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'The Natural' brings director Levinson back to where his career took off

For Buffalo, the filming of “The Natural” was an indicator that a mid-size Rust Belt city could have a small slice of Hollywood. For Barry Levinson, “The Natural” proved that he – as a fresh, 41-year-old director – could make a successful movie with a star-jammed cast.

It worked out well for both: “The Natural,” starring Robert Redford as baseball player Roy Hobbs, was filmed in and around Buffalo in 1983. It was released one year later and grew to become known as a classic baseball movie.

Levinson and “The Natural” were good for Buffalo, and the film and its backdrop were good for Levinson’s career.

“It was a big step,” Levinson said Saturday night, on his first trip back to Buffalo since wrapping filming 34 years ago. Now 75 and still active as a director and producer, he reflected, “It was a huge step.”

Turner Classic Movies hosts a screening of "The Natural" at North Park Theatre as part of a winning entry in the "TCM in Your Hometown" contest. TCM prime-time host Ben Mank… 

Levinson revisited that experience for a theater full of fans, when Turner Classic Movies hosted a special showing of “The Natural” at the North Park Theatre.

The network’s fan club, TCM Backlot, held a national competition in which members could submit an essay on why TCM should come to their hometown. The Buffalo News’ assistant features editor, Toni Ruberto, submitted the winning entry, which resulted in the network bringing both Levinson and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz to Buffalo for the event.

Tickets for the screening were free but went quickly. The seats inside the renovated palace-style theater were filled with local baseball and movie fans, including several Western New Yorkers who were part of the movie.

Former Buffalo Bisons General Manager Michael J. Billoni showed up with his wife, brother and sister-in-law — and a trove of newspaper clippings and movie memorabilia he has been saving over the decades. “The Natural” was shot at the since-demolished War Memorial Stadium, where the Bisons once played.

Bob Rich III, who has a Redford-like jawline and wave of light hair, had the role of Roy Hobbs' son and played catch with Redford in the final scene of the movie. Rich III, whose father, Bob Rich Jr., owns the Bisons and is chairman of the $3.6 billion family business Rich Products Corp., was there with his own son, Eric. At 14, Eric is roughly the same age as his dad was during the filming.

Billoni and Rich started reminiscing about the filming and red-carpet treatment that followed. At the movie premiere in New York City in 1984, they came upon Tom Brokaw of NBC News. Billoni, whom Rich laughingly recalled was “acting like the mayor of New York,” said, “Mr. Brokaw, this is Bob Rich III. He played Robert Redford’s son in the movie. Mr. Brokaw, anything to say to Mr. Rich?”

Brokaw, in in his baritone voice, looked at the teenage Rich and said, “Niiiice catch.”

The men broke out in laughter.

The theater was packed for Saturday night's Turner Classic Movies screening of "The Natural" at the North Park Theatre on Hertel Avenue. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

When Kevin Lester, who played on Redford’s fictional New York Knights, walked up Saturday, Rich greeted him with a hug. Lester, a former baseball scout and longtime official scorer for the Bisons, served as Redford’s baseball assistant of sorts during the filming. He helped the actor shape his glove and custom-made bats for him. For decades afterward, Lester, who was also an athletic director in Williamsville, would hear from people about “The Natural.”

“This movie doesn’t die,” Lester said. “I’d walk into school, the kids would say, 'Mr. Lester, I saw you in the movie.'”

Lester calls "The Natural" his “15 minutes of fame” — an admittedly extended one, at that. But for Levinson, the movie was significant in a different way. Before “The Natural,” he had directed one film, “Diner.” It had a small budget and a young, then-largely unknown cast.

Turner Classic Movies hosts a screening of "The Natural" at North Park Theatre as part of a winning entry in the "TCM in Your Hometown" contest. TCM prime-time host Ben Mank… 

But as Levinson explained in a backstage interview Saturday night, and later with the crowd in the theater, Redford was a fan of “Diner” and wanted to work with Levinson. One day in Los Angeles, the two met and Redford asked Levinson to read a script for “The Natural,” which is based on a novel by Bernard Malamud.

Levinson liked it.

“I called (Redford), obviously, right away,” he said.

But Levinson wasn’t convinced Redford would do the movie with him as director. Redford, in his mid-40s, was already an Oscar winner. Would he be willing to work for a younger, less-celebrated director?

He would.

“Somehow, he committed,” said Levinson. So did stars Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Barbara Hershey, Wilford Brimley and Kim Basinger, among several others.

For Buffalo, the presence of those stars provided a summer of excitement and a few decades of memories. For Levinson, it led to work with Robin Williams, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, among a long list of legends, as he directed films such as “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Bugsy” and “Rain Man,” for which he won an Oscar.

“Now I can do something way bigger, with movie stars,” Levinson said, recalling his thinking at the time. “So suddenly you enter another place.”



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