CLEARWATER — He auditioned for Risky Business. Guy named Tom Cruise got the part. He later tried out for Thelma & Louise. Dude named Brad Pitt aced him out.
Thirty years ago, an actor from the Ohio farmlands named Dwier Brown was living and dying in L.A, getting small parts in movies, TV and stage work, where his specialty was: dead guy. He had been shot to death six times, lynched, knifed. In the TV drama The Thorn Birds, he had been run over by a wild boar. He had suffered a broken neck and an aneurysm — in the same play.
Then came the role of a lifetime, one to last forever. It called for Brown to be dead before shooting even began in an Iowa cornfield, a role Brown, 60, happily still plays today. It is his 15 minutes of fame.
“Actually, it’s six minutes,” Brown said with a grin. “I’ve got nine minutes coming.”
The film was Field of Dreams, the iconic baseball father-son love letter. The role was that of John Kinsella, played by Brown, and his son Ray, played by Kevin Costner. The history they made lasted just those six on-screen minutes, but it brought grown men to tears with a few short words.
“Hey, Dad, wanna have a catch?”
“I’d like that.”
Field of Dreams premiered 30 years ago this month. To mark it, the Class A Clearwater Threshers had Brown throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Spectrum Field before Friday night’s game against the Charlotte Stone Crabs.
He worked the crowd, meeting and greeting, signing autographs, a smile for everyone. Brown wore his gray flannel pinstriped uniform top with KINSELLA on the back. When he arrived at the park after breakfast Friday, he carried an aged ball glove, the fingers all loose, weathered genuine horsehide, a gift from his own father a half-century ago. Brown signs his autographs with “Wanna have a catch?”
Field of Dreams is a gift that keeps on giving. For Brown, it has meant a small side business, beginning with the 25th anniversary. He has written a book, If You Build It … A Book About Fathers, Fate and Field of Dreams. He has a web site, dwierbrown.com, where he announces his schedule, which includes stops at minor-league ballparks across the country, and where you can order autographed baseballs, as well as “If You Grilled It” cooking aprons. Dwier Brown has it going.
But here’s the best part: the glistening looks.
He gets them at whatever park he plays, wherever he goes, really. He loves them.
“They’ll tell me their dad and them never got along, but they took them to see Field of Dreams and … they start crying,” he said. “I start crying. I’m standing in a tire store or an airport or wherever, hugging people, patting them on the back. I definitely feel like I’m a traveling priest, hearing father confessions from everyone. It’s extraordinary. But that’s what I got into acting for, to make meaningful movies that people would remember, that would change people’s lives.”
Brown, who has been a professional actor for 38 years, auditioned for Field of Dreams in Los Angeles, along with 300 other actors.
“Jim Carrey auditioned for the part, which would have made it an entirely different movie,” Brown said. “I never beat him out for any other movies.”
Costner, who at the time was also writing the script for the Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves, and director/writer Phillip Alden Robinson chose Brown, who roughly resembled Costner and his father. Not that it mattered, but Brown grew up on an Ohio farm and had played Little League ball, though he was cut by the freshman team in high school.
“I could field, but I couldn’t hit,” he said.
Filming began in May 1988 in Dyersville, Iowa, at a ballfield carved from cornfields that stretched across two properties. Brown was paid the industry scale for his two weeks of shooting, about $400 per week.
His crucial scene with Costner went on for days, line by line, allowing for just the right amount of fading sunlight and for the helicopter shot, which pulled up and away to reveal headlights snaking toward the farm, the film’s climactic scene.
There were a few issues. First, Costner and Brown talked and suggested to the director that no one says, “Want to have a catch?” at least where they grew up. You said, “play catch.” Robinson, who was from New York, where they said “have a catch,” shot them down.
But Brown and Costner earned one victory.
“Originally, ‘Hey, Dad’ was not in there, it was left implied that they were father and son,” Brown said. “But they did audience screenings, and some … were so incensed. They had to change it, insert it. You can see they cut from Kevin saying, ‘Hey’ to me as he says ‘dad.’ It was dubbed in.”
Then there was Brown’s actual catching, which looked a little two-handed stiff. It has been the subject of ridicule among persnickety baseball sticklers.
“Let me defend myself, because nothing hurts me more,” Brown said with a smile. “There’s a helicopter and a guy hanging out of it with a camera, and the sun is fading. There are 3,000 townspeople in 1,500 cars stretched out for three miles. They give me this giant catcher’s mitt, which is like a brick bagel, no flexibility at all. Hadn’t been broken in. The helicopter is taking off. We’re feeling the rotor wash. I thought, ‘What if I drop the ball?’ I was being extra cautious. I’m not going to drop the ball.”
He didn’t drop the ball. Nor did Field of Dreams, though Rolling Stone magazine would pan its schmaltz and dub it “The worst movie of 1989.”
“None of us thought it would be anything,” Brown said. “We didn’t realize it until we had a cast and crew screening a few days before the release. Usually, these are pretty rowdy events. Well, after about a half-hour, everybody kind of got quiet. By the end, we were all crying. We were all like, ‘What have we done?’ ”
The same feeling overcame Brown a few weeks after the premiere, when someone recognized him in a grocery store and cried on his shoulder. Recently, Brown was buying a mirror at Home Depot when an orange-vested store associate stopped him to talk about their dads. It happens all the time.
Dwier Brown thinks of his own father, Walter, who died before the film’s premiere. Walter was a survivor of the Great Depression and a World War II veteran who always played catch with his son but who hid his own troubled past with his father, who had abandoned the family.
“The biggest success of my career is that I’m now that person who my dad could never be,” Brown said. “I didn’t get to watch that movie with my dad, but I get to talk to people whose relationships got healed by the movie, or watch it every year with their dad.”
Brown remembers his Risky Business audition. At the time, Cruise said he was interested in joining Brown’s theater group. Brown gave Cruise his phone number.
“I guess he lost it,” Brown said.
Brown is stopped all the time to have a catch. He pulls out his hard-cheese beat-up glove, winds up his right arm and obliges. Hundreds of catches, thousands. It’s surprising he hasn’t needed Tommy John surgery.
Five years ago, in Dyersville, at the 25th Field of Dreams reunion, replete with Bob Costas emceeing and interviewing, Brown had a catch with anyone who asked. The day after the reunion, Brown’s then 15-year-old son, Woody, asked his father a question.
“He said, ‘Gosh, Dad, you were kind of playing catch with everybody yesterday. I didn’t really get a chance to play catch,’ ” Brown said. “So we drove out the next morning at 6, nobody was around, and we played catch.”
Just like in the movies.
Contact Martin Fennelly at email@example.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.