In 'The Longest Yard,' Sonny Sixkiller Spent Three Months in Prison
Sonny Sixkiller sat on a couch in the middle of Georgia in a rental house with Burt Reynolds and Dinah Shore, and they watched TV together. It was a most surreal moment.
Here was the former University of Washington quarterback, coming off the disappointment of getting cut in his NFL tryout with the Los Angeles Rams, just hanging out with two of the biggest stars in the entertainment world.
Reynolds was coming off the most heightened film success of his career in "Deliverance," the movie that made him a star. Shore was a singer whose primetime TV show "Dinah's Place" made her America's sweetheart.
This was one of those real casual, behind-the-scenes instances involving A-list celebrities that few people get to see.
Burt sat around and made jokes.
Dinah wore a housecoat and had her hair up in curlers.
Sixkiller tried to keep from smiling.
"I thought if my mom could see me now, she would die and go to heaven," Sonny said.
For the next three months, they made a movie.
It was the fall of 1973 and everyone descended on Reidsville, Georgia, an hour and a half west of Savannah.
They were there to use the Georgia State Prison as the real-life set for "The Longest Yard," a comedy about a prison football team.
Hearing that Sonny had been cut by the Rams, Reynolds invited him to come join him in the South. He asked him to be his technical advisor and have a background role in the movie.
Three years earlier, the Hollywood actor had taken a special interest in Sixkiller, the Cherokee quarterback who became famous overnight because of his Native American heritage and the fact that he could really play.
Reynolds had been a highly regarded Florida State University running back at one time before injuries curtailed his athletic career. He had Cherokee in his family lineage, too.
In Seattle for some odd reason in 1970, Burt called up the University of Washington athletic department and asked if he could meet this kid named Sixkiller. The megastar showed up before Husky football practice that day, chatted up Sonny, watched him get taped, said hi to the other Huskies and told the surprised quarterback he'd stay in touch.
Thereafter, Reynolds dropped him little notes, inviting Sixkiller to dinner whenever the quarterback and his team came to Los Angeles to play USC or UCLA, though NCAA rules and travel logistics prevented that from happening.
Circumstances now brought them together in Georgia, in the stifling heat, to have some fun with 1,500 inmates surrounding them at all times. Martin Luther King Jr. was held unfairly at this facility once and released. It was a notorious place.
"We got along real well," Sixkiller said of Reynolds. "He wanted to show me off. I was the one on the cover of the magazine (Sports Illustrated)."
Sixkiller initially stayed in a motel that had a cafe in nearby Glennsville, 15 miles from the prison. It was the first time he ever dined on grits.
"It was a different part of the world," Sonny said.
He later moved into a double-wide trailer that he shared with character actor Pepper Martin, who had appeared in the recently released movie "Walking Tall."
The ex-Husky quarterback schooled Reynolds on how to call signals at the line of scrimmage. Then it was a constant football refresher on just about everything game-related for the actor.
"It was, 'Here Burt, call out the color and then the numbers after,' " Sixkiller said. "He didn't know how to do any of that (bleep). I worked with him on his footwork, on dropping back and on his throwing. Even actors need help. He was a good dude."
Sixkiller and the others would go out and watch Monday Night Football on TV together. Reynolds had made a record album and showed Sonny the cover before anyone else. Shore, who was Burt's girlfriend, fixed them lunch and brought it down.
Sonny got to know all the big names and former pro football players who appeared in the film. He played bridge with actor Eddie Albert. He became acquainted with Ray Nitschke, the Green Bay Packers middle linebacker who had just retired and would be inducted to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1978. He met Joe Kapp, the former NFL and CFL quarterback who appeared in several films and later became the University of California football coach.
Nitschke played a prison guard, Kapp an inmate. It was all good fun.
On Friday nights, film director Robert Aldrich liked to host a cast party for everyone and hold it in Glennsville. At one of these get-togethers, Aldrich called Sixkiller over and asked him if he would become Reynolds' stunt double. Take a greater role in the film. Say a few lines on screen.
The movie mogul had fired a guy that he initially lined up for the job because that person had become a pain with his girlfriend problems.
Sonny was all on board for this expanded film presence. In the cast credits he was known simply as "The Indian."
"I was going to be in it anyway, as a double or in the background," Sixkiller said. "Burt and I really weren't the same size, though."
The movie had the full support of then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who would become president five years later. Filming, however, had to be postponed at times because of the occasional prison uprising.
"Doing that movie was unbelievable," Sixkiller said. "We did it entirely in the prison, working with prisoners and guards. We went up to Death Row. Some of those guys were crazy. Some of those brothers were some of the funniest guys I've been around."
The film was released in October 1974 to mixed reviews, though it won a Golden Globe.
As for Burt Reynolds, he died in Florida in 2018 at 82.
A decade earlier, however, a Sixkiller acquaintance encountered the actor at a Native American art show in Los Angeles and told him of his connection to Sonny back in Seattle. Reynolds wrote on a card and asked him to give to Sixkiller.
It read: Young lad, you went the final yard. Burt.
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