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Jeff Simon: Buffalo's love for 'The Natural' still shows

Sure, sure, sure. Robert Redford was coming to town.

But, as some of us knew, it was so much bigger than that: "The Natural" was coming to town.

That's why we, in the Buffalo News' Arts Department, gathered in the third floor's big conference room -- usually reserved for governors and such -- to talk it over. We were a bit of an unruly bunch in the summer of 1983. We knew how to behave under civilized circumstances. Some of us even had a rough idea which fork to use if we'd ever found ourselves sitting next to Queen Elizabeth at dinner. But, as a general rule, we tended to be sarcastic and antic jokesters if left to our own devices.

But something incredible was about to happen in our city. So far, it had been scored in Buffalo media as "Robert Redford is coming to town." Some of us knew how much bigger the story was than that.

And there, at that meeting, was where I had one of the Top 10 ideas of a long professional life -- maybe even the best of them all: Why not put together a whole newspaper section as a kind of "Hello Bob!" gesture on the day they arrived? We'd tell our readers EXACTLY how mind-boggling was the potential of this film that was, of all things, based on a classic 20th-century American novel by Bernard Malamud.

Here was a film that was the next major movie project of Barry Levinson, the Baltimore auteur whose first big success was a film we all loved, "Diner."

It's the old monkeys and typewriters thing. Change it to "computer keyboards" now and it still applies. Put a monkey at a keyboard long enough and he'll type out "King Lear." In my case, it was "put a critic at a newspaper long enough and he might come up with an idea that even some of the most fractious wiseacres he knew could get behind."

The thing that a couple of us at the meeting knew was that Redford, Levinson and, by proxy, Malamud were only the tip of this particular iceberg headed our way.

Not to sink us, mind you, but possibly to cover us with glory.

Robert Redford, one of the stars of "The Natural."

What was screaming in our ears was "It's the cast, dummy." The actors coming to our city were as stupendous a battalion of wildly idiosyncratic talent as movies could collect in 1983.

My God, we marveled, it's not going to be just Redford; it's Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, Glenn Close, Barbara Hershey, Joe Don Baker, Wilford Brimley, Richard Farnsworth, Darren McGavin, Robert Prosky and Michael Madsen.

How did THAT happen? Its studio, Tri-Star was brand new. Columbia Pictures, CBS and HBO decided to get together and form an entity to share the cost of making movies. "The Natural" was its first production, a movie with a heck of a lot to prove.

One of its aesthetic rabbis -- way behind the scenes -- was one of the great living directors and a connoisseur of actors, Sydney Pollack, former acting teacher and Redford's director in "Jeremiah Johnson," "The Way We Were" and, later, "Out of Africa."

Back then, anyone who hired Redford didn't just get the star but Team Redford, including friends like Pollack and Redford's own designated script doctor David Rayfiel.

It was a perfect storm of talent. We knew that we needed to explain to Buffalo that this wasn't just a toss-off star vehicle like Burt Reynolds' and Goldie Hawn's "Best Friends" (in which Buffalo was featured very little). Nor was it likely to look as ugly as James Caan's tough and chewy but disappointing "Hide in Plain Sight."

So an incredible thing happened here. Features editor Dave White and Terry Doran, the News' first Arts Editor, both agreed. Why not think BIG -- a whole section devoted just to welcoming a FILM PROJECT into town?

So that's what we did. My piece on how underrated an actor Redford led it off. We got Pat Ward Biederman, who had been so amazing at the late, lamented Courier Express, to write about the pleasures of Levinson's "Diner." And William L. Morris, a teacher and the News' first poetry editor, wrote about Malamud and his novel.

To this day, I'm not aware of any other newspaper that ever greeted the mere arrival of a film company in town with a whole section devoted to explaining how amazing a project it was.

It turned out almost immediately that the whole town took the film to its heart. That perfect storm of talent could now add a perfect storm of benevolence by chance -- a city whose mayor, James Griffin, and one of its wealthiest citizens, Bob Rich, both yearned for a big-league baseball team.

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

They were ready to provide all manner of help -- personal references, for instance, to help the movie's big shots rent great places to stay while filming. In the case of producer Mark Johnson, for instance, he was housed on a quiet one-block Delaware District street where Mabel Dodge Luhan once lived and D.H. Lawrence used to come to visit.

What everyone discovered wasn't just Buffalo's '30s-appropriate architecture but the town's unaffected warmth. They discovered an area full of pleasure. Duvall, for instance, fell in love with Ming Teh restaurant in Fort Erie.

Redford was so popular with fans that he took the brunt of whatever discomfort there was. The most passionate fans can, if disappointed, turn into something resembling enemies. They were just too populous for him to always respond individually and generously.

It was outside the old Rockpile -- War Memorial Stadium -- where filming took place that I discovered what celebrity really meant. The throngs of fans were usually immense, awaiting his arrival. They weren't always waiting to see him, I realized as I watched three teenage girls who made the most noise when he arrived.

What they exploded with, as he rushed into the stadium entrance was, as one girl screamed "He saw me! he saw me!" What fans want most isn't to "see" them but to be "seen by" them.

Buffalo's good vibes in the summer of 1983 couldn't help but rub off on the final result and "The Natural," became a kind of demographic miracle of modern movies, a film that both men and women seem to love equally.

Men think it's a baseball film. Women KNOW it's a romance whose most dramatic moment before the pyrotechnic finale is when Glenn Close stands up in a baseball park and is bathed in loving, angelic light by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.

Can a film become a classic even if it's not great?" "The Natural" provides a thundering answer: "Yes!" People love it irrationally the way people often do "classics" and not just nostalgists living in Buffalo. There's an audience across America that will forgive it anything.

'The Natural' is Buffalo's movie

It boosted the careers of almost everyone involved.

Levinson, who is being brought to town by TCM to celebrate his movie in the North Park Theatre with Ben Mankiewicz, didn't end his association with Buffalo there. He formed a major subsequent business and artistic partnership with Buffalo native son, screenwriter Tom Fontana, the much-admired man who guided TV's "Homicide" and "Oz."

Levinson's current project is an HBO version of the life of disgraced Penn State football coach Joe Paterno starring Al Pacino. It's from Levinson's company with Fontana.

It's my feeling that this city's genuine and, yes, natural warmth had more than a little to do with the virtues of "Marshall" the most recent hugely promising movie to be made here. No matter what, when film companies find cities whose people say "go ahead, park your big obnoxious movie equipment truck in our driveway," the host city becomes a major offscreen player in the film.

In the case of both "The Natural" and to a lesser extent "Marshall," the goodheartedness of the city became an off-camera star. TCM's Mankiewicz told the News' Tim O'Shei that more films ought to be made in Buffalo.

To my way of thinking, he ain't just whistling "Dixie."




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