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The studio was very unenthusiastic about casting Burt in Deliverance. They wanted a big star. I had gone to Jack Nicholson, but he wanted a half-million dollars, which was outrageous in 1972, and then I went to Marlon Brando, and he told me he’d do it for whatever Jack was asking for, so in the end the studio told me to go ahead and make it with nobodies for no money. They had very little confidence in the material.
I went out and got Burt — I paid him $50,000 — and then Jon Voight. The two of them were total opposites. Jon hated signing autographs — he didn’t want to be disturbed by it. Burt loved it, said he could do it all day long. Voight analyzed everything to death, while Burt’s approach was to look at a scene and say, “How do I get through this without making a fool of myself?”
Burt was fearless, reckless really, but terrific in the role. It fitted him so well. But at the end of the shoot, Burt came to me and said, “John, I was cast under false pretenses.” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “I can’t act. I was just faking it.” That just about sums him up.
Burt’s saving grace was a sense of humor. He never took himself too seriously. Right around when the movie came out, he did that nude centerfold for Cosmo. He came to me and he said, “You know this sex symbol thing isn’t working out for me. Women expect something amazing from me. But I’m just a fumbler, like everybody else.”
A version of this story appears in the Sept. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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