COVINGTON -- The Hollywood of the South now has a Walk of Stars.
The unveiling of the first pavers for the new Walk of Stars downtown took place Thursday evening.
Three pavers were unveiled -- one for the late Carroll O'Connor, who portrayed Chief Bill Gillespie on "In the Heat of the Night;" one for the television show itself, which was filmed in Covington from 1988 to 1994; and one for Worthington Manor in Covington, which is currently featured on "The Vampire Diaries" as Lockwood Mansion. There will be around 40 pavers included in the Walk of Stars initially, with the names of various celebrities, TV shows, movies and locales where filming has taken place over the years.
Grady Spradley of Oxford, who was Carroll O'Connor's double, unveiled the late star's paver. Spradley told stories from his days on set, calling it "the most wonderful experience."
Spradley recalled standing in front of the Methodist church one day while O'Connor was being filmed a short distance away. A woman came up to him and asked if he was the legendary star, to which Spradley replied, "Yes." The woman took a picture with him and gave him a big hug. Afterwards, she said, "Who is that on the porch filming?" I said, "That's my double," said Spradley. "She said, 'Sure does look a lot like him.'"
Maureen Dowdell, who played Bubba Skinner's girlfriend, Tracey Boggs, unveiled the paver for the show. Dowdell flew in from New York City for the event, and recalled the kindness of the locals during filming, saying, "I hold Covington dear in my heart."
Benjamin Dameron and Ralph Miller unveiled the paver for their home Worthington Manor, a location for "The Vampire Diaries."
Kevin Langston, deputy commissioner of tourism for the state, said the Walk of Stars should be an additional draw for tourists. Seventy-five percent of Newton's tourism is TV- and film-related, Langston said.
Langston said tourism throughout the state has benefited from the filming industry, which generated $45 billion in 2011 and close to $1.5 billion in tax revenue.
Lee Thomas, director of film, music and digital entertainment for the state, said the tax incentive program approved in 2008 has resulted in more filming and more economic impact in Georgia. The state's diverse locations, from small towns to mountains to the coastline, make it a go-to for the film industry, she said.
"The Dukes of Hazzard" filmed five episodes in Newton in 1979 and 33 years later, that show is still generating tourism, she said. "We hope in 30 years there will be people still talking about 'Vampire Diaries'" she added.
Craig Dominey, senior location specialist/project manager with the Georgia Department of Film, Music and Digital Entertainment said Covington was the prototype and still serves as the model for the state's Camera Ready program, which now includes 140 out of 159 counties. He noted that location scouts often remark that the downtown "looks like something you'd find on a backlot in Hollywood."
The community's enthusiasm about having filming here is also a draw, Dominey said.
Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston thanked the citizens of Covington for their patience with filming. Johnston said the community will continue to work together and with the film industry to find solutions to problems.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan said due to the film industry's presence, Newton County is the envy of other government officials who meet at the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Commission. The money generated by the film industry has "kept us alive these last four years," she said. While residents may be inconvenienced at times, Morgan said the inconvenience is temporary and asked residents to "remember the benefits to the entire community."
More than 60 movies and television series have been filmed in Covington and Newton County, starting with "A Man Called Peter" in 1954. Covington has served as Hazzard County in "The Dukes of Hazzard;" Sparta, Miss. in "In the Heat of the Night;" and now Mystic Falls, Va., in "The Vampire Diaries." The historic courthouse was featured in the opening credits of "In the Heat of the Night."
Movies filmed here include "My Cousin Vinny;" "Sweet Home Alabama;" "Cannonball Run;" "Remember the Titans;" "Madea's Family Reunion;" and the just-released "Flight" starring Denzel Washington.