Herbert “Cowboy” Coward, who as the sadistic toothless man in John Boorman’s Deliverance terrorized canoeists and audiences alike with the chilling line, “He got a real pretty mouth, ain’t he?,” has been killed in a car accident. He was 85.
Coward died Wednesday when the Nissan he was driving was struck by a pickup truck driven by a 16-year-old in Haywood County, North Carolina, North Carolina State Highway Patrol officials told WLOS-TV.
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Coward; his girlfriend, Bertha Brooks; and two pets, a chihuahua and a squirrel, died at the scene, they said. The other driver was taken to a hospital. No charges have been filed.
In the early 1960s, Burt Reynolds was making $100 a week falling off rooftops as a stuntman at the Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, when he first met Coward, who was there playing an outlaw character named Pa Clanton.
Years later, he thought Coward would be great as a villain in Deliverance (1972). “He couldn’t read or write and he stuttered, but he was a wonderful actor,” Reynolds said in a cast reunion video in 2017.
In the Warner Bros. film, nominated for the best picture Oscar, Coward and another hillbilly portrayed by Bill McKinney happen upon two vacationers (Jon Voight and, in his feature debut, Ned Beatty) in the woods. They’ve become separated from their friends, played by Reynolds and Ronny Cox.
The two locals bind Voight’s Ed Gentry to a tree before McKinney’s character sodomizes Beatty’s Bobby Trippe. For the controversial scene, Coward said he came up with the iconic line “squeal like a pig,” which McKinney says during the sexual assault.
“Bill was asking me what we should do with him and I said, ‘Make him squeal like a pig. Make him squeal like Pa’s old pig.’ I said it a few times, but it didn’t make it in the movie,” he recalled in 2017. The ad-libbed line, however, would be uttered by McKinney’s character in subsequent takes.
Coward had to settle for “He got a real pretty mouth, ain’t he?” as he unzips his pants and is about to abuse Ed before Reynolds’ Lewis Medlock arrives with a bow and arrow to save the day.
Coward’s “Toothless Man” is later killed by an arrow and his body, in a stunt he performed himself, is lowered into the river.
“They had a crane up there with a cable and harness where the cameras wouldn’t pick it up and lowered me down that big cliff,” he revealed. “It took about half an hour to let me down and I was hurting from that harness digging into me, but I enjoyed doing it.”
The last of nine children in his family, Coward was born on Aug. 21, 1938, in Haywood County, North Carolina. After his mother, Moody, died when he was young, he left school barely able to write his name.
He was approached by businessman Hubert Presley, who was a member of an ownership group developing a Wild West-themed amusement park on Buck Mountain. He was hired and earned his “Cowboy” nickname for operating bulldozers that built Ghost Town, which opened in June 1961.
“I was working on pretty heavy equipment for $18 and $20, that’s big money for back then,” he said. “I’d run them and [his boss would] say, ‘Ride ’em, cowboy!'”
Coward got his toothless grin when he was struck by a pistol that knocked out two front teeth during a staged gunfight. He did a lot of other stunts at the park, too.
“In the old days when you fell off the roof, you had to know how many times to roll to hit the ground. There weren’t [any] airbags. Just solid ground down there,” he said. “So, you had a rough time a-doin’ it.”
He also would become good friends with Bonanza star Dan Blocker, who was invited to the park to participate in gunfights and sign autographs.
For his Deliverance audition at the Holiday Inn in Maggie Valley, Coward arrived in a Jeep. He wore overalls with no shirt and clodhoppers with no socks.
When he was given a script and told to read from it, Reynolds realized that he had failed to inform Boorman that Coward was illiterate. So the actor told Coward to riff on the line, “Get over against that tree and take your pants down.”
Coward recalled Reynolds advising him to “just do whatever flies into your head.” When a producer repeatedly asked him to act angry, Coward grabbed him and threw him against the wall.
Boorman hired him on the spot, then reminded him that he would have to participate in that violent scene. Said Coward, “That’s all rrr-right, I’ve done a lot www-worse things than that.”
During production, Coward’s lines were played back to him on a tape recorder to help him memorize them.
Said Boorman in 2006: “Coward never made a film before, but he looked exactly right for the part. I found out later that he has a natural talent that doesn’t need much direction.”
Thirty-five years after Deliverance, Coward reunited with McKinney for Ghost Town: The Movie (2007), about the theme park. And in 2017, he had a cameo in a Jody Medford music video that also featured Deliverance banjo player Billy Redden.
In recent years, Coward lived a quiet life in his mountain home, seen around Haywood County with a pet squirrel on his shoulder. He took his brush with Hollywood fame and his legacy as one of cinema’s scariest villains in stride. “It was just another episode to me. I was used to doing crazy stuff [for characters],” he said. “When I was at Ghost Town, I was in a gunfight every hour on the hour.”
He remained in regular contact with Reynolds and said he saw him just a few weeks before his death in September 2018. “Burt said he didn’t have but three friends — real friends — and I was one of them because I never asked him for nothing,” he noted.
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