Thomas Wictor

Choosing to refrain

Choosing to refrain

One of my artistic heroes is the actor Ned Beatty. He can do anything, but I admire him most for the film Deliverance. In an excruciating scene, Beatty is raped by another man after being stripped naked and humiliated. I could never figure out how Beatty had the courage to let all of that be done to him, but now I’ve been told the reason. It was because someone chose to refrain.

If you don’t know Ned Beatty, here’s one of his finest moments. I hope you can see it in your country.

When the movie version of James Dickey’s novel Deliverance was being made, the author was present on the set, co-directing against the will of John Boorman. Dickey was a physically huge man with an ego to match.


He was also a stunningly brilliant actor, given a cameo as the sheriff in Deliverance. There’s magic in Southern American English, and Dickey mastered it. His handful of lines have the impact of an entire career.

What happened to Dickey was that he came to believe his own press. He claimed to have killed people, and he used his massive bulk to intimidate those who disagreed with him. His shtick was to get right up into a person’s face and talk in a soft, menacing voice.

The scene in which Ned Beatty is raped has caused much hilarity among imbeciles. They laugh to try and disguise their horror. Since the rape is crucial to the plot, the filmmakers needed the perfect actor to play the rapist. It was simply impossible to find him, and then Burt Reynolds remembered a tree surgeon in Beverly Hills. His name was Bill McKinney.

McKinney was flown out to Georgia to audition. He got the part immediately, based on his appearance and acting skills. McKinney is on the right.


Ned Beatty is in the center, and on the left is Herbert “Cowboy” Coward. A lot of bunk has been written about him. Don’t believe any of it.

Bill McKinney was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and served on a minesweeper during the Korean War. Mine sweeping was so hazardous that McKinney vowed that if he survived, he’d pursue his crazy dream of becoming an actor. After the war he moved to Los Angeles and studied acting at the prestigious Playhouse and the Actors Studio. He was a highly trained professional who supported himself by being a tree surgeon for the wealthy.

In Georgia writer James Dickey told John Boorman that he wanted McKinney to not meet Ned Beatty beforehand so that the rape would be more realistic. He wanted Beatty to be afraid, not knowing what was coming. Boorman and Dickey informed McKinney that this was what the writer wanted.

“No,” McKinney said. “I’m not going to do that.”

Dickey blew up. Did this pissant little nothing of an actor know who he was talking to?

“I’m not going to traumatize someone just for a movie,” McKinney said. “Find someone else.”

This was the first time anyone on the set had said no to Dickey. Director Boorman sided with McKinney. Against Dickey’s strenuous and increasingly furious protests, McKinney met with Beatty, and together they privately choreographed every movement and line of dialog in the scene. Beatty had to take off his clothes, and then McKinney fondled him, called him a hog, rode on his back, pinched his ear to make him squeal like a pig, and mimed raping him.

Beatty said it was the easiest acting job he’d ever done. McKinney went out of his way to make sure that Beatty knew he wouldn’t be hurt, and McKinney also took pains to prevent Beatty from being humiliated. Beatty had total control over the scene. He said he felt nothing other than the thrill of making great art.

After Bill McKinney broke the spell by telling James Dickey to go to hell, the others began standing up to the writer. Eventually he was thrown off the set.

I won’t ruin anything by pointing out that when McKinney leads Beatty around by the nose, you can see that he’s being very careful to not cause him actual pain. His hand is barely touching Beatty’s nose.


Rape is about exerting power over someone. I always knew that Deliverance was just a movie, and Ned Beatty was well compensated to be in it, but I still felt bad for him. I wondered if the other actors had made fun of him, the way Internet morons do. So I was very glad to learn that Bill McKinney made sure that the experience wouldn’t scar Beatty.

Was it McKinney’s own troubled childhood? He was beaten by gangs and thrown in a river for being different. Was it his two years of combat duty in the navy? Mine sweeping is incredibly dangerous. Here’s how mines are attached to the sea bed.


A minesweeper dragged a wire that cut the mooring chain of the mine.


To sweep for mines, you go where the mines are, which is a minefield. The whole time you’re sweeping, you’re wondering if you might hit a mine yourself. If you do, this is what happens.

During the Korean War, Bill McKinney’s minesweeper had to move in very close to shore. Enemy coastal artillery fire was so intense that the minesweepers switched to nocturnal operations. In response, the communists painted their mines black. Helicopters could no longer be used to spot the weapons, so the sailors crossed their fingers and hoped for the best. McKinney endured two straight years of terror. I imagine that the hardest part was going out again into the darkness, over and over, unable to tell water from sky, waiting for the explosion.

Some people use their own trauma as an excuse to inflict pain on others. Then there are those like Bill McKinney, who refrain. He died on December 1, 2011, at the age of eighty. McKinney played one of cinema’s most horrific villains, but by treating Ned Beatty with concern and by telling James Dickey to cram it, he became one of my heroes.

The title of the novel and film is based the Lord’s Prayer, the line “Deliver us from evil.” Deliverance comes when we—they—choose to not.

Well done, Bill. You stood your ground and refused to be intimidated. A century from now, people will still be talking about you.


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