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'The Natural' is Buffalo's movie

A few years ago, when the topic of "The Natural" came up out of nowhere as it often does in certain circles, a friend told me he was in it.

I reacted as many of us do when we hear such information: I said "Get out!" and begged to know everything. Pressed about his star turn, my friend conceded that his name wasn't in the credits, he didn't speak in the film and you couldn’t see his face. He played an infielder on one of the teams that Roy Hobbs' New York Knights play.

If you looked closely, he said, you could kind of see his legs.

It didn't matter. The point is he was in the movie. Someday, I fully expect that fact will appear near the beginning of his obituary and his survivors will approve.

Such brushes with celluloid fame courtesy of "The Natural" remain legion in Buffalo because "The Natural," much more than any other incursion from Hollywood, is Buffalo's movie.

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That would qualify as news to the millions of people who think of it as a classic film, or a great baseball movie – Bleacher Report calls it the fifth best baseball film ever made - or the launching pad for three actresses – Kim Basinger, Glenn Close and Barbara Hershey - who would star in some of the biggest movies produced for the next decade and more.

The average moviegoer would have no reason to believe it had anything to do with Buffalo. In fact, as Turner Classic Movies knew when it chose to build a weekend of events around "The Natural," it has everything to do with Buffalo.

Long before there was a TV show with this title, you could have said the same three words about that film and this city: This is Us.

To this day, when it shows up on TV, local folks will stop what they're doing to look. There's the old Rockpile. There's the Ellicott Square Building. There's Parkside Candy. There's the guy whose brother was my lab partner in the 10th grade. (That was my closest connection … until my friend and his legs.)

But it's our communal secret. Buffalo is never mentioned in the movie. The average viewer would have to watch the credits to the very end to know that Buffalo was a stand-in for New York City and surrounding communities from Stafford to South Dayton were film depictions of places far from here.

It never seemed to matter that no one outside of the 716 area code knew our secret. What mattered was that for us, the real star of the movie was our city.

Buffalo is enjoying more time in the spotlight in recent years as filmmakers come here to see their visions come to fruition. Local audiences are cheering the sight of City Hall in "Marshall" or a car chase on the Kensington Expressway in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows." But it's hard to imagine a film ever working its way into our hearts the way "The Natural" did.

"The Natural" was filmed in Buffalo during the summer of 1983, a time we desperately needed something to feel good about. No matter what you've heard, these were not the good old days. The previous year, two of the region's most well-known institutions – Bethlehem Steel and the Courier-Express – announced plans to cease operations here. In 1983 the Bills drafted a quarterback who didn't want anything to do with Buffalo. (His name was Jim Kelly. He eventually came around.) The 1980 Census showed the city's population had plunged by more than 22 percent from 1970 with no end in sight. The popular "Talkin' Proud" campaign of only three years earlier seemed like a cruel joke. "Talkin' Snakebit" would have been more accurate.

Into this era of sadness and despair came Barry Levinson, an up-and-coming filmmaker a year removed from the release of his directorial debut with "Diner," and Redford, an honest-to-goodness movie star, who said out loud to anyone who would listen that he loved Buffalo and he was happy to be working and filming here.

So Buffalo loved him and his movie back.

It's been more than 30 years. As the crowds will show Levinson and TCM this weekend, we've never really stopped.



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