THE NATURAL airs on Sunday, Sept 2 @ 5P | 4C, Stay for the enhanced version at 8P | 7C.
One of the most difficult tasks in setting up a baseball movie is finding great baseball players who can act. As producer Mark Johnson recalled, "We looked first at who could play baseball, and then figured out who could act. Because often an actor will come in, and you’ll fall in love with that actor and find out he’s totally inept at playing baseball."
The key to authenticity was filling out the teams with actors who could actually play baseball or baseball players who were natural actors. To cast these minor parts, director Barry Levinson recalled, “We had tryouts in New York. We had infield drills, outfield drills, and pitching drills for all the people auditioning for those parts."
"I think we were lucky to get mostly ex-ballplayers," producer Mark Johnson said. “There are a lot of actors out there who are real klutzes, and the odd thing is that most actors want to do a baseball movie.”
During filming, Robert Redford wasn’t really getting pitches from the on-screen pitcher. In reality, Tony Ferrara (who also plays ‘Coach Wilson’ in the film), a 43-year-old batting-practice pitcher for the Mets and the Yankees, threw all the pitches at which Redford swung. Ferrara, who also served as the film’s technical advisor, said, "I think we got some pretty good ballplayers. We could’ve put a pretty good club out there.” Redford’s teammates included Joe Charboneau, the 1980 American League Rookie of the Year, and Phil Mankowski, a former Tigers and Mets infielder.
"My ballparking days were over," said Mankowski. "I’d gone into the restaurant business. I was working one day when one of the waitresses, who’s also an actress, told me they were casting a baseball picture. She said, ‘Why don’t you leave a couple of photos of yourself with the casting director?’ I thought,
‘Why not?’ There must’ve been 300-400 guys trying out. I guess I hadn’t lost much, so they took me."
The famously competitive Redford was somewhat worried about how he’d stack up against the real ballplayers in the cast. Redford: "I figured those guys would think of me as pretty lame, that they’d be saying, ‘Hey, who’s this guy here?’ Instead, they were really very helpful."
Phil Mankowski didn’t think Redford had anything to worry about. “He did really well. He hit the ball hard and he had a good swing. Hey, the man’s 46 years old. I was impressed."
Tony Ferrara concurred. “Redford’s a coordinated man, a well-built guy. You can tell he plays a lot of tennis. He hit one out off of me in batting practice. He’s a natural."
Ron Fimrite, “A Star With Real Clout,” Sports Illustrated, 5/7/84
Stephen Farber, “An All-Star Team Puts The Natural on Film,” New York Times, 5/6/84
Allan Malamud, “Redford, the Van Nuys Slugger, Class of ‘54,” L.A. Herald-Examiner, 4/11/84
The Natural DVD, “When Lightning Strikes: Creating The Natural” Featurette
Dave Anderson, “Sports of the Times: The Second-Strongest Arm,” New York Times, 7/6/86