SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
May 07, 1984
Actor Robert Redford, who plays the lead in the new baseball movie 'The Natural,' is himself a fine athlete. In fact, Redford is a natural
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May 07, 1984

A Star With Real Clout

Actor Robert Redford, who plays the lead in the new baseball movie 'The Natural,' is himself a fine athlete. In fact, Redford is a natural

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Redford smiles at the recollection. Suddenly, he's on his feet, an imaginary bat in his hands. He takes a nice lefthanded cut and squints out onto the sunny beach, as if his ball had landed somewhere in sand-dune bleachers. "You know, until we made this movie, I hadn't realized how much I liked coming up to bat. I'd forgotten how oddly peaceful it felt. Funny."

The Natural was filmed on location in Buffalo, primarily because that city's 47-year-old War Memorial Stadium looked the part of a '30s ball park, a proper stage for a film that has its principal action in 1939. Writer Brock Yates once said this stadium "looked as if whatever war it was a memorial to had been fought within its confines."

"One of the problems people have always had with The Natural," says producer Johnson, "is that it's a period piece. That means you've got to redecorate everything, pull down the street signs, dress up your extras and put in your old cars. That's expensive. And you need a ball park that's right."

War Memorial is. It was built on the site of an old reservoir as a federal relief project in the Depression and was not so affectionately known as "the old rock pile." The rock pile, unfortunately, had trouble finding tenants. Minor league teams came and went, and it wasn't until the '60s, when the American Football League Bills moved in, that a regular occupant was found. In 1973, the Bills moved to the new Rich Stadium, and the rock pile stayed more or less vacant for another six years until the Buffalo Bisons Double A Eastern League team settled there.

Last June The Natural crew took over. Production designer Mel Bourne was enthusiastic about the site. "It was like what I thought a stadium should be," he said. But Levinson is a stickler for authenticity, and his underlings spent months researching just how a '30s stadium should look, how the field should be marked and how the players should be dressed. Tri-Star spent $500,000 putting War Memorial Stadium even farther back in time. Richard Cerrone, the assistant director of information in commissioner Bowie Kuhn's office, worked as a consultant with the filmmakers. He wasn't merely impressed by their re-creation of the past, he was flabbergasted. "It was unbelievable," says Cerrone. "When I walked through that tunnel into the stadium and saw that scoreboard with all of the old National League teams on it, some, like the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Bees, that no longer exist, and the advertising on the wall and the different markings on the field—the foul lines met behind home plate and there was a path between the mound and the plate—and the players in the old uniforms with the 1939 Centennial patch on the sleeves and the fans, extras, all in 1930s clothes, why, I tell you, it was the closest I'll ever come to being in a time warp. They even have the players leaving their gloves on the field, as they did in those days. In terms of accuracy and attention to detail, they've gone far beyond my expectations. They've probably gone farther than any sports movie ever has. If accuracy makes for a good picture, this one can't miss."

Even without Redford, The Natural has something of an all-star cast. Robert Duvall, winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor last month, plays a mean-spirited sportswriter; Glenn Close, twice nominated for Best Supporting Actress, is Hobbs's first love; and Richard Farnsworth, a nominee for Best Supporting Actor for 1978, plays Red Blow, a coach on Hobbs's team, the New York Knights. For the ballplayers Levinson needed, try-outs were held in New York and Buffalo. "We were looking for actors who could play ball and for ballplayers who could read lines," says Johnson. "I think we were lucky to get mostly ex-ballplayers. There are a lot of actors out there who are real klutzes. And the odd thing is that most actors want to do a baseball movie. They see it as an action movie with everything coming down to a final duel, just as in a Western. There's an individual triumph built into this framework. I was raised in Europe [he went to school in Spain], so I'm new to baseball, but I do recognize that an American's visual identification with succeeding is hitting a home run. It's not scoring a touchdown or serving an ace. It's knocking the ball out of the park. Every middle-aged American sees himself doing that."

Tony Ferrara, who was, and is, a batting-practice pitcher for both the Yankees and the Mets, helped Levinson put together his ball club—or clubs, since the Knights also needed National League opponents. "You know," Ferrara says, "I think we got some pretty good ballplayers. I think we could've put a pretty good club out there." Among those selected for Redford's team were Joe Charboneau, the Indians' much-publicized 1980 American League Rookie of the Year, who is now playing Class A ball for the Pirates' Carolina League team in Woodbridge, Va., and Phil Mankowski, who played 269 big league games with the Tigers and the Mets before retiring this past year at 30.

"My ballplaying days were over," says Mankowski. "I'd gone into the restaurant business with Rusty Staub. I was working one day when one of the waitresses, who's also an actress, told me they were casting a baseball picture. She said, 'Why don't you leave a couple of photos of yourself with the casting director?' I thought, 'Why not?' I slipped the pictures under the director's door, and then he called me. There must've been 300-400 guys trying out. I guess I hadn't lost much, so they took me. I had to work it out with Rusty to get the time off to work on the picture. I tell you, it's an experience that I'll never forget. Who would ever think that I'd be in a movie with Robert Redford?"

Redford hadn't made a movie himself in three years. He'd spent this slack time raising funds for his environmental and consumer groups; winning an Academy Award as Best Director for the film Ordinary People; climbing mountains in Nepal and tracking down fossils in Africa with his paleoanthropologist friend Dr. Richard Leakey. Levinson sent Redford to a private training camp in Connecticut with former Yankee and Senator pitcher Frank (Spec) Shea to work on his pitching motion. Hobbs the younger was potentially the world's greatest pitcher; Hobbs the elder was the world's greatest hitter. "Two hours is all we had," says Redford. "The throwing came back to me pretty quickly. I'd done so much of it as a kid. But I had to learn the double-pump windup that pitchers used in the Twenties [Hobbs is to try out with the Cubs in 1923]."

Redford is accustomed to doing things the old way. In The Way We Were he played a college decathlete, circa 1936. He had been a trackman in school, but he had to learn the old technique in the high jump and the javelin. "I had to learn everything from a point of view I never knew," he says. The same was true in The Natural. "When I first started playing ball, about 1946, I used a big Trapper mitt at first base. I'd snag everything one-handed. In 1939 they used those small gloves with the five stubby fingers and no webbing. In the movie we use the same kind. So just about the first ball hit to me in the outfield, I wave everybody off and yell, 'I got it.' It looked like an easy catch. The ball bounced off that little glove and hit me right in the head."

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