The Ronny Cox Interview
Badass Actor from ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL
and a whole lot more!
by Lee Sobel
ROBOCOP (1987) spawned several sequels, a remake and numerous toys and collectibles. It's a great movie and continues to have a huge cult following. While the movie delivers the requisite action and sci-fi thrills, its Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who had previously directed art-house movies (but later gave us plenty of commercial movies including BASIC INSTINCT) brought out another dimension to it by satirizing everything from game shows to yuppie culture. So, it was inevitable that I would try to find someone who was in ROBOCOP to interview.
Once in the late 80's at a NYC coffee shop, my friend I was having lunch with spotted actor Ronny Cox who played Dick Jones to badass perfection in ROBOCOP, paying his check to the cashier. We approached him to say hello and he greeted us warmly. Ronny has had a career for almost 50 years in movies, getting his big break in the movie DELIVERANCE (1972) starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight because he could also play guitar very well. He now considers performing music his main focus and I was surprised to discover that back in the day he knew Buddy Holly.
Lee Sobel: I've met you before and I know you're a very nice guy and not the "dick" from Robocop. Are people surprised when they meet you to find how friendly you actually are?
Ronny Cox: Not really. I think there's only like 4 or 5% of the actors out there who are assholes who give the rest of us a bad name. The guy that taught me more than anybody else about how you treat your fans was Burt Reynolds. You've never seen anyone nicer to his fans than he was. He said something to me that has rung true with me ever since. Some actors get offended if someone brings them a napkin or something to sign but Burt taught me that that is just an excuse to come talk to someone they are a fan of. They may even throw the napkin away. Burt taught me that they just want to have a personal communication with you.
Lee Sobel: "Dick, you're fired!" is an iconic line from the 1987 sci-fi action movie ROBOCOP when Robocop nailed you and you got blown out of that skyscraper window. Do people come up to you and say that?
Ronny Cox: Of course. There was an online poll where Dick Jones was voted the best villain from movies of the 80's.
Lee Sobel: One of my favorite aspects of ROBOCOP is the satire in the film. Did you enjoy that?
Ronny Cox: Absolutely. The original script for the movie didn't have any of that. All that satire got put in there by Paul Verhoeven. One of the reasons why I really wanted to be in that movie was that I got to play a villain, which I had never gotten to do before. Originally people in the industry were kind of laughing about ROBOCOP because the script wasn't that good. That film is a triumph for Paul Verhoeven because he's the one that made us care. He's the one that made us laugh. He brought out all the best elements in the movie that just weren't clear enough on the page.
Lee Sobel: Verhoeven was making art-house movies before ROBOCOP. Were you familiar with any of his work prior to ROBOCOP?
Ronny Cox: Yeah, I saw a couple of movies he'd made before that, but I didn't know his work that well. I just wanted to play the bad guy. After playing Drew in DELIVERANCE, I got trapped in a lot of the same parts. If you play a character with any amount of sensitivity that gets equated in the industry as "weak." So if a character had any kind of guts to it, I didn't get those parts in those days because I was known as a "soft actor." I was tagged as the nice guy next door. It was frustrating for me because being an athlete and able to do a lot of other stuff than just be Mr. Nice Guy, it bothered me that I was never considered for those other roles. Paul saw something in me and that gave
me a chance to play that bad guy. And by the way, bad guys are ten times more fun than playing the good guys.
Lee Sobel: I'm not surprised that you were voted one of the best bad guys from 80's movies. There's a kind of cobra-like thing going on in your performance in ROBOCOP and also in TOTAL RECALL. You'll do a slow burn and then a sudden, quick attack. Do you know what I mean?
Ronny Cox: Here's my feeling about that. I think that nearly everybody who plays bad guys telegraphs what they are doing. I played bad guys who think they are good guys.
When I've played a bad guy, I've looked for every good thing I can play about him, just as when I play a good guy I look for every rough edge to bring out about him. Finding those things is what makes the character organic. I can't stand when an actor plays someone slow-witted and it's like they're commenting on how dumb their character is. One of the best performances ever was Billy Bob Thornton in SLING BLADE who played that guy like he was the smartest guy in the world.
Lee Sobel: Anything funny happen during the shooting of ROBOCOP?
Ronny Cox: Yeah, Miguel Ferrer did not want me to grab his hair in that bathroom scene. I had to fight him to get him to do it. He reluctantly agreed to let
me do it. There were three times during production that they were running out of money and the studio was thinking about shutting the movie down. They had to show some footage to the investors, and that was one of the earliest scenes we shot in the film. So they showed them that scene, and that's what kept the movie on course.
