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Where Aren’t They Now: Billy Redden

Brad Mariano exposes the life trajectory of film’s favourite hillbilly banjo player.

Ah, yes. The unmistakable Billy Redden.
Ah, yes. The unmistakable Billy Redden.

American cinema is full of those minor moments or characters that once seen, are never forgotten, ingraining themselves into the pop culture and the collective consciousness. One of these cultural landmarks comes from Deliverance, the 1972 thriller about four men kayaking down river in the Deep South.

It’s the famous banjo scene (Youtube it), where one of the four buddies (Ronny Cox) meets one of the hillbilly locals – a very strange looking boy who we infer to be inbred and mentally retarded. He does, however, play a mean banjo and the two of them musically duel for a couple of minutes to a tune called “Duelin’ Banjos” that had been composed in the 50s (and after the film, would briefly enter into the Billboard charts).

It’s a moment in the film of humour, yet also of ominous significance. The group ventures into unknown hick territory, and the boy’s face stays with you a long time. But who is he? And where is he now?

Well, to expose the reality behind the movie magic, he was a regular kid named Billy Redden, neither mentally retarded or inbred. He did not actually play the banjo – a local musician hid behind the boy and played with his hands instead. The boy’s unfortunate physiognomy was also exaggerated by makeup, and by just sitting there silently, he wrote himself into movie history.

After the movie’s release, an opportunistic Redden put the modelling career on hold and ran Deliverance tours down the Cahulawassee river (South Carolina), on which the movie was shot. However, finding the work dangerous, he soon quit, and perhaps wisely – over 30 people have died on that river since the film’s release.

The film’s legacy didn’t elude him that easily, however, and the banjo would catch up with him multiple times, and over the years he would have a cameo appearance in three more films, all holding a banjo – the first, uncredited, in an 80s action film, Blastfighter.

He then lay low for a while, getting on with his regular person life working in hospitality, as a dishwasher, cook and eventual part-owner of a diner in Clayton, Georgia called the Cookie Jar Cafe, in relative anonymity.

Then Tim Burton, who has made a career out of exploiting and ruining nostalgic memories of movie audiences found him and gave him a cameo appearance, credited as “Banjo Man”, in 2003’s Big Fish.

The next year he expanded his range to playing an inbred car mechanic in a sketch in comedy show Blue Collar TV, who again plays a banjo. His most recent screen appearance is in a film called Outrage, a 2009 independent action movie starring Michael Madsen that looks to be one of the weaker efforts in both Redden’s filmography and the broader history of cinema (his IMDB listing for this film again is “Banjo Man”).

In shoddy clips on Youtube, an older (some would say distinguished looking) Redden is standing and playing the exact same tune from 37 years earlier.

He seems to have a path laid out now, working a regular job and pulling out the banjo as long as the cheques keep rolling in. And who can blame him? He’s been in four more films than most of us have.