If you build up the courage to approach Dwier Brown, it may still feel as if you’re about to have some kind of out-of-body experience.
The actor who played John Kinsella along side Shoeless Joe Jackson and a host of other baseball ghosts in the 1989 classic “Field of Dreams” may have only had about five minutes of screen time — most of it in the final poignant dialogue before having a catch with his son, played by Kevin Costner, as the sun set in an Iowa cornfield.
Yet, that scene remains as golden as few others do, 25 years later, especially on Father’s Day.
As Brown has discovered, people who meet him today go through almost the same routine: They think they know him, they finally recognize him and the role he played, then they have a story to tell him about their own relationship with their dad. Sometimes, it gets pretty emotional.
“They are like confessions,” says the 55-year-old Brown, who looks pretty near the same now as he did as when he was 30, “and I start to feel like a priest when those moments happen.”
Through that process, Brown added those kind of personal stories into his new autobiography, “If You Build It … A Book about Fathers, Fate and Field of Dreams” (Elsie Jean Books, 261 pages, $18.95), interspersed with revealing memories about his own father who died just a month before Brown made the film.
Little known fact: The catcher’s mitt that Brown uses in the movie belonged to his dad. He brought it as a tribute to him.
On this Father’s Day weekend, more than 5,000 are expected to converge Dyersville, Iowa for a “Field of Dreams” reunion that included a movie screening Friday night, celebrity games on Saturday and Q-and-A’s hosted by NBC’s Bob Costas and Matt Lauer. Before Brown left his home in Ojai with his 15-year-old son Woody to attend the festivities, he gave us some insights behind the cathartic experience he had in writing the book:
Q: Does Father’s Day have a new, fresh meaning for you after going through this process – remembering your dad, having two kids of your own (including 21-year-old daughter Lily), going back to Iowa?
A: I guess it really reminds me how precious this time is. My father died suddenly, as I wrote about, and I hope the book will make people appreciate that relationship while it is still here. I had the good fortune of making good in my relationship with my dad after some difficult times but I think a lot of people don’t get that opportunity. I would have been hard-pressed if I hadn’t been able to do that with my dad, to make amends and all that. This whole process has been a little harder for me to see as a father. I was very confident in my role as a son and in my dad’s ability to be a dad, but the job description is rife with self-doubt. My son is a great kid, good grades, very funny, but there are so many times I want to tell him: Just don’t make that mistake, I can save you the grief of that, you know? Maybe my father is gone but I know I’ll be thinking of him while we’re at the field in Iowa.
I did get to tell him as he was dying what a great dad he was, and fortunately I was at that age, 29, when you’re done sowing your wild oats and fighting your oedipal battles and then you see the wisdom. I mean, my dad was really a great dad, particularly considering how poorly his dad had done with him. He really put forth the effort and succeeded and I regret somewhat I was so hard on him during those years. I wish I could have had more time to re-enforce how good a father he was. I could have done with another 15 or 20 years of patting him on the back. You feel like Father’s Days are going to go on forever. People from my dad’s generation, they were so sturdy and constant, then he’s gone in an instant. You can’t imagine that happening until it does. And then it’s too late. For people whose fathers are still around, say those things and do those things that may seem awkward or uncomfortable because you’ll be grateful you did. You know, we all pass on. No matter how many years you get, you’ll never say, ‘Gosh, I hugged him too much’ or ‘I told him I loved him too much.’
Q: You had the presence of mind to bring your dad’s mitt with you when you did “Field of Dreams.” Would you have done that anyway had he not passed away so near that day?
A: You know, I don’t know if I would have. Obviously I was emotionally wrought at that time. The thing that was strange to me, I wasn’t feeling grief. It was more on some level my dad had been released and I had just felt him around so much. I have a feeling that was motivated by the fact it was my carrying him to the field. … I wish there was that magical thing where you slip on your dad’s mitt and know who he is, where he’s coming from and what he’s trying to convey to you so you don’t have to go through all that head-butting stuff that all boys and their fathers tend to go through.
Q: So how is this experience where people come up to you and start telling you their own father-relationship stories? Is there any one story that affected you more than the others?
A: The first time it happened, someone thinks he knows me, so I’m trying to search my head how I might know this guy. Then to have him go from the elation of figuring out where he ‘knows’ me, to then tearing up and telling me about his dad, I was just on this roller coaster ride. ‘What is this guy doing? Is he crazy?’ It’s not like you get used to it. It doesn’t happen more than once every three or four months.
There was one guy who told me about how he changed his occupation from a lawyer to a sculptor because of the movie, because he was done trying to be like his father. What would prompt that kind of change? To me, what was cool. When he explained it, it made perfect sense. Even when you have a great relation with your father, you do things for the wrong reasons in an effort to please him.
Q: Was your dad supportive of your acting pursuit?
A: Yeah, which is surprising to me since he was a pretty practical guy. Because his generation had to deal with the Depression and a World War, he didn’t get his college degree until his late 20s to start a family, he was excited to support me with an opportunity he didn’t get to pursue.
Q: What do you think he would have said to you had he seen the movie, witnessed all the reaction to it, and watched how people connected with you in it?
