Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Fans'.
Let me tell you a story.
The story may sound a bit familiar - it's the plot of ‘The Natural', and the tale's been told often enough to become a modern day classic. To this day, we talk about ‘Roy Hobbs' rookies and dramatic moments that "look like something out of ‘The Natural'." Like ‘Pride of the Yankees' and ‘Field of Dreams', the 1984 film will be treasured as long as baseball fans treasure movies. Hopefully, forever.
well-loved as ‘The Natural' may be, the story of its journey to the silver
screen was almost as remarkable. It's the story of a first-time screenwriter who
stumbled across a semi-obscure 1952 novel, then made it his own by developing
new characters and plot points while rewriting the vast majority of the fable's
dialogue. The result was so compelling that, against all odds, he managed to
The remarkable part of this story was - it was all true. It was rookie writer Roger Towne who re-crafted a stolid novel by Bernard Malamud into his own vision, signed lead actor Robert Redford and director Barry Levinson, and helped guide the lavish period piece as a co-producer for Tri-Star Pictures.
Recently, Roger discussed how a real-life underdog came through to deliver the ultimate baseball hit.
What did baseball mean to you when you were growing up?
grew up in San Pedro [
In LA, my Dad would take us to Gilmore and Wrigley Stadiums to see the old Hollywood Stars or L.A. Angels (Minor League clubs). Back then, pro ball on the West Coast was the Pacific Coast League, which was really considered the third Major League. The quality of play was very good. They produced great players like Mickey Cochrane and Maury Wills and played exhibition games against Major League teams. My personal hero was Steve Bilko.
I guess baseball stood for one thing when I was a kid – friends and family, but did I absolutely love it? Not like I do today.
Were you a fan of baseball movies as a kid?
I think I saw them all. ‘Pride of the Yankees', William Bendix in ‘The Babe Ruth Story', ‘The Jackie Robinson Story', ‘Alibi Ike'. ‘It Happens Every Spring'. ‘Angels in the Outfield', Jimmy Stewart in ‘The Stratton Story', ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game'. ‘Damn Yankees', if you count musicals. I wasn't a big fan of ‘Fear Strikes Out' - [leading man Anthony] Perkins was a terrific actor, but he couldn't swing the bat and that just took me out of it.
Of course later, I was very fond of ‘Bang the Drum Slowly', ‘Field of Dreams' and ‘Bull Durham'. And let's not forget the ‘Bad News Bears'.
did you get first involved with
was an English major in college, but theatre was a passion. I loved acting and I
dare say I was pretty good. I even had the luck to attend workshops with Jack
Nicholson and Harry Dean Stanton. But the biggest influence on me was my brother
was just too anxious to live my life, so I dropped out of college. After a stint
in the Marine Corps, I ended up working a lot of odd jobs, everything from bank
teller, to taxi driver, then moved to
was Robert who convinced me to come home, and give
Which is where you first came across Bernard Malamud's story for ‘The Natural'.
it was in Evans' office. My first day on the job, I meet his cousin Jimmy Siff
who hands me this book and says he thinks it'd make a great movie. I read
it that night and I was dazzled. It was ‘The Natural'. We contact the rights
holders, Robert Bean and Malcolm Kahn, a commercial film director, producer team
that Bean and Kahn had already developed a screenplay by Phil Dusenberry, a top
exec at BBD&O. It had made the studio rounds and simply wasn't happening,
even though Phil's script contained some of the enriching and original elements
that eventually made it to the screen. I met Phil and made suggestions for a
rewrite. At the time, he had his hands full at BBD&O, so it never happened.
Two years pass and by now I have a lot of ideas for a new draft and I pitch them
to Bean and Kahn -- for me to write. They could have gone to a list of proven
writers, but they didn't. They gave me a shot and at a time when I was as over
the hill a writer as
Why were you so drawn to the story?
many reasons. Put simply
The things you mentioned are in the novel, but anyone who reads Bernard Malamud won't see many of the characters, scenes, and lines that that ended up in Roger Towne's story. Can you talk about that?
novel was the foundation and inspiration for the screenplay. Many of his themes
remain – the mythological quest, personal suffering and redemption. Most
all of his main characters are present in the film, though many were somewhat
reconceived and paired off differently and yes, new story ideas were introduced.
In a word, ours was a more romantic rendition. Iris, whom he meets in the middle
of the novel, is
I had to draw a comparison to other films, I'd liken your approach to Frank
Capra in ‘It's a Wonderful Life' and ‘Mr. Smith Goes to
worship Capra, especially those two films. They are far-fetched but with
that perfect blend of fantasy and realism. I'd like to think Capra would have
approved of our adaptation.
know some critics were hard on our ‘
was the lynchpin, the link between
Hobbs and Gus, like many of your characters, seem to serve as opposites. The
down-to-earth farmer says "You got a gift,
eerily resonant and ironic that Gus should unwittingly invoke the counsel of
so, I never realized the fathers and sons element until right now, maybe because
Ted Hobbs and
I was very much preoccupied with the theme of fathers and sons while writing The Natural. I thought about my own kids, and before I started to write it, I read a something from Roger Kahn's book [‘Seasons in the Sun']. It became my mantra for the film and I gave it a separate cover page in the script. It goes:
"The game begins with sons and fathers, fathers and sons. The theme is older than the English novel. Older than Hamlet, old at least as the Torah. You play baseball with love and you play baseball to win and you play baseball with terror, but always against that backdrop, fathers and sons."
read that passage and the significance of it translated into the story
immediately. The connection between fathers and sons is the emotional tie that
binds in ‘The Natural' and I tried to make the most of that theme even though,
as you say, Ted Hobbs and Roy's son simply book-end the story. But
Bobby Savoy, the bat boy, is another kind of surrogate son, isn't he?