Lee Sobel: You worked with Verhoeven again after ROBOCOP when he cast you as another bad guy in TOTAL RECALL. Do you have a funny story about that movie?
Ronny Cox: There's a scene in the movie where I had been interrogating Arnold and then my character is told they're running out of air. I had a big, long speech which was like, "How dare you interrupt me when I'm doing important stuff and you call me and ask me about a trivial thing. What do I care if people can breathe or not," and the speech went on and on and on about him being pissed off about being interrupted. And we did
all that in the rehearsal. And then when we shot it he came in and said "They're running out of air in tunnel thirteen." And I turned to him and just said, "Fuck 'em." And that ended up being in the movie.
Lee Sobel: Tell me about your career leading up to DELIVERANCE.
Ronny Cox: I was doing a play in New York and one night a little lady came to see it named Miss Audrey Woods. She wasn't even a talent agent -- she was Tennessee Williams' literary agent. She came backstage and said to me, "Young man, who is your agent?" and I said, "I don't have an agent," and she said, "You do now." When John Boorman and casting director Lynn Stalmaster came to New York and were looking for unknown actors, they asked (famed theater producer) Joe Papp if there were any actors that they should see and Joe Papp recommended that they see me. So in many ways, Joe Papp got me the job in DELIVERANCE.
Lee Sobel: You wrote a book called Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew.
Ronny Cox: Yes I wrote a book about that movie because there are so many myths and legends about DELIVERANCE and most of them are false. I also went back and revised it before I did the audio book. I did my best to make it sound like I wasn't reading it so much as I wanted it to sound like you and I were just sitting having a cup of coffee and I was telling you the true stories of the making of the movie. It was a movie made like no other before or since. We shot in sequence, we did all the stunt work ourselves. Because that was my first movie, I didn't really know how movies were made, so it was a revelation after that movie when I made other films and discovered "Oh this is how movies are usually made."
Lee Sobel: It was also Ned Beatty's first movie. I heard that you and Ned were cast before the "above the line" stars were cast.
Ronny Cox: Yes and that's really unheard of. They came to New York and were looking for actors who were unknown and God knows I was unknown then. I met with director John Boorman and I was cast in the movie and then Ned was cast and they didn't even know that Ned and I had been friends already for eight years at that point and had done twenty plays
together. So they cast Ned and I and we had to wait around for a few weeks while they were deciding on the other two guys. I'll tell you the truth -- every actor in the world wanted those four roles. John Boorman had to literally hide out because in those days if a big star wanted to do a film, the director would have to meet with them as a courtesy, even if the actor was totally wrong for the part, and every actor wanted those roles. John wanted actors who were younger than the characters in the book. We shot it in 1971 and he wanted actors who were in their early 30's -- not old enough to be "establishment" but not young enough to be hippies -- he wanted guys who were caught in the middle that he felt were the most confused guys. He wanted that angst in the film.
Lee Sobel: What else do you recall about Burt Reynolds?
Ronny Cox: In those dates if you were an actor on television, you were seen as a cut or two below the actors in movies. Burt had had a series that was canceled called Dan August, so in a way DELIVERANCE was as much a boost to Burt's career as it was to the rest of us. Three things happened to Burt in 1972: he made DELIVERANCE and people realized he was actually a fabulous actor, he went on The Tonight Show and people saw that was funny, and he did the centerfold (in Cosmopolitan magazine). Those things combined helped to turn him into America's #1 box office movie star.
Lee Sobel: You must occasionally run into actors who work differently than you. I've heard of actors who stay in character all the time and other actors who joke around but when the director calls "Action!" they're able to snap right into their character.
Ronny Cox: Yes. Apropos of that, in DELIVERANCE when we shot the scene where they kill the mountain man, to get myself ready for that scene I was running, doing pushups, all kinds of gyrations. But Burt would just say give me that water bottle and spritz himself and say, "Let's go!"
Lee Sobel: Since DELIVERANCE you've pretty much worked non-stop.
Ronny Cox: There was a time in the late 80's and early 90's where I was in every movie ever made. (laughs) I've been lucky. I've never been a big star and I never wanted to be a big star. I got known as one of the really good actors, and I'm proud of that. I got lured back to my love of music and although I love acting, I don't love it quite as much as music. I can tell you why -- with acting, no matter what kind of acting you're doing, there's always that imaginary 4th wall and you can't interact with the audience. But when I perform music I get to talk to the people because I'm a storyteller and there is the possibility that there can be a profound one-on-one sharing that can take place. And that is an opiate that is undeniable. So because of that I am drawn more and more back to making music which is what I
was doing originally. I was a theater major in college but I was also cutting records, so I've been involved with music and acting my whole life. Do you know who Norman Petty is?
