Photos and story by Robin Postell
VALDOSTA – Actor Sonny Shroyer reached up in the top of his closet recently and felt something. “I hadn’t seen this in years,” he said, holding a plaster forearm cast in his hands. “Probably since 1973 when I finished filming The Longest Yard.”
Scores of signatures in blue, red and black ink covered the entire forearm cast, signed by his fellow actors (and convicts) of The Longest Yard. Prisoners were recruited to play alongside the actors. Shroyer reflected on the nine weeks spent in Reidsville, Georgia, at Georgia State Prison, where The Longest Yard was filmed. Georgia’s Death Row was located in Reidsville then (it has since been moved to Jackson Diagnostic Center in Jackson, GA). A large black and white enlarged photograph of the cast and convicts hangs on Shroyer’s wall, upon which he has written in his distinctive scrawl the names of each one, putting a “C” on the heads of the ones who were convicts.
Shroyer runs a finger down one row of his fellow cast(team)mates, memories flood him. A semi-pro football team, the Augusta Eagles, were also brought in to play alongside the actors and convicts. They played on the convict team and guard team.
“We played a lot of football on The Longest Yard set…we were knocking heads,” Shroyer said. “Playing hard. You’d get out there and forget who was a convict and who wasn’t.”
Shroyer recalled one scene when Reynolds told the players, “Ok, guys, we’re going to do a full speed shot,” and told them to hit him as hard as they could when they got a chance, adding that he knew they’d been waiting to do that the whole time.
“Burt was fast,” Shroyer remembered. “He got the ball and made it about three yards and these big 260 pound guys hit him. When he got up his whole helmet was full of grass.”
At the time, Sonny Shroyer was a working actor from Valdosta, not yet having landed his iconic role as Enos Strate on CBS’ 70s sensation, The Dukes of Hazzard. Many assumed that Reynolds and Shroyer were close friends, both being from the south, having attended and played football at FSU, were in the same fraternity (Phi Delta Theta) and winding up in several films together, including The Longest Yard, Gator and Smokey and the Bandit. Shroyer shakes his head.
(Photo, left) Taken minutes after Reynold’s famous “longest yard” scene
“I get asked sometimes if Burt is the reason I got some of the roles I played, but I assure you, I read for each one,” he said. Shroyer met Reynolds for the first time in 1954, in the Senior Hall at FSU where football players stayed. “There was a pool table in the basement,” Shroyer said. “I remember meeting him down there,” years before either of them started acting. Shroyer had been a Valdosta Wildcat during high school and had experienced two state championships there in ’51 and ’52, and still has (and can fit into) his Wildcats jacket. He would walk on as an FSU Seminole, but, like Reynolds, was knocked out of the game by an injury.
Shroyer explained the purpose of the cast, “My character, Sonny Tannen, was supposed to be an inspiration to the team because he kept playing even after he broke his arm. So I had this on the whole time we filmed. I didn’t really break my arm but I did break some ribs.
“We were playing a hundred percent – hard,” Shroyer continued. “This guy from California, Brian Henry, speared me right in the chest. I didn’t know he’d broken my ribs.”
Two ribs were split right in the middle, Shroyer found out when he went to the infirmary at the prison the next day.
“I’d flinched,” Shroyer shrugged, “My ‘can-do’ couldn’t keep up with my ‘want-to.'”
The Longest Yard went on to become one of the most celebrated football films of all time.
Shroyer is still working, and as always, maintains his home in Valdosta where he was born and raised. He has contributed to dozens of movies, TV series and commercials throughout his career. His latest role was filmed in Atlanta in the FOX series, The Resident.
TRIVIA: The mass murders of the Alday family in Donalsonville, Georgia happened the same year as the filming of The Longest Yard. The four convicted and sentenced to death for the murders were incarcerated at Georgia State Prison around the same time. None of them, housed as they were on the fourth floor with the electric chair, were allowed to play.
Photo, left: Shroyer has a large pencil drawing of Burt Reynolds drawn by a Georgia State Prison convict during the filming of The Longest Yard.