Baseball Men - The Storyteller

Our exclusive ‘Baseball Men' interview series concludes with Roger Towne, screenwriter/executive producer of ‘The Natural'.

Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to 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.


A Nebraska farm kid grows up with the prodigious ambition and talent to, perhaps, become the best player there ever was. Just before his Major League tryout, though, the teenager's pride leads him into temptation, then into a terrible injury and scandal. He's devastated to the point he leaves the game and his old life but, more than 15 years later, a second-division team decides to take a chance on his return. He finally wins glory on the field, only to be confronted by more fateful choices off the field, but in the end he learns how life can be redeemed by love and the big game can be won with one mighty swing of the bat.


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.


As 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 recruit A-list Hollywood talents and win a green-light for a big budget.


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?


I grew up in San Pedro [California], and I don't have many meaningful memories of organized sports of any kind back then. I was nine when we moved to LA [in 1950] and I met a kid who became my best friend. His name was Tommy Hanson. Tommy was a baseball player. He lived and breathed it and he was a pistol of a competitor. The first time we played pepper in his back yard, it terrified me. That ball was HARD. When I went home, my hands were numb and my shins were bruised. His baseball heroes became mine and what I knew about the game, Tommy taught me. And that included never attending school during the World Series.  Tommy died when he was still in his 20's, and left behind a wife and two kids. He was very much on my mind and in my heart when I was working on the script for ‘The Natural'. 


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'.


When did you get first involved with Hollywood?


I 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 Robert (Chinatown, Shampoo). Cinema was his first love coming out of college and it became mine, but not for awhile.


I 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 San Francisco where I worked in the Oakland shipyards as a scaffolder, waited and bartended restaurants in Mill Valley and finally moved to Paris. I stayed four and a half years teaching English as a second language and trying to write.


It was Robert who convinced me to come home, and give Hollywood a shot. So I came back with my French wife to be, got a job at Paramount Pictures as a reader for two years, worked for Robert Evans (producer ‘Chinatown') for another two years and eventually landed at Columbia as their feature story editor.


Which is where you first came across Bernard Malamud's story for ‘The Natural'.


Actually, 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 in New York City.


We learned 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 Hobbs was a player. But they said ‘Yes' and changed my life forever. And I had plenty of help along the way. I think specifically of Phil Breen, my co-ex producing partner and a young man, Roy Rosenblatt, a writer friend at the time who read my 184 page draft and became my Maxwell Perkins, helping me edit the script into the version that got everyone's attention…and later, Redford and Levinson who helped me take it to the next level.


Why were you so drawn to the story?


Some many reasons. Put simply Roy, Wonderboy and the drama of the game. And the magic, the mysticism, the sheer energy and force of the story's imagery, all bundled up in a mythical piece of Arthurian lore. The "Knight's" quest, a hero with a dream who falls from grace yet struggles to reclaim it and his soul in a battle with his personal demons against the forces of darkness and evil. It was a tall tale and so elementally appealing.


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?


Malamud's 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 Roy's childhood sweetheart and the mother of his child in the film. Roy's father in the book was a callous man and dumped Roy in orphanages, returning occasionally to pull him out. Our Memo becomes Roy's lover. In the book she's loyal to Bump and standoffish to Roy. A tease who tempts but never fulfills Roy's desires. In the movie, their relationship is fuller, deeper and ultimately more instrumental in Gus' attempts to manipulate and corrupt Roy.  


In the book, Roy is faced with some difficult choices that test his character. In the end, he fails again. Our Roy learns from his mistakes and evolves from a man consumed by blind ambition to one who is enlightened, guided by the inspiration and wisdom of Iris. What changes we brought to the film story sprang from how we dealt with Roy's fate, and we did it with "one swing of the bat". In the book version, Roy strikes out and that we felt (including Dusenberry, Bean, Kahn) would crush the audience. In the film…he hits such a magnificent, luminous home run (conceived by Robert Bean) that it transcends the cliché ending and we forgive it its blatant sentimentalism. It's the mythic grandeur that drives the film and fortunately Bob [Robert Redford] and Barry [Levinson] embraced that vision and fully developed it.


If 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 Washington'.


I 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. Roy, it could also be said, comes from a tradition of mainstream western heroes – gunslingers with a mysterious, troubled past. Redford fit the classic mold perfectly with the likes of Fonda, Cooper, and Alan Ladd. 


I know some critics were hard on our ‘Hollywood ending'. Frankly, the difference between it and the book's is almost academic. Remember, in the book Roy does take the bribe but standing at the plate realizes it was a mistake and tries to hit one out of the park in his last at-bat. He failed, but his best intentions were the driving force behind our story.


In setting up Roy's redemption, you also created a huge storytelling challenge, because you had to explain why he makes the right decision and, eventually, hits the big home run. Can you talk about that?