Lee Sobel: Of course. He recorded and produced Buddy Holly.
Ronny Cox: I was there when Buddy Holly cut "Peggy Sue." Norman Petty saw a band I was in in high school and hired us to sing backup for a girl out of Lubbock named Hope Griffith. The name of the record was "Only Once In A While." I had a rock 'n roll band back in those days: Ron's Rockouts. Norman Petty's studio was in Clovis, New Mexico and I lived in Portales which was 19 miles south of there. My sister still lives in Clovis.
Lee Sobel: You've made so many movies and TV shows. Have you ever turned anything down?
Ronny Cox: I've been very selective in my career. That's not to say that I haven't done crap. I have. Just not on purpose. I won't let any movie or television show interfere with any music gig I already have booked. I'm back in the music business not for any reason except I'm doing it for me, for that connection I get with an audience that I can't get any other way. A few years ago there was a movie with Kevin Costner called DRAFT DAY. Ivan Reitman directed the film. They wanted me for a role in the movie. I went in and as I always do, I checked their dates to make sure I didn't have any music gigs at the time I would be filming, but then about five or six weeks before the shoot they changed the schedule so I dropped out of the movie. This was after wardrobe fittings and I have long arms so they had to custom make all my shirts. They wanted me to be shooting at the very time that I was supposed to be on the main stage at the Kerrville Folk Festival which in my mind is the mother church of folk music. So I said to them, I can't do it. Try explaining that to Hollywood. You can't. I did get one really good line out of it.
They were so exasperated they said "Well how much are they paying for for that damn folk music gig?!" I said, "I think I've got more money in my pocket."
Lee Sobel: You worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger in TOTAL RECALL. What was that like?
Ronny Cox: Arnold came up through the world of body building and in many ways the way to survive in that world is to be more macho than anyone else. So on the set he was a bit of a bully and would throw his weight around at times. But I was playing Cohagen and I knew there was no way I could allow some other actor to be dominant over me so I knew I had to deal with that right away. He and I ended up having a really good relationship that was based on mutual put-down's. I never gave him any quarter and he never gave me any quarter. What I found is that Arnold appreciated that. He would make fun of me being in
DELIVERANCE and do this thing about dueling banjos and sing the music and I would have to say, "Okay Arnold, since we're together, does that make you the little kid sitting on the porch?"
Lee Sobel: You've made a number of science fiction and horror movies and TV shows. Are you a fan of the genre?
Ronny Cox: Oh, yeah. My two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation were two of the highest rated shows. To this day, everybody hates Captain Jellico, the part I played.
Lee Sobel: Of all the actors and directors you've worked with, who were your favorites?
Ronny Cox: My favorite director, far and away, was Hal Ashby. I so enjoyed making BOUND FOR GLORY because I am a folk musician myself and was steeped in the music of Woody Guthrie. I've worked with so many great directors though. In terms of actors, I loved working with Gene Hackman, Sean Penn, so many.
Lee Sobel: You starred in, wrote and produced the movie RAW COURAGE (1984). That sure is wearing a lot of hats. What do you recall about that movie and why didn't you write or produce anymore movies after that?
Ronny Cox: I wrote that partly because I wasn't being cast in roles I wanted to do. It was fabulous. We shot in my home state, New Mexico. I made two mistakes, though. Since I was the star, writer and producer, I made a decision that I wasn't going to stand over the director's shoulder or interfere. I was going to be a good guy. And to tell you the truth, I was wrong. In the end the producer fired the director because the producer got pissed off at him. So I ended up having to take over the editing as well at the end of the film. I should have been more of a pain in the ass and made sure the director got everything I wanted that the movie needed. I also realized how important the music score is to a movie. Typical of a lot of low budget movies, when you get to the end and you don't
have much money left for music, we didn't get to do a big score. We had to do a small, little electronic score, which was okay. When you edit a movie you use "temp dubs" and the music that we used to cut the film worked like gangbusters, but when we put that thin little score in there it took away from it. Those are my regrets about that film.
Lee Sobel: Too bad you didn't use your own music in the film.
Ronny Cox: My music would have been wrong for it and at the time I wasn't as back into music as I am now.