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A 'Natural' choice The Buffalo Niagara Film Festival celebrates the silver anniversary of Robert Redford's "The Natural" as part of its vastly expanded second year

The squealers weren't there every minute. It did sometimes seem that way, though.

They'd stand outside War Memorial Stadium waiting for a glimpse of Robert Redford coming from his dressing room -- or a glimpse of a Redford walk from one place to another that would afford them a clear sightline.

And when they got one -- or even better, enough physical proximity to ask for an autograph -- they'd sometimes jump up and down, squeal at each other at top volume and yell, "He saw me! He saw me!"

It was a major lesson about celebrity. Somehow, it makes those who behold it feel more real. All fans aren't there just to see. Many are there to be seen by their chosen gods and goddesses. It affirms their existence as other things just don't seem to.

That's one reason why at least half of Western New York seemed to fall in love with Redford and the movie company of "The Natural" when director Barry Levinson and producer Mark Johnson brought them here to make the film 25 summers ago.

Not surprisingly, the second Buffalo Niagara Film Festival is using a celebration of the silver anniversary's filming here to be the centerpiece of its vastly expanded second year.

The festival this year looks to be 10 times the size of the first one. It begins with an inaugural gala dinner celebrating "The Natural" at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the Adam's Mark Hotel. (Tickets are available at the Riviera Theatre and the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre.)

"It will be the only time we could ever do this here for this magic 25 number," said festival founder Bill Cowell. "Once it's gone, it's gone. It'll never happen again and we Western New Yorkers should be proud that that movie was here and touched so many of us."

To mark the event, at least one member of the film's still-astounding cast -- the great 77-year-old character actor Robert Prosky, who played the wicked scheming corrupt team owner -- is coming to the festival to be part of it. Also coming are recording artist Wanda Jackson, writer/director Tony Pastor Jr. and the ancient splatter film auteur Herschel Gordon Lewis.

The filming of Levinson's adaptation of Bernard Malamud's novel "The Natural" was a singular event in this city's history. Not to put too fine a point on it, the town went a little nuts over it. And well they should have. It remains the best film ever made in Buffalo and not only because it's one of the very few to be filmed almost in its entirety here (so was James Caan's "Hide in Plain Sight").

"The Natural" opened to a middling-to-warm critical and audience reception but it has developed an extraordinary second life as a classic baseball film.

Try to name another film that is recognized as a major American classic by both the testosterone-fueled Spike TV network and the estrogen-fueled WE network. You won't find one.

For all the literary zealots who wept bitter tears over the film's drastic transformation of Malamud's ending to a happy Hollywood slo-mo game of blond-haired catch in the sunlight, Malamud himself seemed to be troubled by it considerably less.

According to Philip Davis' "Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life," Malamud "was flattered by the idea of Redford doing it, miffed that he was never consulted or contacted by the director Barry Levinson, but finally quite enjoyed the film -- as long as he could sit there in the dark, he said. With its optimistic ending, it was not HIS book, he emphasized, but he hoped they would turn it into a [Broadway] musical before long."

Yes, a musical.

What still remains almost unfathomable about "The Natural" now is the magnificent cast that arrived here to make it. Even from an era when high-level casts of character actors weren't all that freakish, an assemblage as canny as the cast of "The Natural" seems like one of those minor casting miracles that happens infrequently.

In Buffalo 25 years ago for "The Natural" -- along with Prosky, Redford and Levinson -- were:

*Kim Basinger -- sex symbol and future Oscar winner on the rise.

*Robert Duvall -- brilliant actor and future Oscar winner and accomplished filmmaker ("The Apostle").

*Glenn Close -- one of the great living film actresses with -- along with almost everyone else in the movie -- little chance to prove it in the film.

*Wilford Brimley -- terrific walruslike character actor, embodiment of screen integrity and (therefore) future TV commercial pitchman.

*Barbara Hershey -- Not yet treasured by filmmaking intelligentsia the way she would be after Woody Allen cast her in the center of "Hannah and Her Sisters."

*Richard Farnsworth -- Extraordinary former stuntman and brilliant character actor.

