How Burt Reynolds Ended Up In Deliverance Over Jack Nicholson

Hollywood is full of stories of actors who weren't cast because they demanded too much money, as well as other talented performers who get a shot at stardom as a result. Fortunately for Burt Reynolds, the stars aligned for the 1972 backwoods action thriller "Deliverance," and it's all because an A-list actor wanted too big of a payday to star in the film.

Reynolds, who kicked off his screen career in 1958, was no stranger to Hollywood by the time director John Boorman was assembling his cast for "Deliverance," having appeared in more than three-dozen projects on film and television. However, since Reynolds' credits were largely made up of guest turns on such notable series as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "The Twilight Zone," and "Gunsmoke," he wasn't as well-known of a commodity in Tinseltown as Jack Nicholson. By the early 1970s, Nicholson was already nominated for two Oscars.

In a tribute piece for The Hollywood Reporter after Reynolds' death in 2018 at age 82, Boorman wrote that Warner Bros. "was very unenthusiastic" about casting the actor in the lead role of Lewis in "Deliverance" since they wanted Nicholson. "They wanted a big star," Boorman recalled for THR. "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 [for the other lead role that ultimately went to Jon Voight], and he told me he'd do it for whatever Jack was asking for."

After that, Boorman told The Guardian in 2017, the studio gave him a simple directive to make the film "with unknowns" for $2 million.

Deliverance delivered Reynolds to the A-list

Given his limited budget, John Boorman hired Burt Reynolds to play Lewis in "Deliverance" for $50,000 — 1/10th of what Nicholson was demanding. Despite such little investment, the payoff was big. "Deliverance" not only earned $46 million worldwide against its paltry $2 million budget, it scored three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Boorman. The film catapulted Reynolds to the A-list, and within five years he was starring in such hits as "The Longest Yard" and "Smokey and the Bandit."

However, "Deliverance" did come at a big cost for Reynolds, physically. The "Deliverance" scene Reynolds regrets filming the most happened when he insisted on taking a canoe down a waterfall himself instead of using a stuntman, resulting in a cracked tailbone when he hit a rock and almost drowning when he was swept into a whirlpool at the bottom.

Discussing his film "The Last Movie Star" with the Chicago Sun Times in 2018, Reynolds seemed to adapt the harrowing river incident on "Deliverance" as a metaphor for his existence: "The river has much to with my life, my career — you just keep going on. It's going to try and drown you and beat the [expletive] out of you and do everything else. But you just keep going on ... And maybe there's a rock ahead that's going to hit you."

He took precautions with the "The Last Movie Star," though, where the older version of Reynolds is digitally inserted into movie scenes with his younger self — including a canoe scene from "Deliverance."