Coward: "Burt Reynolds told me to act mean"

"Deliverance" actor and his pet squirrel attract attention around Haywood

By Julianne Kuykendall | Jan 26, 2014
Photo by: Julianne Kuykendall THE SQUIRREL MAN: Herbert “Cowboy” Coward, left, is pictured with his companion, Bertha Brooks. Also, perched on Coward’s shoulder is Angel, his pet squirrel. Coward’s family includes his wife, Eileen (deceased), son Herbert (deceased) and daughters Debbie and Janet.

Every Sunday at Long’s Chapel United Methodist Church, there is an angel present in the congregation.

An angel?

Yes, but this angel isn’t dressed in a white robe with a halo over his head — he’s a squirrel named “Angel” who won’t miss a Sunday and is typically seen perched on the shoulder or sleeping snugly in the pocket of his 75-year-old owner, Herbert “Cowboy” Coward, often called “The Squirrel Man.”

Angel has become almost as locally famous as his owner, Coward, who is best known for his mountain-man villain role in terrorizing four canoeists in the 1972 Oscar-nominated movie “Deliverance.”

Largely because of that role, he has been ranked number one on a list of Hollywood villains, although he is obviously a genuinely humble and gentle soul who feeds his pet squirrel pecans, apples and biscuits and rarely gets out of church without he and Angel posing for a dozen pictures with congregation members and visitors.

“The kids and everybody just love Angel,” said Coward, who lives on Newfound Road in Canton.

Visitors often ask him about his intriguing and adventurous life which evolved from his being purely himself — just a simple rough and tough mountain man born here in Haywood County near Wildcat Cliff off Allen’s Creek Road in 1938.

He often tells them when he was born in a three-room cabin as the youngest of 10 children, the doctor had to park more than a mile away and finish the trek on the back of a mule, brought down by Coward’s brother, Arthur.

“About a year and a half later when we had all moved to Cabin Flats on Balsam, my Mama died of heart problems, and it had come a big snow that year and they had to bring her casket out of there on a sled,” said Coward, recalling family history.

It was one summer in the 1960s when Coward was working as a gunfighter at Ghost Town in the Sky that his Haywood County life took an interesting twist. It was there that he met and worked with Burt Reynolds who was a guest host and actor.

“He was in the gun fight with us and he was a real nice person,” Coward recalled.

Fast forward to 1971 when producers were casting for “Deliverance,” starring Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox. Slots were also open for two rugged mountain men, one of which had been given to actor Bill McKinney. After producers auditioned 75 men for the second role and still couldn’t find exactly who they wanted, Burt Reynolds recommended Coward, his old Ghost Town mountain buddy who he was convinced would be convincing in this role.

“When I showed up for the audition, Burt told me to act real mean and when I met the director, he said he was glad I dressed for the part, so I yelled at him and told him I was wearing my regular clothes and shoved him against the wall real mean,” said Coward, noting he squarely landed the part with that one bold act.

He was 33 years old that year when he suddenly spent six weeks in a “Haywood to Hollywood” movie-set lifestyle – and loved every minute of it.

In one scene in which Coward’s character plummeted off a 700-foot cliff, producers had agreed to pay a Hollywood stunt double $500 for the stunt. When the stunt-double wanted more money, Coward volunteered to complete his own stunt for the agreed-upon $500. “They had a rope tied to me so I just did it myself,” said Coward.

Other times while spending time with the big-screen actors, Coward randomly made up his own lines and the director was happy to let him veer off script and be himself. “One time we were acting a fool and coming up with lines and I made the line up about ‘You’ve got a pretty mouth, boy,’” recalled Coward, speaking of the now infamous movie line.

“A lot of people introduce me as the man in ‘Deliverance’ and I say that line to them about ‘You’ve got a pretty mouth, boy’ and they just die laughing,” he added.

After “Deliverance,” Coward received multiple offers to act in more movies but turned them down for a life he wanted in Haywood County, working 28 and a half years at the BASF plant in Enka, and caring for his wife, Eileen, a diabetic who died two and a half years ago.

“It wasn’t worth leaving Eileen to be in a bunch of movies,” stated Coward.

Later on in life, he did play another role as Harmon Teaster in “Ghost Town: The Movie” and has also appeared on the currently popular reality show “Hillbilly Blood.”

In one episode of “Hillbilly Blood,” men offer to haul off an old refrigerator in exchange for fish and Coward angrily explodes on the men with “What’s the matter, can’t you read that sign that says 'No Trespassing?'” while, in another episode, Coward’s companion Bertha Brooks grooms his beard with a crow’s foot. In a third episode, Coward assists guys into the deep woods at night in search for gold.

Angel, Coward’s pet squirrel, also made a guest appearance in “Hillbilly Blood.” “Yeah, Angel rides in the car and will get on the outside mirror and his ears will just be a flopping,” said Brooks.

After Coward broke his hip and pelvis at the beginning of this year, he says he’s not going to let it stop him from getting around in the mountains he loves.

“I can’t believe that I’ve walked all over these mountains and then I went and fell in my own yard and broke my hip,” he said.

After the fall, which happened during bitter cold weather, Angel wrapped around Coward's head and kept him warm until someone found him.

“They asked me if I could still be in more episodes of ‘Hillbilly Blood’ and I told them I reckoned I would,” Coward added.

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