"I've had several lives," said Ben Jones, who is happily reverting to one of them these days at a converted fruit stand here in the shadow of Shenandoah National Park.
"Hi, I'm Cooter," he says, again and again, approaching visitors to his latest venture--a "Dukes of Hazzard" museum and gift shop. In turn, tourists happily identify him as the shade-tree mechanic on a popular 1980s TV show, who kept the 1969 Dodge Charger known as the "General Lee" revved up enough for heroes Bo and Luke Duke to elude Boss Hogg and his bumbling minions.
Visitors appear to know or care little about his serious acting and political careers.
From Thursday through Sunday, the actor and former two-term Georgia congressman plays the part of Cooter Davenport--the role that gave him his widest audience ever, on a television show that ran on CBS from 1979 to 1985.
Today "The Dukes of Hazzard" is enjoying a rebirth through reruns that began in 1996 on cable's The Nashville Network. A reunion show got good ratings in 1997, and another reunion episode is scheduled to begin production late this fall.
The resurgence persuaded Jones to open a "Dukes of Hazzard" museum and gift shop. Its main attractions--a replica of the General Lee, which several fans have attempted to enter through the window, a la the Duke brothers, and a living exhibit in the person of Jones.
One recent day Timothy Demeria, 38, of Manassas, asked him, "So, you don't do any acting anymore?"
In fact, Jones does. He played bit parts in films such as "Primary Colors" and worked on a film recently with actor/director Stanley Tucci. But Jones didn't mention any of that.
"I AM acting," he said, "all day long, just like in Congress."
And indeed, all day long, he does, explaining Moon Pies to a New York fan, giving "study-hard-and-stay-in-school" admonitions to children, and telling cornball jokes that get hoots from a reverential audience: "Now, I had a dream the other night that I was a muffler on the General Lee. . . . When I woke up, I was exhausted."
Of Jones's "several lives," the one in Sperryville seems the tamest.
Before joining "The Dukes of Hazzard," which shot its first episode in 1978, Jones studied theater at the University of North Carolina, then dropped out and shopped around his acting talent. A self-described recovering alcoholic who was "whiskey-bent and hell-bound," Jones spent his earlier years engaged in run-ins with the law and marital discord.
After an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1986, Jones parlayed some of his fame two years later into victory over a Republican incumbent in an ugly contest.
He then won reelection in 1990, was defeated in a primary in 1992, and lost again in the general election to Newt Gingrich in 1994.
Jones said press portrayals of him as a serious actor trapped by Cooter's hayseed persona are of the same steaming substance that one might find out in the pasture behind his Sperryville business, where cows chew their cud and gaze inquiringly at the goings-on.
"I'm the one who gets to decide how I feel about it, and, let me tell you, I feel pretty good," he said. Indeed Jones, 57, seems to revel in the attention from fans and other passersby who honk, shout and trade jokes with him at the gift shop and museum he has been operating off Route 211, about 65 miles west of the District, since June. Jones said the crowds on the weekends have numbered in the thousands.
Jones gives an enthusiastic "howdy" to everyone who comes to see him--and even to those who don't. On a recent day, 24-year-old Chris Anicito, of New Jersey, vacationing at Shenandoah National Park, stopped at Cooter's Place to change his hiking boots. Jones assailed a bewildered Anicito with a handshake.
Later, Anicito said: "I had no idea who the guy was. But when I found out that was Cooter, well, that was pretty cool."
The "museum," as it is, is a four-bay garage that at one point was a fruit stand. It has pictures of the more well-known cast members Catherine Bach (Daisy Duke) Tom Wopat (Luke Duke), John Schneider (Bo Duke), the late Sorrell Booke (Boss Hogg) and the late Denver Pyle (Uncle Jessie). Admission is free, and no item costs more than $25.
"We're not getting rich off of it," Jones said, "but it beats a stick in the eye. It beats pulling tobacco or picking cotton or working on a roof."
But sometimes the work can be draining, said his wife, Alma Viator, a public relations executive who splits time between the couple's home near Sperryville and their Washington apartment.
"He gets worn out, sometimes, but there's also a certain amount of adrenaline that comes from people that are so happy to see him," Viator said.
The couple first moved out to Rappahannock County in June 1998 and soon after bought a home. Jones had been splitting time between Washington and Los Angeles, where he was looking for acting work, "with limited success." At about the time Jones moved to Rappahannock, Viator said, Jones got the idea for starting the gift shop and museum.
People from as far away as Wisconsin and Idaho have signed the guest book at the shop, which sells honey and apple cider and photos from the show. On weekends, a bluegrass band plays, and some of the former cast members have stopped by. At times, Cooter's Place, as the shop is called, has the feel of a secular shrine, with the halt and the healthy, the young and the old, making sentimental journeys to venerate what is often more than just a television show for them.
One couple stopped because the show reminded them of their son's childhood. Another man came because his recently deceased brother was a "Dukes of Hazzard" devotee. And another family, with a Virginia license plate reading "REBEL YL," said they made the trip because Jones upheld what they called "Southern values."
Jones said the fan response reflects the appeal of a show that, with dynamite explosions and car chases, received negative reviews from many television critics. "There's a longing for good, old-fashioned television shows that aren't as cynical as the present-day media," he said.
Surrounded by his fans, he said, he's having the last laugh.
"It's 21 years later and the show is still around, where I bet half of those television critics have drank themselves to death," he said.