A: (Long pause) It is a bit of a regret. It would have been fun to watch the movie with him. At that point in time, there was this gradual softening of my dad. I’m proud to have pushed that agenda with him to give me hugs and tell me he loved me. I know he wanted to say it, but there was no context of that for him in his life. He became more and more available and by the time he died, hugging him was normal. By the time the movie came out, I think … I’m curious. I really don’t know. Would he have teared up? Would he have put his arm around me? I imagine it would have been more me putting my arm around him and him knowing what that meant and taking it in.
Q: Do you get emotional when you see the movie all this time later? When was the last time you might have seen it?
A: They just saw it at the Dubuque Film Festival where they had a 25-year anniversary screening. I was in a room with a lot of people who had been extras in the movie. It was cool how everyone was laughing at the jokes as if they were hearing it for the first time. I swear, they’ve had to have seen that movie at least a dozen times but there’s a certain reverence in the Dyersville area for that movie. They have a real attachment to it. When I saw it just a month ago, that final scene always gets me. That’s been true since the first time I saw it. I feel quite humble about my role in it. I know if I’m watching myself up there, and I’m tearing up, then it’s way, way bigger than me. It was weird for many years. I almost got defensive when people said I was really good in the movie. I’d say, ‘Well anybody could have walked in at that point.’ It was set up so well to that point, Don Rickles could have walked in, and people would have been crying. But I have learned over the years, when I started to put down my personal journey on expressing my feelings and my relationship with my father into the total context of the movie, it makes perfect sense I was the one chosen to play that role and I played it well. Jim Carrey auditioned for that role. Imagine how that might have made it a different movie. And what if Robin Williams, who was up for Ray’s role, was in there instead? People could have played that differently but what I brought to it was one of those things I look back on and I think, ‘well that was a good performance and I feel good about it.’
Q: You write about how you’ve come to realize there’s that moment you take your catcher’s mask off and reveal your face, and whether that was intended or not, it’s seems to symbolizes a father finally revealing himself to his son. How did you figure that out?
A: That actually was very late in the writing process for me. I was trying to put my finger on what it is about me that people a) remember from 25 years ago and b) what then compels them to tell me these stories. I mean, I guess for years I was assuming this happened to everyone in the movie – Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones. I know they’ve heard stories. But if you met Kevin on the street, you might be fumbling for your camera and tripping over your tongue and you could talk to him about a million different movies. But with me, that’s the movie for the most part people associate me with, and because it’s that particular role, when the audience is most vulnerable, I think there’s something – the arrangement of the features of my face – that are tattooed in the back of people’s brains. So when they see me, things line up in their head and all that comes back to them and stuff just starts pouring out to them. And it’s stuff … it’s fairly clear to me some of these are things they’ve never told anybody before. Not their wives, or fathers, or anybody. And I feel so honored to be in that position. I really had to sort out how that happened to me and what was the combination of things that may have caused that deep, almost subconscious reaction to seeing me. When these moments happen, I really don’t say very much because they’re telling me these emotional things. I can say, ‘Gosh, I’m sorry for your loss,’ but there isn’t much for me to say. They want to tell their story and I want to be the vessel they can empty that into. It’s very … quite like a spiritual ritual.
Q: Is it like a religious experience?
A: It’s a pretty great position to be put in, really. I cut through all the small talk with people and maybe talk about things they’ve never told anyone else before. That’s pretty cool. I have always been on a spiritual search and the theatre has been a church of sorts for me. I really studied a lot of new-age things, Buddism, all kinds of things, but I think there is some sort of profound thing to all this. For the amount of times it happens to me, and the depth to which these people’s emotions grab at me, it’s always kind of rewarding and I always make the time. Most of them are stories about the relationship issues they had with their father that they were able to overcome by watching the movie, or playing catch. I am hoping I can now take those stories on my RV book tour. I’m going to set up a video booth and tell people if they want to record their stories. And maybe there’s a documentary that will come out of this. Almost everyone has a story. I’ve done something on my website (www.dwierbrown.com) now where we ask: If there was one thing you could say to your father what would it be? And people write their responses on a piece of paper and hold them up. It was really pretty nice.
Q: Do you play catch with your son?
A: We do. He’s not so much into baseball but we have a school down the street from us, sometimes I drag him down there, he drags me down there, and I’ll pitch to him and he’ll hit the bag of balls so we have to go fetch them. But that’s what it’s about. It’s an activity that doesn’t require a lot of attention and time spent is bigger than the effort it takes to do it.
Q: No matter what roles you’ve had since then, there’s no getting around having this one live forever, is there?
A: What’s interesting about it, I had some level of fame when all of this was going on the first time. It was no huge fame, but it really is different now when people recognize you from something. It’s nice. Everybody should have that experience. Your plumber should have people come up to them and say thank you so much. To do it again so many decades later it’s so rewarding because you appreciate it more. To be present and take it in. It’s been nice … it’s like the play “Our Town” when he gets to come back the smell of toast. It’s so much sweeter to come back to it. I’m trying to be present and really enjoy it. I don’t know if I have another book in me.
Q: Maybe it helps that you almost look exactly the same today as you did 25 years ago?
A: I tell people it’s from living in a cornfield.