It's okay. You can admit it now - you watched The Dukes of Hazzard and probably even enjoyed it. Sure, you scoffed with your high-falutin' friends at the ridiculous characters, and you made the excuse for watching the show that you were just waiting until Dallas came on. Yet, to this day, you call high-cut denim shorts "Daisy Dukes" and you still twirl your fingers atop your steering wheel, just like Jon Schneider did when executing a serpentine turn in the General Lee.
I loved The Dukes of Hazzard for the sheer joy of watching Dodge Chargers fly into haylofts and railroad boxcars. The General Lee was a regular character on the show, and probably contributed more to advancing the plot than, say, Rick Hurst's character.
Having been a Dodge owner myself, I could appreciate the idea of the main characters having a mechanic as a best friend. With a Dodge, it's a necessity. People who fix Dodge cars must have infinite patience, resourcefulness, and tact. The personality required for the mechanic in Dukes was tailor-made for Ben "Cooter" Jones.
Ben was a guest celebrity at the 73rd Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester, Virginia. At a press conference featuring boodles of ex- and current TV stars, Ben was a low-key member of the media square dance.
Cooter's far from being retired. After a stint on quite a few Dukes revivals, he appeared in several films (notably, the recent Primary Colors), stage plays, and personal appearances. Ben landed a job at a place called the House of Representatives, and served 3 terms there for Georgia - - losing his last race to a man named Newt in a re-districting maneuver in 1994. Ben moved to Virginia, and opened a restaurant in Sperryville called Cooter's Place - a spot where Cooter can rub elbows with his fans, eat a good meal, and play some guitar. Of course, he's on the web at www.cootersplace.com
Ben doesn't shy away from his character - he IS Cooter, and he's ready to talk Dukes 24 / 7. Here's how it went down...
Ben - Hey - how are you doing? I'm Ben Jones - it's good to see you.
Nice to meet you. I'm Jim O'Kane from TVDads.com
Ben - Oh, really?
We track Single Dads on television, and Dukes of Hazzard qualifies as a Single Dad show, because Uncle Jesse takes care of three kids...
Ben - Yeah, he sure did - - he raised a family.
I met Denver [Jesse Duke] Pyle many years ago, and he was a very kind gentleman.
Ben - Yes, he was. You know, Denver passed away Christmas Day of 1997. And the last thing, the last public thing that he did - and I spoke at the event - was that they dedicated a star to him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame - on the sidewalk in Hollywood.
Wow - neat!
Ben - And a lot of his old friends were there, a lot of old cowboys - - and several of us from the cast made it out there. And I spoke, and his wife, Tippy, sent me his resumé to prepare my remarks - and the resumé was that thick! An inch thick! He had done like - - 500 movies and 2,000 television shows - - I think he'd been in more movies than I'd ever seen. Denver was a great old guy. And that show, I think - - it was a 'family' show in the best sense of the word. Families watched it together, but it was also about a family. It was about a family that really hung together and were taught their values and their character-building from their patriarch, Uncle Jesse. And they hung together like that - - it was a family, a foster family, but you know, so much of that is the way it IS in America, nowadays.
It's a reflection of our society...
Ben - Exactly! Yeah. And we never knew exactly what happened to the Duke kids' parents. We assumed that they had died together - a plane crash or a car crash or something - and because those kids were orphans, Jesse took them in. We never talked about that. But yeah, that show qualified.
I'm sure that every day that show's been on, you've talked about The Dukes of Hazzard
Ben - No - you know, it's a funny thing, but for a number of years I did politics. I was in Congress for a couple of terms, and people would bring constituents by to meet me, because I was on the show and they thought that was cool. But it was pretty serious work there, and it wasn't something we dwelled on - 'oh, he's the guy that used to do that.' But in the last few years, particularly in the last three years, three or four years, I guess - - the show's taken off all over again. In many ways, it's a hit show right now on cable. It's the hottest show on The Nashville Network. There's a new video game that's the number one video game out there in the country. We've just done our second movie-of-the-week reunion show. There's new merchandise coming out all the time.
You've got your business going on in Sperryville..
Ben - Yeah, Cooter's Place is cookin' ! I tell you, people have come - - we've already, just in the short time we've been open, we've had people from every state in the Union and from over 25 foreign countries. Because this show is also shown internationally. It's been a big, nice ride for 22 years.
It sounds like you've really embraced it. I mean, there's some actors that look back and say, "Please don't remember me for this particular role.." but -
Ben - [laughs] Yeah, I can understand people doing that. But at a certain point, when something is this much of an overwhelming success, and becomes part of American life for so long - - you know, I'm still an actor and I do other things, but I accept the fact that America loved that show and loved my portrayal, and that there's nothing I can do - - - I don't WANT to change that! I'm still enjoying that! It would be as if James Arness - -
One of the Apple Blossom pageant winners (Miss Apple Blossom, I think) interrupted to get an autograph. Ben barely broke stride, signed a photo, shook hands with the signee, and picked right up where we left off as
Ben - As I was saying, it would be as if James Arness had said, "Don't associate me with Matt Dillon! I'm not Matt Dillon!" Well that's IT - , he was Matt Dillon! Or - - Lucy was Lucy - - of course, Lucy was Lucy! That's when you become that closely identified with a role - in a creative role - - and I had such a good time with it, it's become a permanent nickname for me.
Ben - And it's a nickname that I answer to and enjoy - - even beyond The Dukes of Hazzard, people see me in town - - "Cooter!" - - that's a good nickname. But Cooter is a term of endearment.
I'm going to ask you a question you've been asked 10,000 times before: when you first tried out for the role - did you see anything like this happening, that you'd become an icon?
Ben - Well, I knew when the cast first met - when the entire cast got together for the first time - I sensed that we were onto something special. At that point I'd been in show business for about 15 years, and, you know, you get a sense for those things. I looked around at the cast, and it was perfectly cast. Everybody - there was an immediate - - chemistry, a synergy - - people just picked it up immediately. And in those years, the Burt Reynolds movies were popular - Smoky and the Bandit, that sort of thing - - Jimmy Carter was president - that tells you how long ago it was! And things Southern - there was an interest in that. Waylon Jennings did our theme song - he was big then. So, the thing just took off. It was also something else, though. . The reason the show succeeded was because it was a very simple, unpretentious, old-fashioned show - - much like the B- westerns, which we used to see on the Saturday matinees, with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry - - the Good Guys always won, nobody really got hurt - - it was comic violence, you know, mock violence. Nobody ever bled, or got hurt.
Ben - Yeah, and there was a good lesson in the end, that,you know: "Greed Doesn't Pay"
It was surprising, considering the time - - CBS had gotten rid of all of its rural comedies back in '71 - - and you were the first ones let "back in."
Ben - Well, that's right - and there's a story - I thought it wasn't true but I found out it WAS true: William Paley, who was then the President of CBS for so many years, who had dumped Andy Griffith and Green Acres and Hee-Haw and all those shows - - - he would have put the kibosh on The Dukes of Hazzard, but he was in Europe for an extended vacation - - and when he got back, The Dukes of Hazzard was the number 1 show on television, and he couldn't kill it off .
Ben had to get on the bus for the next Apple Blossom event, so we had to call it quits for the interview. Sperryville isn't too far from my house though, so maybe I'll stop by for a burger and have another chat with Cooter real soon.