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The forgotten “Honky Tonk Freeway” celebrates 35 years

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Dean Jeffries flies a GMC C6500. Photos courtesy Kevin Jeffries and the Dean Jeffries Archives, unless otherwise noted.

[Editor’s Note: This piece comes to us from Myles Kornblatt, the curator at the Miami Auto Museum. He contributes to multiple automotive publications and is the Automotive Correspondent for the Florida Weekly.]

Not many movies can blow up an interstate, have a star-studded cast, and severely injure a Hollywood automotive legend… and then quickly fade into obscurity. But that is the case with Honky Tonk Freeway.

This month marks the 35th anniversary of the movie hitting theaters. It’s not surprising that a film featuring a water-skiing elephant belly flopped at the box office, but today it deserves more than a footnote in history – especially in the car community.

A Ford fan would be in heaven with all the blue oval classics seen in the film like an Edsel Ranger, a Lincoln Continental Town Coupe, and even a rare 1949 Mercury two-door station wagon. But it was a GMC that really makes the whole film memorable (more on that in a moment).

Honky Tonk Freeway

The Palmer Road overpass today. Photo by Myles Kornblatt.

The movie had all the right elements. It was filled with known actors like Beau Bridges, Beverly D’Angelo, Teri Garr, Hume Cronyn, and Jessica Tandy. There were rising stars like Daniel Stern and Peter Billingsley, before he played Ralphie in A Christmas Story. It was even directed by John Schlesinger – the same man who made Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man.

Honky Tonk Freeway’s plot involves many different character stories that are all on an inevitable path through the fictitious town of Ticlaw, Florida. The tiny southern settlement would love to welcome tourist dollars, but their town didn’t get an exit on the new interstate. This could almost be a satire on how expressways changed America’s Main Street, but everyone is playing a tired stereotype with zero humanity. Thus, the flick only qualifies for cringe-worthy cinema.

So, why is it worth your attention? Because the last 20 minutes are filled with two of the most daring events put on film.

Honky Tonk Freeway

The Honky Tonk Freeway crew gathers for a group shot.

First, in the movie, the people of Ticlaw decide they do not want to be bypassed. So they blow-up the overpass in a spectacular midnight explosion to make sure people have to stop in their town.

Today that would be the job of the CGI department on a film, but 35 years ago, Honky Tonk Freeway demolished the entire span with real explosives, fire, and shrapnel. The trick was that I-75 had not yet been completed through all of south Florida, and the production company paid to have the Palmer Road overpass in the small town of Fruitville initially constructed out of wood and plaster.

“There was only one take – one and done,” recalls Marlena Gore. The movie had one of the largest budgets for a comedy at the time, but they still were only willing to blow up the bridge once. Gore witnessed this nighttime explosion when she was eleven years old. The filming was a popular event that brought in many locals as extras, including her future husband.

Honky Tonk Freeway

Staging the truck jump.

While Gore doesn’t appear on film, it might have had an interesting impact on her life. She is currently the project manager for a revolutionary-style “Diverging Diamond” interchange that is being constructed just a few miles up I-75 from where the filming took place. It’s a little too sappy to suggest that this movie fully inspired Gore to better her hometown interstate, but it is kismet that someone who witnessed the destruction is making that same corridor a bit better today.

The second redeeming feature of the Honky Tonk Freeway is a daring stunt by Hollywood legend Dean Jeffries. While his name is known more for creating custom movie/TV cars like the Monkeemobile and The Green Hornet’s Black Beauty, he was also an accomplished stuntman.

Jeffries passed away in 2013, but according to his son Kevin, “He did hundreds of stunts during his career in motion pictures, but clearly the I-75 jump in Florida was the most spectacular.”

Dean Jeffries

Post-stunt, Jeffries heads to the hospital with a broken back.

The movie concludes with a GMC C6500 boxtruck soaring over the entire missing roadway span, and Jeffries was driving. Just like the exploding bridge, there was only one take, but for a very different reason. “After flying over the overpass, the stunt truck landed so hard that it broke his back, requiring him to grab his leg with his hand so that he could push down and apply the brakes to stop the truck,” recalls Kevin Jeffries.

In a tale that could only come from a gritty stuntman who was also a master hot rod fabricator, Jeffries was not pleased with the level of care at the local hospital. So he built a custom aluminum cast for his torso and went back to work. For those who love the man’s automotive creations, but don’t know this side of the story, Tom Cotter’s book, Dean Jeffries – 50 fabulous years in hot rods, racing & film,  goes into great detail. It’s currently out of print (i.e. expensive), but worth it to read the whole tale.

Dean Jeffries Archives

Sporting a homemade back brace, Jeffries confers with director John Schlesinger.

Jeffries was particularly proud of this feat and the multi-car pileup that it created on film – it feels reminiscent of his earlier work on The Blues Brothers. According to Kevin, “Jumping the four-ton truck across the missing overpass was something my father would often discuss with friends and admirers.”

Despite the spectacularly expensive bridge explosion and the 100+ ft. jump in a commercial-grade truck, the movie flopped at the box office. There are plenty of elements that could be blamed – everything from a deceitful production company to a disjointed plot. But regardless, the lavish stunts made Honky Tonk Freeway one of the biggest money-losers of its time.

Honky Tonk Freeway

It not only disappeared from box offices quickly, but by the time the movie was ready to hit theaters, the real overpass was constructed and I-75 was open for business (it has even been expanded since then). This flick didn’t even get the chance at a cult following over the years like Le Mans or The Wraith, and that’s a bit of a shame. In the modern era where movies do their best to digitally make everything look real, this film was one of the last to be made with real fire and guts. But for those of us in the know, there is a lasting legacy to the Honky Tonk Freeway.

Just drive down I-75 South past Sarasota. About a mile beyond the Fruitville Road exit is an overpass that hundreds of tourists and commuters unwittingly drive over this every day. That little bridge is a gateway to true Hollywood history, and the bump you feel at the end might have been the one that broke Dean Jeffries’ back.