Iris was the lynchpin, the link between Roy and his past and all the good that it represented, from the lessons of his father to the wisdom and insights Iris brings to him both as a woman and a mother. She is the countervailing force of good to Memo's evil. By setting Iris in motion from the outset, then bringing her back, we enabled Roy to come full circle, come face to face with himself as a man and lastly as a father.


Ted Hobbs and Gus, like many of your characters, seem to serve as opposites. The down-to-earth farmer says "You got a gift, Roy. But it's not enough. You gotta develop yourself." Later on, a cynical gambler says, "You had a great gift, a talent. But it's not enough - I think you're a loser."


Yes, eerily resonant and ironic that Gus should unwittingly invoke the counsel of Roy's father. And Levinson set that up perfectly. The father's lines were his idea to make that match with what Gus says later. And Redford's reaction to those lines still give me a frisson. You just knew right then and there, he was going to knock the lights out.


Even so, I never realized the fathers and sons element until right now, maybe because Ted Hobbs and Roy's son only appear at the very beginning and very end of the film.


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."


I 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 Roy's journey is filled with surrogate father figures – Sam Simpson, Pop Fisher and Red. Roy learns the game from his father and Wonderboy is a reminder of his spirit and strength.


Think of Roy in the hospital. He's physically wounded "again" and once more the dark forces converge on him to sell out. Roy feels he's all washed up as a ball player, disappointed he didn't become the "the best that ever was", a man unable to let go of the past. Then Iris comes along. She tells him, "I believe we have two lives - the life we learn with and the life we live with after that. With or without the records - they'll remember you. Think of all those young boys you've influenced. There are so many of them." Her words are a benediction. Roy drifts to thoughts of his father, wishing he were alive and then his heartfelt declaration of how much he loves baseball. And we know the change in him is taking place. Iris' words are a benediction and a prayer for the son to become the man his father once was and soon after to accept his own biological son.


Bobby Savoy, the bat boy, is another kind of surrogate son, isn't he?


Yes, Roy is to Bobby what Roy's father was to him. When Wonderboy splits in half, he looks to this young kid and the bat they made together. The ‘Bobby Savoy Special' symbolizes the strength of paternal union and out of it Roy's deliverance, or redemption if you will.


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?


All 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 Redford's. And both were lefties, so Bob decided to wear number nine. Redford even wanted Williams to visit the set, but unfortunately the ‘Splendid Splinter' was on one of his extended fishing trips. Also, Levinson compared Roy to Joe DiMaggio, a figure who was very much rooted in the classical hero mold.


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?


I 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, Redford's interested'. KeeRAC! It was like catching lightning in a bottle. (chuckles) 


Or tearing the cover off a ball.


(chuckles) 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, ‘Redford has offices here in New York. If he's so interested (ha ha), have him get into a car, come on over here and tell it to our faces.' So one day, soon after, they're in their offices when a car pulls up outside, and you-know-who gets out. He bounds up the steps, walks right through the door, extends a handshake and says ‘I'm Robert Redford, and I want to do ‘The Natural'. Jaws drop. They couldn't believe it and my only regret was not being there to see it.


At the same time, I knew through Amy that Barry Levinson had been tracking my progress on the script long before Redford was involved. Later, as fate would have it, Redford and Levinson bump into each other in a hotel, and it was, ‘So, hey, what do you think of The Natural?' and they start talking. Before you know it, wedding bells.


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?


I know it was on Redford's mind. On our first visit to his offices in New York, he asked Barry, Mark Johnson and myself that very question. Quite honestly, it was the least of my concerns, and I'll tell you why. Redford has the permanent stamp of looking forever young. He has such enormous appeal, that audiences see what you want them to see and are more than willing to suspend disbelief. Barry and [cinematographer] Caleb Deschanel added their magic and in the end, no one batted an eye. He looked great.


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?


Levinson 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 Redford, Levinson and Johnson invited me to be a part of the collaborative process in whatever capacity I could be useful, but mostly, I was along for the ride. Their generosity knew no bounds. I attended some casting sessions and later if, for example, Redford and Glenn Close snuck off to rehearse in a barn, I'd go along and no one said ‘boo'. I was on the set most every day if not in my office working on script changes.


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?


For 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 after Redford and Levinson's involvement. Maybe it would have been cheaper, but at what cost both conceptually and artistically? Certain stories are locked in time and place. If no one had ever seen a film version of ‘King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table', would you choose to set it in the modern era? Bad idea.


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.


Well, 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 America seen through the eyes of baseball.


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. 



We hope you've enjoyed this exclusive series of 25 interviews presented by The complete Table of Contents for the ‘Baseball Men' interviews can be found here. 

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