*Darren McGavin -- Former "Mike Hammer" and "Kolchak" on TV and embodiment of verbal energy.

*Joe Don Baker -- Former "Eischeid" on TV and star of Phil Karlson's B-classic "Walking Tall."

*Michael Madsen -- Brother of actress Virginia and future prancing torturer in Quentin Tarantino's first movie "Reservoir Dogs," who has publicly admitted that one affair of his during the making of "The Natural" cost him a marriage partner.

Nor were the actors alone as the amazing talent in "The Natural." The film's cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, is one of the greats in his trade -- as well as the father of actresses Emily and Zooey Deschanel.

In a recent phone interview with Prosky from his home in Washington, he says "There was quite a number of good character men in the cast -- Wilford Brimley, myself, quite a few others. We all had a sort of round-table breakfast every morning at the Hilton. And, as older actors do, we told various war stories about film and stage experiences."

McGavin -- with whom Prosky shared scenes -- was memorable to Prosky. "He came into the movie late. I got to know him fairly well a bit later. He was really into computers then. That was certainly at the beginning of the computer craze. He had this -- quote -- 'portable' that he showed me. It must have weighed 30 pounds. We talked a lot about that and I sort of got involved with it myself. Twenty years later, I was at a CompUSA in L.A. where I was doing a film at the time. That was the next time we met -- at a computer store.

"He was certainly more of a name than I was but the billing had already been set in the contracts when he came to the movie. So he decided not to have any billing. What happened was he got more attention than anybody else."

Of Redford, Prosky echoes a lot of actors saying, "At that time he was a huge star -- and still is. It comes down to this -- in spite of the movie paraphernalia that's surrounding you and all the power and the money and everything else, it comes down to looking the other actor in the eye and playing the scene. And he did that very well.

"We enjoyed each other. In fact, he came to see me on Broadway in 'Glengarry Glen Ross.' Usually an actor comes back to the dressing room to talk to another actor but he couldn't do that because it was about a half a block walk to our dressing room. And he couldn't do that in the middle of Broadway [without being mobbed]. He sent me a nice note about it."


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In an interview at the end of Redford's stint filming in Buffalo, he lamented his inability to enjoy being in Buffalo because of his celebrity. While other actors could often go out to dinner or to the movies in Buffalo, the extreme recognition Redford met with in the world -- squealers were seldom absent for very long -- confined him to the set and his rental house on the lakeshore.

In contrast, Duvall, in a later interview, freely confessed to falling in love with Ming Teh, in Fort Erie, "a world-class Chinese restaurant."

Because most cast members were contracted for the whole shoot and not just their scenes, they had a lot of time to kill in Buffalo. Duvall and Close frequently played racquetball at the Buffalo Hilton.

Says Prosky, he and his wife "traveled around a great deal. I can't tell you how many times we went to Niagara Falls. And Duvall had a home they had rented for him in Canada. He had a party or two there. Also we went to . . . I think they called it the 'Grand Canyon of the East' [Letchworth State Park]."

A unique confluence of cooperation greeted the filming of "The Natural" in Buffalo, as if the community itself felt ownership of the film.

Those involved most intimately were, quite prominently, local actors, musicians, athletes and filmmakers.

As important was the influence and cooperation of Buffalo Bisons owner Robert Rich Jr., still pursuing at the time a possible major league baseball future for Buffalo -- not to mention Buffalo media, who reported it all to a fare-thee-well.

It's still a little silly to see the Ellicott Square Building doubling, unconvincingly, for a hotel in the final film -- and ivy-covered All-High stadium trying to pass for Wrigley Field. But it's impossible not to be just a little touched by the tenderness of seeing the original Parkside Candy on Main Street in the film -- not to mention the authenticity of South Dayton in some of the early rural scenes.

Other films have been filmed in part here from Norman Jewison's "Best Friends" to Tamara Jenkins' recent "The Savages."

None has involved the community a fraction as much as "The Natural."

What other 25th anniversary celebration could a fledgling Buffalo Niagara Film Festival possibly prefer?



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