40 years later, the memories of 'Deliverance' still linger

3:39 PM, Jun 16, 2012   |    comments
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Payson Kennedy kayaking on the Chattooga River.

RABUN Co., Ga. -- With the drama the film Deliverance captured, it's a wonder anyone signed up for a river adventure in North Georgia after the summer of 1972. But they did - and they still do.

For decades, people have suited up for a trip downstream. Many were led by Payson Kennedy, just like we were on the Chattooga River.

Now in his 70s, and on the water weekly, Kennedy was a double in Deliverance.

Grainy photographs from the set show Kennedy -- who was Ned Beatty's double -- his river buddies and stars like Jon Voight getting camera ready for the film adapted from James Dickey's bestseller about wilderness and survival.

"They started making the film without us. It wasn't until they had some mishaps on the river and lost a camera and such, that I think the stuntmen from Hollywood said, 'hey, you need to get some people in here who really knew the river and know what they're doing paddling'," Kennedy said.

Sometimes he was on the rapids; sometimes, helping the actors stay safe.

"Our job was to be downstream with safety ropes so we could pull the paddlers to shore before they went over the waterfall," he said. "There really was a 65 foot drop."

Once a hobby, it became a career when the Georgia Tech librarian and programmer left academia to create an outdoor adventure company just as the film opened.

"In the early years, growth was rapid and spontaneous, word of mouth," he said.

The Nantahala Outdoor Center is a $15 million a year business.

Georgia's moviemaking industry has also taken off, in part due to Ed Spivia. He was on the set of Deliverance learning the industry and was Georgia's first film commissioner.

Spivia worked with then-Gov. Jimmy Carter to bring Hollywood here.

"He realized the problems he was having getting big business to consider Georgia," Spivia said. "He wanted us to get rid of the little red school house and dusty sandy road image that Georgia had."

Today his Lake Lanier home is a museum to moviemaking. There are albums with newspaper clippings and lining the walls, photos of celebrities -- John Wayne, Paul Newman, Ray Charles.

"There are a lot of people who would have liked to have my job, he said. "Including me."

But for Kennedy...

"I have the padding bug rather than the filmmaking bug."

Deliverance was the only film he ever worked on.

And, what a defining film it was. The controversial thriller still evokes intense emotion today.

"People were mixed about the content of the film," he said. "I guess that's my one complaint about the movie.. They depicted mountain people of North Georgia in a very unfavorable light."

Nonetheless, as the 40th anniversary of the film nears, it's cemented as an exciting and critical chapter for Georgia -- and for Spivia and Kennedy.

If you would like to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Deliverance, the Chattooga River Festival is the place to be June 22-24, 2012. The Rabun County Civic Center will show the movie and you can also catch it at a local drive-in. Hikes are scheduled, and of course, there will be banjo music.

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