Interview with actor Dwier Brown from 'Field of Dreams'

(This interview was originally published July 14, 2014 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Dwier Brown. He played John Kinsella, the father of Kevin Costner's character in Field of Dreams. His character is the "he" in "If you build it, he will come". His character is the one who walked out of a cornfield and asked, "Is this heaven?" and later was able to "have a catch" with his son at the end of a truly beautiful film. He has a wonderful book out called If You Build it.. which I highly encourage you all to check out to find out a lot more. He was kind enough to share some of his story here so you can find out a little more about him and making Field of Dreams as we get on to some selections from my interview with Dwier Brown...

Q: When and how did you get your start in acting? When did you finally think that it actually did have the potential to become a career for you? Please tell us a little about what roles you had prior to Field of Dreams.
Dwier: My mom was a movie buff as a kid, so she encouraged my older sister and brother and I to do plays and puppet shows and 8mm movies when we were kids. I stayed at it because I liked to make people laugh and it was a way for a young farm boy to have some excitement and emotion in his life. When I got cast in the lead in a play my freshman year at Ashland College (Ashland, OH), I began to see that there was more to it than just goofing and making people laugh.

Still, everybody I knew said, "So you like doing plays, but what are you going to do to make a living?" After college, I went to Chicago to give acting a try because I couldn't get a job in advertising (my Plan A). I did some plays, got an agent and actually got a few jobs on films and TV shows that were shooting in Chicago. My agent offered me a chance to test the waters in Los Angeles, and I ended up getting the role of "Stuie Cleary" in "The Thorn Birds" [1983 highly-acclaimed TV mini-series] in my first 6 weeks in Hollywood. I couldn't believe my good luck! By then, the bug had bit me and I was all in.

I went on to do roles in a couple of Wes Craven films, "House" [1986] and "House II: The Second Story" (a clever tag line if I've ever heard one) [1987], "To Live and Die in L.A." [1985], "Desperado" [1995], "Gettysburg" [1993] and a bunch of television movies and TV shows like "Murder She Wrote," "The Fall Guy," "ER," and "Charmed." I also kept doing plays and helped start a little theatre called the Alliance Repertory Company.

Q: How did the role of "John Kinsella" in Field of Dreams come your way? Did you audition for that specific part? Did you screentest or read with Kevin Costner during the audition process?
Dwier: I auditioned for the role of "John Kinsella" just like any other role that came my way. I had read W. P. Kinsella's book Shoeless Joe after college so I was already in love with the story. Phil Alden Robinson's script was amazing. The audition was short and sweet - just the five or six pages of the final scene - but I tried to make them special and create the magical feeling that John Kinsella might feel if he had been able to walk out of a cornfield and play baseball again with a son who had rejected him. I guess it worked.

I didn't meet Kevin until a few days after I arrived in Iowa. Even though I had met a lot of stars in my first six years in Hollywood, Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster and Ray Liotta were an awe-inspiring group to be introduced to. I just tried to act professional while my pulse raced.

Field of Dreams was released in theaters in April of 1989. Phil Alden Robinson wrote the screenplay based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella and directed the film as well. Robinson deservingly received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and the film itself was nominated for Best Picture. The film is about an Iowa farmer who hears a voice whisper, "If you build it, he will come" and then proceeds to figure out that he was to build a baseball field in the middle of his farmland, but takes a while longer to figure out how to "ease his pain". The whole movie moves towards the moment that Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) actually meets his young father John Kinsella (played by Dwier Brown). Here is that scene when Costner's character realizes who would come if he built it...

Q: How long did it take to film your scenes? How long were you actually on set? How long did you actually play catch with Costner to get that scene? Anything specific you can share about filming that final scene?
Dwier: I was originally hired to work on Shoeless Joe for three days in early July 1988. By the time I arrived, the film company had overcome so many problems with corn that wouldn't grow and grass that was dying in the heat, that my work schedule was expanded to two weeks.

Phil Robinson, cinematographer John Lindley and executive producer Brian Frankish decided to shoot the final scene of the movie at "magic hour", which is the fifteen minutes after sunset, when the light in the sky has a beautiful golden hue. But this meant that we had to break up that short final scene into smaller bits that could be filmed in fifteen minutes chunks before it got too dark each night. So each night, just before sunset, the entire crew would go out to the field and set up the final scene again. One evening we would shoot a few takes of me saying, "Is this heaven?" and the next night we would film Kevin answering, "No, it's Iowa." And so on and so on until we got to the final helicopter shot.

That night, there were 3,000 local volunteers in 1,500 cars lining three miles of roads from Dyersville to the field (this was before CGI would have easily created that shot in a computer). There was a forced blackout in the town, including several other baseball games and the local train. The Highway Patrol was involved, roadside assistance, the local radio station was broadcasting the director's instructions through everyone's car radios. There were volunteers hiding in ditches along the road, there was a camera operator hanging out of the side of a helicopter, and what was I worried about? Dropping the ball! I know it was a bit self-involved, but between the giant, rock-hard, vintage catcher's mitt they had given me and the pressure of possibly only having one "take" to get it, I began sweating about having the ball dribble out of my glove in the final, climactic shot of the movie. 

