Burt Reynolds has cultivated the image of being a man's man, with a film career so diverse and bad-assed that even animated super spies look up to him as a symbol of virility and action. Part of the reason he's so revered as a legend is because of his commitment to his craft, which sometimes included doing his own stunts. Nowhere was this clearer than in his performance in the thriller Deliverance, and Reynolds' biggest impersonator, Norm MacDonald, recounted an interesting story that involved a waterfall, some rough rapids, and total nudity.
Burt Reynolds apparently used to do his own stunts, and a scene calling for a ride over a waterfall in Deliverance put him at odds with director John Frankenheimer. The argument for Reynolds to do the stunt was recounted by MacDonald during his interview on The Howard Stern Show, and the basic gist involves Reynolds' ego not allowing a stuntman or a dummy to take his place on the 25 ft. plunge. The back and forth between director and actor was recounted as follows:
So [Burt Reynolds] says, 'I'll do the fall, we don't need a stunt man,' and [John] Frankenheimer says, 'No... no. We need a stunt man.' [Reynolds] goes, 'No, we don't want that.' [Frankenheimer] says, 'Ok, well we'll just use a dummy, we'll just throw a dummy over.'
With an actual waterfall in play, and the young Burt Reynolds still in the thick of his career, you can pretty much feel how nervous John Frankenheimer was to use one of Hollywood's bigger stars in such a harrowing stunt. If anything had gone wrong, Reynolds could have left behind a production without a leading man, as well as a grieving compliment of family and friends. Yet while using a stunt dummy is the more practical way to get things done, it didn't sound like it'd look like the real thing to the Smokey and The Bandit actor.
Of course, knowing the type of man Burt Reynolds was in the 1970's, he wasn't going to let the director win out on the fight. Sure enough, Reynolds went to bat for his right to get into a canoe, and ride it out down the waterfall scene you see in the film today. Unfortunately for him, that hubris cost him a trip to the emergency room, as after executing the stunt in question, Reynolds was a little more worse for the wear. Norm MacDonald continued with the story about the infamous stunt, as he recounted Burt Reynolds' retelling of the aftermath thusly:
He said his shoulder really hit a rock, and his head hit another rock. And then he said the next thing he remembered was he was way down stream, all of his clothes were torn off. [...] Next thing he remembers, he's waking up in the hospital, John Frankenheimer's at his bedside. And he goes, 'I said to John, how'd it look... on the dailies?' And John Frankenheimer said, 'It looked like a dummy falling over a waterfall.'
Needless to say, Burt Reynolds emerged with some injuries, but nothing some rest and recuperation couldn't handle. While the shot really didn't benefit from his death defying stunt work, Reynolds did walk away with one more story to tell people as a charming example of his nerves of steel. Which, by proxy, gives Norm MacDonald further grist to fuel his mill of Burt Reynolds impressions, which lead to interviews like the one we've just discussed.
If you're interested in more Burt Reynolds' history, told by the man himself, then you can pick up a copy of his autobiography, But Enough About Me, which is currently available.