Wonderboy memories: Revisiting stories from Redford & 'The Natural' - The Buffalo News

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Wonderboy memories: Revisiting stories from Redford & 'The Natural'

It sounded like a prank.

A guy called the Buffalo Bisons. He said he was from Los Angeles. He said his name was Mel Bourne. He was working on a baseball movie and needed a stadium that could look like it came from the 1930s.

Conveniently, Buffalo's then-baseball park, War Memorial Stadium, did come from the 1930s. It was built as a New Deal project in 1937.

Bourne wanted to see it.

Mike Billoni, the boss of the Bisons, called team owner Bob Rich to deliver the news. Former News writer Anthony Violanti re-created the conversation like this in his 1991 book, "Miracle in Buffalo:"

Billoni: "Bob, you're not going to believe this, but there's a guy named Mel Bourne on the line, and he says he wants to come to War Memorial Stadium to make a movie."

Rich: "Sure, Mike, and tell Mel Bourne when his brother Sid Knee calls, we'll all go to Australia for vacation."

Then Billoni told Rich the name of the star: Robert Redford.

Days later, the Bisons were picking up Bourne at the Buffalo airport in a stretch limousine.

That was 1983, the summer that Redford, director Barry Levinson, and an A-list cast that included Glenn Close and Robert Duvall came to Buffalo to film "The Natural." Today, seeing movies shot in Buffalo is becoming increasingly common. Back then – and certainly boosted by the presence of Redford, a Hollywood legend even 30 years ago – it created a buzz that has endured the decades.

That will be apparent this week when "The Natural" is shown Oct. 21 at North Park Theatre for a Turner Classic Movies "Backlot" event that features Levinson and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz.

TCM host Ben Mankiewicz loves Buffalo – and wants more movies set here

Here's a collection of memories and stories gleaned over the years through interviews with the people who made "The Natural:"

• Stocking the Knights: The men who filled out the roster of Roy Hobbs' Knights were an eclectic group. Several were actors, including Michael Madsen, who went on to starring roles in movies such as "Reservoir Dogs," "Thelma & Louise" and "Free Willy." Many were ballplayers, including former big-leaguers Phil Mankowski, a Buffalo native who played parts of six years with the New York Mets and Detroit Tigers, and Joe Charboneau, who was 1980 American League Rookie of the Year with the Cleveland Indians.

The ending of the movie, in which Hobbs leaves baseball after fulfilling his dream, resonated with Charboneau, whose own pro career was ending at the time.

"He walked away from baseball, and at the time I wasn't playing, so it was a nice correlation with me," Charboneau told the Bisons' team publication, BisonGram, on the 10th anniversary of the filming. "It showed there were other things in life."

This ticket stub was a movie prop during the filming of "The Natural" in 1983.

• Inspired by Teddy Ballgame: Redford grew up as a fan of Ted Williams and the Red Sox, and is believed to have hoped “The Natural” could be shot at Boston’s Fenway Park. That didn’t work out, but Redford’s Roy Hobbs did wear jersey No. 9 — the same as Williams.

• Redford's baseball aide: Kevin Lester, a part-time baseball scout and physical-education teacher (and later administrator) in Williamsville, became something of a baseball confidant to Redford. He custom-made 34-inch "Wonderboy" bats for Redford. (In the story, Hobbs' Wonderboy bat was made from a tree struck by lightning.) Lester also helped Redford shape the pocket of his baseball glove. After the shoot in Buffalo, Lester spent time working with the filmmakers in Los Angeles as well.

• The legend of Van Nuys baseball: Redford's fellow New York Knights were impressed by his baseball ability, and when "The Natural" came out in 1984, so were moviegoers. In many articles and books, Redford's athleticism has been tied to his high school days in Van Nuys, Calif., when he was reportedly a teammate of future Hall of Famer Don Drysdale. (Depending what you read, you'll learn that Redford played first base next to Drysdale, who was a second baseman, or covered the outfield behind him.) Apparently, however, the story is a myth: Writer Brian Cronin debunked it in a 2011 Los Angeles Times story.

• If you were on set back in 1983... You might have caught Glenn Close, who plays Redford's love interest, bringing homemade cornbread to the baseball players. You'd see her take some batting practice, too. You would have also seen actor Wilford Brimley, he of Quaker Oats commercial fame (and, in this case, the manager of the Knights), playing the warm-up game of pepper with the players.

• Taking not one, but 28, for the team: In a painfully memorable clip, Mankowski is seen taking a ground ball to the groin. That's just a moment in the movie, but filming it took 28 tries — and included shots to the forehead, neck, stomach and foot. And Mankowski had refused to wear any protective gear, other than a cup.

• The losing pitch, realized later: In the penultimate scene of "The Natural," the Knights are playing the Pittsburgh Pirates and Redford's Hobbs slams a game-winning home run into the lights, triggering a fireworks-like shower of sparks. The pitcher who gave up that homer was played by a Western New Yorker named Chris Rehbaum. But he didn't know it. Rehbaum was asked to throw some pitches at around 5 a.m. during an overnight shoot. Redford wasn't even there.

"I didn't realize how big the part was until I saw it," Rehbaum told New York Sportscene magazine several years later. "I guess it was a late reaction. The shock never came until I saw myself onscreen."

• Catch this: The final scene of "The Natural" is a touching one: Hobbs, who is now retired, is playing catch in a  field with his teenage son. The real-life kid playing catch is Redford? Bob Rich III, the son of the Bisons' owner. Today, the younger Rich is president of Buffalo-based ROAR Logistics and a shareholder in Rich Products Corp., the $3.6 billion, 10,000-employee business chaired by his father. Who, three decades later, is probably quite glad that he realized Mel Bourne was not a guy from Australia, but rather a man who wanted to bring Hollywood to Buffalo.

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