In 1983 Buffalo New York was chosen as the site to film The Natural one of the greatest sports movies of all time. In fact, The Natural has been selected as one of the top five baseball movies in the history of film and also recognized as one of the top ten sports movies in history.
The Natural was based on the book by the same name written by Bernard Malamud in 1952. The story is about a middle aged baseball player named Roy Hobbs, trying to regain a once promising career which was cut short by a scandalous incident.
The movie was directed by Barry Levinson and as stated, the majority of both the exterio and interior scenes were filmed in Buffalo New York.
It is important to note that Levinson did make one significant change in the conclusion of the story from the book. In Malamud’s original story the main character Roy Hobbs, played by Robert Redford in the movie, strikes out in the climatic final inning. Of course in the now famous movie, Hobbs hits the pennant winning home run and he and his childhood sweetheart and son live happily ever after. That major plot twist gave the movie one of the most memorable conclusions in film history.
When Barry Levinson and the producers of the film initially started looking for an older stadium in which to shoot the period correct baseball scenes they heard of War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, but were told it had been torn down. Production Executive Patrick Markey and Production Designer Mel Bourne toured the country, but had no luck in finding a stadium they felt properly portrayed the time period they were looking for. Finally, after visiting and rejecting a potential location in Louisville, Bourne ran into an elderly man who had been Satchel Paige’s catcher. The gentlemen was the trainer of the Triple A Louisville Redbirds and he had asked Bourne why he looked so disappointed? Bourne told him of their quest and he asked if they had checked out the old stadium in Buffalo? Bourne replied that he was told it had been torn down, but the trainer said. ‘The hell it is, we played the Buffalo Bisons there this year.”
Bourne then contacted the Bisons and spoke with then PR Director Mike Billoni explaining he needed to see the stadium and why. Billoni was not 100% sold that the call was legitimate, but he arranged a meeting with Bourne to see the “Rockpile”. Needless to say Bourne loved the “look” of War Memorial and they arranged their schedule around the Bisons home dates and The Natural became a reality.
Filming The Natural
During the filming of The Natural the city of Buffalo was constantly on Robert Redford alert at all times. Both female and male reporters gushed in his presence during interview sessions and Redford basked in the adoration. At the conclusion of the filming Redford was invited to a Bisons night game where he was pleasantly surprised by Bisons owner Bob Rich Jr. who presented the rugged film-star a beautiful leather saddle.
During the filming It was reported that Redford rented a house on the lake during his stay in Buffalo to shoot the film. Some claimed Redford stayed in a residence on Lake Erie while others said it was in the Wilson area on Lake Ontario.In reality Redford rented a residence on Lakeshore Road on Lake Erie. Regardless of where Redford slept each night, his presence in Buffalo provided an electricity that this town has rarely seen.
Buffalo Film Commissioner Tim Clark’s Connection
Ironically, during the filming of The Natural Tim Clark, the current Commissioner of the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission, worked at WKBW-TV as Assignment Director. Clark coordinated the reporters and photographers assigned to cover the filming of the movie and was on “Redford” alert 24/7.
“Handing out the assignment of covering Robert Redford made me a pretty popular guy back then at WKBW-TV,” said Clark. “There were several female reporters who made it known that they wanted that story, but the male reporters were equally interested in getting a chance to spend some time with the charismatic and athletic Redford,” added Tim Clark.
A number of local residents and actors contributed to the film in various small roles. One of the more interesting developments was the casting of Bob Rich III, son of Bisons owner Bob Rich Jr as Ted Hobbs, son of Roy Hobbs. While Rich has no spoken lines on camera, he shares significant camera time with Glenn Close and a “catch” scene with Redford in the film’s final seconds.
There were also a number of local baseball players who tried out to make the “New York Knights” team. One of the key organizers for the tryouts was Bison employee and standout local player Duke McGuire. McGuire, now radio color-analyst for the Bisons, was asked to recruit local talent after hitting fly balls for film scouts checking out War Memorial Stadium. McGuire was joined by Kevin Lester, a local high school coach who conducted summer little league clinics for the Bisons
Former Cleveland Indian and Buffalo Bison player Joe Charboneau also has a credit in the film as a “Knight”. Ironically Charboneau did not play the role of a player, but rather the role of the cop who participates in the transference of a secret note from Glenn Close to Redford revealing to Hobbs that his son is in the stands just before the final climatic home run.
Former major league player and Buffalo native Sibby Sisti played the Pittsburgh manager in the final game sequence, calling in the reliever in an attempt to strikeout Hobbs in his final at bat. Sibby was a well known utility player in his day and played almost every position on the field.
Mayor Jimmy Griffin NOT in “The Natural”
An often told myth is that Buffalo Mayor Jimmy Griffin made an appearance in the film. In the “knock the cover off the ball scene” there is a diminutive actor who runs out on to the field as an assistant coach for the Phillies and is sometimes mistaken for Mayor Griffin because of the slight resemblance. Griffin was not in “The Natural”, but he did make a brief appearance as a play ground hockey coach in the movie “Best Friends” with Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn. That movie had scenes filmed in Buffalo in 1982, a year before “The Natural”.
The Whammer Trained at Sal Maglie Stadium
An interesting fact is that Joe Don Baker, known for his breakout role as Buford Pusser in “Walking Tall” played the Babe Ruth type character known in the film as The Whammer. Baker was found taking batting practice at Sal Maglie Stadium in Niagara Falls in August of 1983 to prepare for his role as the legendary homerun king. Baker had hoped to keep the workout private, but then Niagara Frontier Cable photographer Mark Costanzo was tipped off and arrived at the Stadium in time to shoot footage of Baker taking his swings. Baker was a good sport about it and agreed to do an interview which aired on a WKBW-TV sportscast.
Buffalo Locations In The Natural
Some of the key Western New York locations used in the film besides War Memorial Stadium were the Parkside Candy Shop on Main Street, the Central Terminal, the Ellicott Square Building, All High Stadium, the train depot in South Dayton, a country farm house in Stafford and the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.
The Masten Street Armory was also used because of its size to hold office space, editing rooms, wardrobe, casting, sound stage and sets. It is reported that the interiors of the Knight’s locker room, the Judge’s tower office, Max Mercy’s press box and Iris’ apartment were constructed inside the Armory and used in the film.
Filming in Buffalo was completed in mid-October and then the movie company moved to Laird Studios in Culver City to complete principal photography.