Scotsman Obituaries: Ned Beatty, US actor known for Deliverance and Superman

Ned Beatty, actor. Born: 6 July 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky. Died: 13 June 2021 in Los Angeles, aged 83

Ned Beatty in dress tartan at a New York party in 2003 (Picture: Gregorio Binuya/Getty Images)

The film Deliverance ends with Jon Voight’s character waking up from a nightmare that recalls how his dream canoeing trip with his buddies in the Appalachians turned nasty, leaving one friend and two hillbillies dead. Many viewers may well have had nightmares too after seeing the film. Some may choose to recall the sweet little scene of Duelling Banjos in which one of the campers performs a spontaneous duet with a blank-faced young local, who has learning difficulties, but clearly had no difficulties learning to pick out a tune. Viewers may prefer to try to forget the film’s most disturbing scene, in which porky debutant film actor Ned Beatty is told to “squeal like a pig” while hillbillies humiliate and rape him.

The moment disturbed audiences when the film came out in 1972. It is still one of the most shocking scenes in the history of mainstream cinema. Specifically it is the seventh most shocking scene ever according to Movie-list.com, ahead of the grave scene in Carrie and behind the folk song-severed ear combo in Reservoir Dogs.

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Deliverance, in which four city gents are menaced by the locals, was shot on a tight budget, with the actors doing many of their own stunt scenes. Beatty claimed he almost drowned at one point. The rape scene was largely improvised, with Beatty claiming credit for the famous “squeal like a pig” line, though there are various accounts of how it came about. And while Beatty was keen to take credit for the dialogue he was none too pleased when people came up to him in the street and requested that he repeat the oinking noises or, worse still, simply oinked at him.

Director John Boorman had already cast another actor in the role of Bobby, a rather smug, patronising character and anything but a natural adventurer type, but he changed his mind after meeting Beatty. Beatty had been eking out a living for years in provincial theatre, but nevertheless had a high opinion of himself. His meeting with Boorman was his big chance, but he spent much of the time flirting with the wife of Boorman’s assistant. “I was quite the heel and I think that’s what John Boorman liked,” Beatty recalled. “He said he thought I was the rudest person he had ever met.”

Deliverance was a huge critical and commercial hit, propelling Burt Reynolds to stardom, while Beatty carved out a very successful career for himself as a character actor, playing Lex Luthor’s obsequious comical sidekick Otis in the 1978 Superman film and its sequel and winning an Oscar nomination for his performance as the boss of a TV station in Network. His role lasted only about six minutes, but included a long, rambling speech, in which his character lectures Howard Beale, the TV presenter played by Peter Finch… “There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today... The world is a business... Our children will live, Mr Beale, to see… one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit.”

Not only had this role been allocated to another actor, director Sidney Lumet had already shot it with someone else, but Lumet was not satisfied with the results and hired Beatty, who had little time to learn his big speech. “I worked a day on Network and got an Oscar nomination for it,” he said.

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Taking time out from Hollywood in the 1980s, Beatty came over to Scotland for the comedy Restless Natives, which follows the misadventures of a couple of young anti-heroes who don joke-shop masks and hold up tourist buses. Beatty was an American cop, holidaying in Scotland, who makes it his business to track them down. It was a more innocent time and the film Trainspotting was still a decade away.

The son of a travelling salesman, Ned Thomas Beatty was born in Louisville in Kentucky in 1937. He was no relation of Warren Beatty, though Ned claimed Warren was his “illegitimate uncle”. Reportedly Warren was not amused. Beatty sang in barbershop quartets and the local church choir and had early ambitions to become a priest. He won a choral scholarship to Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, but dropped out, sold furniture for a while and acted with regional theatre companies before getting his break with Deliverance.

Beatty could play drama and comedy. His smile lent itself to the role of fool and something rather more sinister. He was particularly good at characters who were annoying or dislikeable. Corrupt lawmen became something of a specialism.

He hit it off with Deliverance co-star Burt Reynolds, who went on to develop an image as a knockabout action hero and became one Hollywood’s biggest box-office stars in the late 1970s. Beatty worked with him again on several films in the 1970s and 1980s, including White Lightning, playing a corrupt local sheriff, and WW and the Dixie Dancekings, playing a country singer. Beatty also had a major role in Robert Altman’s classic 1975 ensemble drama Nashville, playing a lecherous lawyer and political organiser rather than a singer, alongside Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Shelley Duvall and Lily Tomlin. He played Irish tenor Josef Locke in the 1991 film Hear My Song and was the infamous Judge Roy Bean in the TV adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s western novel Streets of Laredo.

Other film credits include All the President’s Men, the thriller The Big Easy (another corrupt cop), Shooter and Charlie Wilson’s War. Also in demand as a voice actor, Beatty lent his vocal talents to the mean-spirited bear Lotso in Toy Story 3 and voiced Tortoise John in Rango.

Beatty was married four times. The first three unions ended in divorce.

He is survived by his fourth wife and by eight children from his previous marriages.

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