That is so cool. Did you also study the game as you developed the story?
I read a lot about the game. One of the most influential books was called ‘Baseball's Ten Greatest Games', by John Thorn. The writing was vivid and visual and it took me back. I was there for Don Larsen's perfect game, I was there for Bobby Thomson's home run, and it was filled with such great baseball moments. It's how I first enjoyed the game – from great radio announcers of the past.
It's funny that you mention that, because the movie's a lot of fun in the way it invokes baseball's real past. If you're a history buff, you can find proxies for Shoeless Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams - who also debuted in 1939 and homered in his last at bat. You can look for Pete Reiser, Eddie Waitkus, on and on.
Were you trying to have some fun with that?
of the historical baseball allusions were Malamud's. Some have asked if the
on-screen Roy Hobbs was modeled after Ted Williams. In a way, yeah, but that was
mostly because Williams was a hero of
You mentioned Robert Redford and Barry Levinson already, which calls to mind how unlikely the whole project was in the first place - you seeking to produce your first screenplay, based on a downer book almost no one had heard of, making the first serious baseball movie in years.
Can you talk about attracting a front-line movie star and director to the project?
did nothing more than commend it into the hands of a young agent at CAA, Amy
Grossman. She believed in what I was doing and she started the ball rolling.
I'll never forget the day she called, maybe a week after I gave her the script.
Imagine, a week later. Three words – ‘Roger,
Or tearing the cover off a ball.
You have to understand, if there was one single person who made ‘The Natural'
happen, it was Robert Redford. When I told Bean and Kahn he was interested, they
thought I was putting them on (chuckles). They said, ‘
the same time, I knew through Amy that Barry Levinson had been tracking my
progress on the script long before
Once Bob and Barry were on board, forget it. Case closed. After years of struggling to get it noticed, it's on a super fast track, and a studio is born to boot – Tri-Star. All that remains is to execute the rewrites to everyone's satisfaction, and while there was a bit of pressure in that, obviously everything worked out.
Were you worried about a 46-year old man playing a teenager in the early scenes?
know it was on
One of the unsung heroes in movie projects are casting directors. In your case, you had Ellen Chenowith assembling an incredible cast featuring the likes of Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, a young Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, and many others. How did that process unfold?
had used Ellen Chenowith to cast ‘Diner', which was fortunate for us. I had
nothing whatsoever to do with casting, or any of the producing chores. Mark
Johnson was the man. I was a writer with a contract that gave me Executive
Producer credit. I was very fortunate, however, that
The obvious move for the producers would have been to set the story in the present, which would have been much, much cheaper. Why did you decide to stay with Malamud's 1939 setting?
good and obvious reasons. It was never a question. At least, I am not
aware of anyone who ever considered that option for a split second, before or
As you know, very often, ‘The Natural' is described as baseball mythology, a fable about incredible skill, true love and redemption with a happy ending. At the same time, there are all-too-realistic themes of violence, lost chances, opportunistic reporters, corruption in high places.
it is a fable, and works as such because it is both larger than life and true to
life. Malamud created a myth which by definition is a half-truth – heroes and
supernatural beings who are associated with real people in order to explain the
‘natural' world we live in. Malamud was so imaginatively adroit a story teller,
he found a very commercial way to portray a worldview of
Within a few years after the movie's 1984 release, several notable movies hit the screen - everything from ‘Eight Men Out' and ‘Bull Durham' to ‘Major League' and ‘Field of Dreams' came out, and other big baseball movies have been released almost every year since. Do you have any favorites among them?
I was a big fan of all those films. Also Ken Burns' ‘Baseball' documentary was wonderful. Who would have believed that the black-and-white era of baseball was actually in Technicolor. I also loved Billy Crystal's ‘*61'. I consider it one of the best baseball dramas of its kind. Thomas Jane and Barry Pepper were Mantle and Maris for me. Also notable is ‘The Rookie'. I guess my favorite of all was ‘Field of Dreams'.
How would you compare them to ‘The Natural'?
I don't like to make such comparisons. ‘The Natural' is what it is. We're proud of it, and it's nice to think that its popularity may have opened the door for other baseball films.
Several critics, and a lot of fans, have gone on record in saying that ‘The Natural' is one of the greatest baseball movies of all time, if not ‘the best there ever was'.
Well, that's a huge compliment to a lot of people who were involved, and one I appreciate. I happen to believe that the more important accolade is that amongst other great baseball or sports movies, ‘The Natural' continues to entertain.
What's your sense of the film's impact on American culture?
It remains popular after 22 years and its appeal continues to reach successive generations. What more can you ask? Beyond that, at the risk of sounding dogmatic, I hesitate to get analytical, simply because the answers that come to mind come from the heart.
Looking back on ‘The Natural' experience after more than 20 years, what kind of difference has it made on your life?
I'll never forget the first time we screened the picture for a live audience. A young woman was sitting right in front of us, and when the lights went up, she turned around and quite spontaneously said, ‘God bless you' to all of us. Does it get any better?
Frankly, I am humbled by fan reaction. And to see it grow and grow over the years has been very gratifying. Truthfully, I can't tell you what impact it's had on my life, because I can't imagine my life without it.
Robert Redford, as you know, is currently returning back to baseball in his current project, a film about Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey. Would you ever expect to come back to the game in the future?
The fact is, there are plenty of great baseball stories out there. And ‘yes', I do have one in mind.