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‘Cowboy’ Coward, Deliverance actor and local legend, killed in wreck

Herbert "Cowboy" Coward disciplines his unruly pet squirrel, named Angel, at his home near Clyde in 2019. Herbert "Cowboy" Coward disciplines his unruly pet squirrel, named Angel, at his home near Clyde in 2019. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Herbert “Cowboy” Coward, a Haywood County native who shot to stardom after his hair-raising performance as a villain in the 1972 Burt Reynolds film Deliverance, was killed in a traffic accident in Haywood County yesterday afternoon.

Sgt. Michael Owens with the North Carolina Highway Patrol said troopers responded to a 911 call reporting the collision at 3:23 p.m. Owens said Coward and his partner, Bertha Brooks, were leaving a doctor’s appointment from an office off U.S. 19 between Clyde and Canton when Coward failed to yield. The small Nissan passenger car he was driving was struck on the passenger side by a Ford F-150 driven by a 16-year-old. Neither Coward nor Brooks were wearing seatbelts, and Owens added that speed was not a factor.

“We had multiple witnesses who stated the driver of the F-150 wasn’t speeding,” he said. “And our investigation of the damage at the scene also led us to believe that.”

Also killed in the crash along with Coward and Brooks were their pet chihuahua and Coward’s pet squirrel.

Coward came to work on the 1972 blockbuster film, in which he delivered his famous “He got a real purty mouth, ain’t he?” line. He’d landed that role after befriending Hollywood actor Burt Reynolds when the two worked as “gunfighters” at the Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley in the early 1970s.

Born to Fred and Moody Parker Coward in 1938, Cowboy worked as an itinerant laborer to help support his family after the death of their mother. As a heavy equipment operator, Cowboy traveled the United States but eventually settled back down in the county where he was born.

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He subsequently met amusement park impresario Hubert Presley, who in the early 1960s offered Cowboy a job clearing a road up Fie Top Mountain to what would soon become a wild west-themed amusement park featuring live performances of gunfights in the streets every hour, on the hour.

Eventually, Cowboy was offered the role of a gunfighter, losing his two front teeth when an overzealous castmate accidentally knocked them out with the butt end of a pistol.

It was there that Cowboy met Reynolds, whose career had experienced something of a downturn after he left the epic television western series Gnsmoke in 1965. The two became fast friends, and Reynolds remembered Cowboy when he was called away to star in what would be his breakthrough role of Lewis Medlock in a rafting-gone-wrong movie based on a novel by James Dickey.

In 2018, Reynolds told late night talk show host Conan O’Brien how he introduced Cowboy to director John Boorman.

“I said, ‘I know a guy, he can’t read and he can’t write or anything, but I’m telling ya, if we can get him, we got something special,’” Reynolds told O’Brien. “’Let me bring him in. His name’s Cowboy, and he’ll just talk to you, and you see if you like him.’”

They did, and Coward’s portrayal of “Toothless Man,” part of a trio of baddies who kidnap and accost Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Jon Voight, terrified audiences and led some to walk out of theaters when the movie was first released.

After playing one of the most memorable villains in movie history, Cowboy returned to his Haywood County home and worked a series of factory jobs, maintaining his friendship with Reynolds until Reynolds died in 2018.

“Burt said he didn’t have but three friends — real friends — and I was one of them, because I never asked him for nothing,” Cowboy told The Smoky Mountain News after Reynolds’ passing. “He said, ‘That’s what you call a good friend. There’s a difference between a friend and somebody that wants something from you.’”

Cowboy never shied away from fame and routinely fielded calls from strangers asking him to repeat his famous movie line in his famously thick Appalachian accent. Nor was Cowboy overly perturbed by being known as a movie villain.

“It don’t bother me at all,” he told SMN in 2019. “It’s just part of acting, you know. It was just another character to me.”  

People who got to know Cowboy also quickly realized he was nothing like the silver screen character he had portrayed all those years ago. Humble, introspective, affable and an animal lover, Cowboy was often accompanied by at least one of his pet squirrels tethered to his bib overalls, whether at the grocery store or at Long’s Chapel Methodist Church, where he worshipped regularly — a stark contrast to the murderous backwoods villain he’s best known for portraying.

Visitors to Cowboy’s home near Clyde invariably got to see the handmade wooden casket he’d procured for himself and proudly displayed in his parlor; in his later years, Cowboy was at ease with his mortality.

“When you die you have to have a casket, and you better be ready to meet the Lord,” he said. “Everybody’s gotta die. I just want to live a good life and go to church, try to be nice to people. That’s how people will remember you when you die, is how you treated people. If you’re not good to people, after a year or two they don’t remember you when you’re dead and gone.”

Coward was believed to be 86 years old at the time of his passing. Arrangements have not yet been announced.

SMN News Editor Kyle Perrotti contributed to this report.

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