Deliverance Actor Still A Mountain Man Over 45 Years Later

By Jim Matheny / Posted on September 23, 2018

It’s been over 45 years since Deliverance made movie theaters squeal. The actor who played a notorious hillbilly villain is still a naturally entertaining character in Appalachia.

In the hills of Haywood County, North Carolina, you’ll find a gate with a sign that warns “trespassers will be shot and survivors will be shot again.” Behind the gate is the home of a real rapid-fire character by the name of Herbert “Cowboy” Coward.

Now in his 80s, a white beard is a steady source of entertainment. Cowboy constantly cracks jokes while shuffling around his property with a six-year-old pet squirrel named “Angel” on his shoulder.

“I love my squirrel. He’s a good boy and goes to church every Sunday. He’s a good companion and they’re pretty intelligent animals,” said Coward.

Inside Coward’s home, there’s a new casket in the living room he bought for a bargain.

“I got it for $75. You better be ready to meet the Lord and you better have a casket. I’ll lie down in it every now and then and it’s a right good casket, but I ain’t dying to get in it yet.”

Some city-slickers might take a look at Coward’s appearance and decide he looks like a character from the iconic film Deliverance. They’d be right.

This year marks 45 years since Coward graced the silver screen as the “toothless man” in one of the most notorious and disturbing rape scenes in Hollywood history. He and costar Bill McKinney are credited with conjuring the infamous “squeal like a pig” line that became so engrained in popular culture.

“We did improvise a whole lot and it was brutal stuff,” said Coward. “Bill [McKinney] was asking me what we should do with him [Ned Beatty’s character, Bobby] 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. Then I told that ol’ boy he’s got a ‘purty’ mouth, so that was my line people remember.”

Coward had plenty of practice playing the villain before Deliverance. He worked as a gunfighter at “Ghost Town in the Sky” amusement park in Maggie Valley in the 1960s. The gun fights were fake, but the stunts were real.

“A pistol hit me in the mouth and I had my teeth knocked out at a gunfight at the Ghost Town years ago. I didn’t have my two front teeth,” said Coward. “I have all my teeth now.”

Photographs at Ghost Town in the 1960s show Coward playfully enjoying his gummy expression and comically crossing his eyes.

During his time at Ghost Town, Cowboy crossed paths with a young actor from the television show Gunsmoke.

“I got to know Burt Reynolds really well. He was a gunfighter with us for one summer at Ghost Town,” said Coward.

Deliverance was the first major film for actors Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty. Credit: Warner Bros.

The connection with Reynolds helped Coward land his most memorable movie role. Coward said Reynolds noticed his photo on the producer’s office wall as an upcoming tryout for the part of the hillbilly villain in Deliverance.

“Burt had my number and called me to come over there where they were going to be filming. He said when the producer comes in, he’ll ask you to act like you’re mad and act like you’re hurt. Then he’ll ask you, ‘Is that as mad as you can act?’ and you just do whatever flies into your head. So when he [the producer] asked me that, I just slapped him. He said, ‘That’s mad enough’ and I got the job,” laughed Coward.

Like his job at Ghost Town, filming the scenes for Deliverance required all the actors to do their own stunts.

“In the boats, Burt and those guys did all their own stunt work. I did all my own stunts. I was tied to a rope and went off the rock cliffs that nobody had ever gone down before. 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. It took about half an hour let me down and I was hurting from that harness digging into me, but I enjoyed doing it.”

Herbert Cowboy Coward is lowered from a large cliff in the film Deliverance. Actors performed their own stunts in the 1972 movie. Credit: Warner Bros.

The sexually violent scenes of the movie often overshadow the film’s overall greatness. It was a box office success, launched the Hollywood careers of several actors, delivered the musical hit Dueling Banjos, and was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It fell short of the biggest prize at the Oscars, but there was no shame in losing to The Godfather. The Library of Congress has preserved Deliverance as a significant movie in the nation’s history.

The stunning scenery and thrilling river rapids in Deliverance gave a big boost to tourism by showcasing the whitewater that winds through the Appalachian Mountains. Despite the disturbing and deadly consequences in the movie, the film helped fuel an industry to meet the demand of visitors eager to raft, canoe, and kayak.

The film also cast a long shadow and stigma, spreading a stereotype of mountain people as inbred half-wits lurking in the woods for the chance to make outsiders squeal like pigs. The movie delivered decades of relentless Deliverance jokes that continue today with “paddle faster, I hear banjo music” merchandise.

For Cowboy Coward, there were never any reservations or regrets about playing the part of the poster-boy for hillbilly deviance. The film was a positive experience. The role was merely a character in a movie and part of the job, not a personally humiliating punchline.

“It was just another episode to me. I was used to doing crazy stuff [for characters]. When I was at Ghost Town, I was in a gun fight every hour on the hour. You’ve got to enjoy it. So, the movie, it was really exciting,” said Coward.

To say the least, Coward did not make a fortune for his part in Deliverance. But with his terrifying toothless grin, fame certainly smiled on Cowboy.

Herbert Cowboy Coward flashes a toothless grin during an infamous rape scene in the film Deliverance. Credit: Warner Bros.

“It changes your life. You were a nobody and, all at once, overnight you’re somebody. I had kin and people coming to me that I’d never heard of before. They were patting me on the back and I was a good friend. I was somebody. I’d never been nobody before, but I was somebody,” laughed Coward.

In the decades since Deliverance, Coward says he made ends meet by working at the BASF factory in Asheville for 27 years before retiring. The factory closed in 2008.

Coward’s recent acting career includes a couple of credits for the movie “Ghost Town” and the television show “Hillbilly Blood.”

Herbert Cowboy Coward at his home near Canton, NC.

Through it all, the role on the raging river as a violent villain over 45 years ago remains a big part of his life.

“I’ll sign autographs and take pictures. I have folks call me on the phone when they’re with friends and put me on speaker and say, ‘Tell these people to squeal like a pig.’ It’s fun. I’ll say, ‘Squeal like a pig! Squeal like Paw’s ol’ pig!’ and we get a big laugh,” said Coward.

On film or among friends, Herbert “Cowboy” Coward has never stopped being an character. He just acts naturally.

“Pretty much everyone around here knows me. And they know my squirrel. We have a good time,” said Coward.

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