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 was unnecessarily concerned about how the former college and minor league ballplayers in the cast would react to a 46-year-old movie star standing at the plate in a modified Ted Williams stance. "I figured those guys would think of me as pretty lame, that they'd be saying, 'Hey, who's this guy out here?' Instead they were really very helpful."

"He bats and throws lefty," says Mankowski, "and he did really well. He hit the ball hard and he had a good swing. Hey, the man's 46 years old. I was impressed."

"He looked like a ballplayer," says Cerrone. "He had that cocky walk. And one other way he looked like a ballplayer. Every time he'd come out of his trailer and walk into the ball park, all the extras would hit him for autographs. They had these vintage scorecards, and he'd sign as many as he could before he had to go to work. He looked just like Reggie Jackson in that way."

"He's a coordinated man," says Ferrara. "He's a well-built guy. You can tell he plays a lot of tennis. He hit one out off me in batting practice. He's a natural."

A movie isn't done even when it is done. There is the tedious business of editing, scoring and mixing sound with the action. There's also the matter of promotion, of preparing posters and newspaper and magazine advertisements, of filming trailers, the short previews shown in theaters and on television to entice customers. Redford is very much involved in all of these seemingly extraneous activities, and he's worried that the movie's complexity will be lost or misinterpreted in the promotional stuff. "Malamud got everything into one book," he says. "It's so richly allegorical. There's Babe Ruth in there, Shoeless Joe Jackson, the Miracle Braves of 1914 and Casey at the Bat. There's the Arthur legend with Hobbs's bat as Excalibur. And, of course, there's Eddie Waitkus. Remember him? It's extremely difficult to combine all of these elements into a picture, so, yes, we dared alter Malamud. Film is just not a literary medium, I'm afraid."

There have, indeed, been some alterations. Hobbs had no childhood to speak of in the book and no close feeling toward his father, as he has in the film. Quite the opposite in fact. "My father?" says Malamud's Hobbs. "Well, maybe I did want to skull him sometimes. After my grandma died, the old man dumped me in one orphan home after the other, wherever he happened to be working—when he did—though he did used to take me out of there summers and teach me how to toss a ball." In the book, Hobbs had no childhood sweetie. He carried his bat, Wonderboy, in a bassoon case. Once again, in the interests of authenticity, Johnson and Levinson tried to be faithful to the book, but they couldn't find a bassoon case big enough to hold a bat. Redford carries his Wonderboy in a trombone case. None of the filmmakers will reveal the ending, but Redford allows that "this picture will have less to do with the darker side of life." Malamud's ending—"Say it ain't true, Roy"—wasn't designed to send a movie-theater audience home in high good humor.

The ads and the trailers are reviewed in Johnson's office in the shabby little Coast town of Venice. Johnson is 37, but with tousled hair and a high-school-chic wardrobe, he looks maybe 25. He and Redford are joined this night by Howard Deutch, a nervous, dark-haired, thirtyish man who has carved out a successful career as a trailermaker, a genius of sorts who creates previews lasting from 30 to 90 seconds out of film clips, background music and a teasing narrative. Deutch is on the phone, as Redford, still in jeans but wearing a dress shirt and sweater now, bustles into the office. Perhaps because he has a phone to his own ear so often, he blithely begins a conversation with the trailer man. Realizing that he's interrupting, he turns to Johnson and, nodding toward Deutch, says, "Now there's a man who has the knack of appearing to talk to you when he isn't. That's real talent." Redford snaps the gum he's chewing. Deutch quickly hangs up the phone and joins the others.

Posters are strewed throughout Johnson's office, looking like discarded paintings. Redford eyes them professionally. "This one," he says, hefting an ad, "is just my face. It's a boring face, and it's not doing anything." He looks at another. "This one at least has a mystical element. I like the corrugated clouds.... Now here's another one with just me out there. All that says to me is, 'Let's show Redford out in public.'...I look like Indiana Jones here.... This one's too delicate. It doesn't show what Roy Hobbs has been through.... This one is slightly incongruous. There's a hobo there, but what's he doing with a bat?...Too busy. I have a built-in resistance to ads that try to do more than one thing...." He's chewing gum ferociously now, looking as if the ad campaign has suddenly gone down the tubes. "My problem with all of these," he tells the others, "is that they're too literal. We're missing the contrasting qualities—the light and the dark—that is this film." He shrugs, trudging off with the others to a screening room. "The truth is," he says, laughing, "print ads don't have that much to do with a movie's success, anyway. I hated the ad for The Sting. There Paul and I were, hugging each other, and Paul's lighting a cigar with a ten-dollar bill. Ugh!"

Redford reviews nine commercials for the movie in the screening room, scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad in the darkness. Deutch watches his stuff with true pride of authorship. There are snatches of dialogue—"I'm gonna break every record there is"—and flashing images. In the longest commercial, 90 seconds, Kate Smith is heard amid the bursts of talk and action singing the national anthem. When the lights go on, Redford pops up and sits on the back of the seat in front of him. "I really like three and five," he says. "But the 90 I have reservations about. It's too busy."

"People crave information," says Deutch. "They have to ask themselves, 'Why should I pay money to see this?' "

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