It turns out, we actually got three takes of that final shot. The first two just didn't look right. For the final one, director Phil Robinson broadcast to the extras through their car radios to flash their high beams off and on as they drove to give the illusion of more movement and to create a little extra "sparkle". After that, it was too dark to attempt another take. When he got the film back from the lab, the first two takes were completely black. The final take, with the sparkly headlights, is the one in the movie. P.S. - I never dropped the ball, either!

I have adored Field of Dreams ever since the first time I saw it back in 1989. It is a masterful example of great storytelling weaving in baseball, relationships between fathers and sons, taking a leap of faith believing in something extraordinary and getting second chances to make good on old regrets. Dwier Brown is only in the final five minutes of the movie, but those are some of the most poignant moments in the film shot beautifully against that golden sunset. (Though it cuts off before you see the cars driving up the road) Here is the final scene where they "have a catch"...

Q: What can you tell us about Kevin Costner and your experience working with him playing his Dad?
Dwier: I was nervous about meeting Kevin when I first arrived in Iowa. Bull Durham had just been released and Kevin's career was taking off. He was working non-stop and starting to write his own projects (Michael Blake was in Iowa working with Kevin on the script for Dances With Wolves). He was starting to do all the things I wanted to do with my career. Everyone wanted to be his friend. I realized that the feelings of respect and admiration I had for Kevin were similar to the feelings that John Kinsella might have for his son, for having built a baseball field for Shoeless Joe and the other players (including myself) to play on. I decided to NOT make a focused effort to be his friend and possibly undermine the "perfect" relationship of pride and estrangement I already had for him. I think it fostered a quiet intensity in the scene that worked well for the movie.

When we shot the scene together with Phil Robinson, Kevin was fun to work with. He was creative and collaborative and serious about the scene. We all made suggestions but none of us were interested in fixing things that weren't broken. Because we were shooting a five-minute scene every day in fifteen-minute increments (because of the short window of "magic hour" light), Kevin and I both worked hard to keep a certain level of intensity and continuity with the scene.

At the cast and crew screening, Kevin was very complimentary about my performance and my future success. He was always generous and charming with me when I asked him to sign something for a charity auction I was involved with. When we've seen each other over the years, he is always very nice to me. Kevin has an engaging smile that makes you feel like you are the only person he cares about when he is talking to you. If he were really my son, I would be very proud.

Q: As you mentioned earlier, in addition to Costner, Field of Dreams had a tremendous cast. Even though you didn't necessarily have a lot of scenes directly with them, did you get to know any of the other cast members at all? Can you tell us anything about James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, Ray Liotta, Amy Madigan or any others?
Dwier: I was very excited to meet many of the cast members. I thought Ray Liotta was amazing (and creepy) in Something Wild. I was a huge Burt Lancaster fan when I was young and even did a bad impersonation of him. I had a crush on Amy Madigan. I was in awe of Kevin. But I was the most nervous to meet James Earl Jones. He is just such an amazing, unique actor and an intimidating person.

One of my first days on the set, I found myself in the make-up trailer, one salon chair away from the amazing James Earl Jones. I was frozen in fear, silently rehearsing a litany of opening lines - "What a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Earl-Jones..." Is it "Earl-Jones" or just "Jones"? when suddenly his large hand reached across the empty chair between us and he said, in a voice that rattled the entire trailer, "Hi, I'm Jimmy". He was just the nicest guy.

I ended up spending more time with Ray Liotta than any of the other actors. And he is an intense guy. But funny. There are more stories in the book about meeting all of these incredible actors.

Q: I have visited the field in Dyersville, Iowa a couple of times myself. What can you share with us about the location during filming? Playing baseball in the middle of a cornfield? Staying and hanging out in that small town? I assume you have been back a few times yourself? How was that?
Dwier: I grew up on a 52-acre farm in Ohio, so being on that beautiful farm was like being home again for me. I loved it. Many of the cast and crew members (who were from Los Angeles) were a little bored with life in Dyersville. They found creative ways to spend their down time. The Art Dept. designed more "Shoeless Joe" t-shirts, hats and jackets than I've ever seen on a movie shoot! They created a bowling team, complete with vintage bowling shirts and "bowling aliases" embroidered above the pocket. We went to the dog track and to the seedy bars across the Mississippi in East Dubuque until the wee hours. It was a fun bunch of people.

I have been back to the field a couple of times since 1988, most recently for the 25th Anniversary of the film's release this past Father's Day. Kevin and Tim Busfield were there along with Bob Costas (filming a documentary about the film for MLB network, airing July 17, 2014), the Today Show, former players Bret Saberhagen and Glendon Rusch and about 8,000 fans of the movie. I got to re-acquaint myself with many of the local people from Dyersville who were extras 25 years ago. Talk about "Old School"! It was a blast! They screened the movie on an inflatable screen set up in right field and we all got to play a softball game together the next day. I got to "have a catch" with Kevin again, and, more importantly, with my "real life" son, Woodrow, who is now 15.

