to going down rapids without a paddle, as it were. Both Reynolds and Claude Terry, a whitewater consultant and Jon Voight’s stunt double, do a lot more flailing than is generally recommended. Ideally, in these situations, you want to keep both your nose and toes out of the water, with your feet pointed downstream to avoid entrapment or a head injury. If you watch the footage, Terry appears far flatter (for lack of a better term) than Reynolds, who is in more of a v-sit position. Terry does lose points for going down head-first at certain points, though it’s possible this was an artistic choice on Boorman’s part.

Claude Terry demonstrates what not to do if you find yourself hurtling down a waterfall.

Legend has it that when Reynolds approached Boorman after the incident, he asked: “how’d it look?” To which Boorman replied: “It looked like a dummy falling over a waterfall.” This quip is oft-repeated and is best told by preeminent Burt Reynolds impersonator Norm Macdonald, who supposedly heard the story from the horse’s mouth. (Macdonald also misremembers the director of Deliverance as John Frankenheimer, so who’s to say if his memory can be trusted). Then again, it’s a great set-up/pay-off — so who cares.

In all fairness, Reynolds wasn’t the only actor (or crewmember) to sustain injuries thanks to the Chattooga River. At one point during the shoot, Beatty fell into the drink and got caught in a hydraulic (a river feature where water falls from an obstruction into deeper water, creating a pullback towards the obstruction). Thankfully, Beatty managed to escape, but not before having an underwater existential crisis. “I thought, ‘This is where I die,’ and my wife was pregnant, and I thought about how mad she would be that I died in a river in Georgia,” Beatty told The Palm Beach Post. Beatty survived, unlike the five wooden canoes that were destroyed over the course of the production, per Boorman’s commentary.

Goodnight, sweet wooden prince.

“Working in this gorge is pretty tough,” Boorman confessed to ASC’s Lightman. “The rocks are treacherous and slippery and people are falling all the time and bruising themselves. We’ve been very lucky not to have anything more serious. The actors and crew are in and out of the water continually. They’re wet all day long. I don’t remember when my feet were dry last. When you take your shoes off at night, you see this sort of soft, white, rough skin. Then you wake up in the morning and your shoes are still wet … But the crew we’ve got is handpicked and is made up of types that like this kind of thing. They love it. They’re a terrific bunch — always in the water, helping out with the shots. We’ve really got a very good spirit.”

The precedent for the Deliverance waterfall stunt

Anyone familiar with Burt Reynolds’ whole deal won’t be surprised that this man insisted on launching himself down a waterfall.

Reynolds was a close friend of legendary stuntman Hal Needham, whose specialty was jumping between various modes of transportation (including from an airplane to a horse in an episode of You Asked For It). The pair first met on the set of the 1960s Western TV show Riverboat where Needham was hired as Reynolds’ stuntman. As Reynolds recalls in a 2015 interview with Variety, after insisting that he didn’t need a stuntman, Needham replied that most actors who said that wound up in the hospital. Evidently, Reynolds learned nothing from this exchange.

“I did all my own stunts, which is why I can’t walk very well now,” Reynolds relayed in a 2015 interview on The Jonathan Ross Show. “At certain times in the morning, I regret it, trying to get out of bed … I can point to certain places and know it’s from certain pictures.” It’s hard to read that and not think about Brendan Fraser’s 2018 GQ interview, where the Canadian actor made a striking comparison between physically broken action stars to exhausted draft horses destined for the glue factory.

While plenty of practical river stunts predate Deliverance, one of the oldest (and most relevant) comes courtesy of none other than Buster Keaton.

Released in 1923, Our Hospitality follows a young man named Willie McKay (Keaton) who falls hard and fast for Virginia (Keaton’s first wife Natalie Talmadge) while en route to his family’s estate in Appalachia. Unbeknownst to the couple, their families are sworn enemies and slapstick hijinx ensue.

In the film’s third act, McKay manages to evade Virginia’s murderous brothers only to dump himself into a raging river. After calmly paddling away in his sea-worthy boxcar, McKay finds himself drifting towards a series of rapids. Launched out of his makeshift boat, but still attached to a thick line of rope bound across his chest, McKay violently sails downstream.

What follows is certainly the most infamous stunt in the film: dangling over the ledge of the waterfall thanks to his trusty rope, McKay swings pendulum-like to clasp Virginia’s outstretched hands just as she is about to plummet to certain death.

While certainly spectacular, the “swing-catch” gag wasn’t executed at a real waterfall. The stunt was performed under controlled conditions on an artificial set at Brunton Studio in Hollywood, which conveniently featured a T-shaped concrete plunge pool. The same cannot be said of the earlier shot where McKay bobs down the rapids, which was shot on-location in the Truckee River and nearly killed Keaton.

As Marion Meade relays in Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase, when the wire restraining Keaton broke, the actor shot down the rapids. Ten minutes later, the crew found Keaton lying face down and immobile on a riverbank. Depending on who you ask, Keaton’s brush with death was evaded thanks to an overhanging branch (attracting a horde of water snakes in the process). The wide-angle shot of Keaton flailing down the rocky rapids was used in the final cut of the film and is followed by a series of shots of Keaton humorously bouncing off rocks, which were filmed on a set.

There is an obvious difference between Keaton accidentally getting his ass beat by a river and Burt Reynolds choosing to launch himself down a waterfall. But the ultimate takeaway is the same, and John Boorman says it best on his Deliverance commentary track: if a gag is so ridiculously dangerous that it requires a stuntman, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

Meg Shields: Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.