As nice as it was to celebrate the movie with thousands of fans, the field itself is a special place, particularly when there are fewer people there. It is amazing to me that people still come after 25 years and that you can walk the base paths, play catch, explore the corn and reminisce, and it's all absolutely free! I love that about it.

Q: Any interesting stories or facts about making Field of Dreams that you can share with us and let us in on? What are some of your best memories from making Field of Dreams?
Dwier: My new book, "If You Build It...," is filled with the amazing and funny stories of the trials and tribulations of filming Field of Dreams.

The most important obstacle the film company had to overcome was the worst drought in 62 years! The corn was knee-high when it came time to film the ghost players walking out of it which, of course, would have looked ridiculous. The director shot all of the interior scenes he could shoot, while waiting for the rain to come, but ended up getting special permission to water the corn in hopes that it would grow.

After a few weeks of irrigation in that intense heat, the corn got TOO tall, and a platform had to be built for Kevin to walk on so he could be seen above the 7-foot tall corn! Now that the corn was tall enough, it had to be plowed under immediately to build the baseball field, which was done with the help of four local high school baseball teams, on a long 4th of July weekend. It looked beautiful!

Within two days, the sod turned brown and died in the heat and the Art Dept. had to paint the whole field green with Hudson sprayers. When we were shooting, the field underfoot was so crunchy, it felt like we were walking on Easter basket grass. Lots of crazy stories... It's amazing that movie got finished at all, let alone that it is considered a classic.

Q: What were your feelings about it when the film was released in 1989? Did you expect that it would connect with so many people so strongly?
Dwier: When I auditioned for the film, I had no idea the movie would be successful. I assumed because the script was so sweet (no sex, no violence), very few people would come see it. I didn't realize until the cast and crew screening that my small part had any sort of significance - I thought it was just tying up the last loose end of the plot - not setting up an iconic redemption of Father and Son.

On top of that, Universal Studios released the movie on only a few screens across the country and with very little advertising, which meant to me that they didn't have a lot of confidence in its box office potential. But, word of mouth about the film spread, and slowly it became a hit. Of course, the fact that it still resonates with so many people, and that strangers still come up to me 25 years later and hug me and cry on my shoulders, is something of a miracle to me.

Q: What are your feelings about Field of Dreams now 25 years later? How often do people come and ask you to "have a catch" with them? What can you tell us about being connected to such a beloved film?
Dwier: I have the perfect amount of fame. I can eat my dinner at a restaurant in peace. Every three months or so, someone recognizes me and tells me a heart-warming story of how that movie changed their lives and thanks me for my part in it. It's every actor's dream - to be recognized for doing something you love and to be remembered in the best possible way. It is my favorite film experience, despite the fact that it was only 5 minutes - shooting it 26 years ago was a blast, and the wonderful legacy it has created in my life is simply a joy.

Q: Please tell us a little about where your career has taken you since the '80s.
Dwier: I have continued to work in film and television and have co-founded two more theatre groups, Theater 150 and the Ojai Playwrights Conference. I've accomplished lifelong goals of being in a meaningful film and of writing a book, and now I am traveling around the country, signing that book in major and minor league ball parks and at bookstores all over the world, and meeting wonderful people. My daughter is currently studying in Chile and my son is going to high school. My wife and I are madly in love with each other and we have a hilarious dog named Grandma. How does it get any better than that?

Q: Please tell us about your memoir If You Build It... What inspired you to write it? What has been the reaction to the book so far? Who do you feel will enjoy reading your book and why?

Dwier: I had always dreamed of writing a book but had never managed to finish anything I was proud of. As the 25th anniversary of Field of Dreams approached, I thought about all of the people who have told me how much that movie has meant to them over the years and the unexpected ways it has changed their lives. So two and a half years ago, I started writing down those stories as they had been told to me by strangers. That got me thinking about my own father, who died unexpectedly a month before I went to Iowa to shoot the film. I started writing about him and our sometimes-difficult relationship. Then I added stories about my childhood on a farm and my life in baseball. Then I started writing about the difficult shoot in Iowa and all the amazing actors I met on the set. I wove all the stories together into a book I'm really proud of.

The book has had great reviews from a lot of sources, including the New York Times and the New York Daily News. We have almost all 5-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and I have received dozens of letters and emails from people who love the book and are ordering extra copies for their father and for their friends. It's really exciting for me! One of the reviews says that "if you liked Field of Dreams, you'll love If You Build it..." That was my greatest hope while writing it.

If You Build it... A book about Fathers, Fate and Field of Dreams is available on or at Amazon and other online book outlets. You can request the book at your local bookstore and maybe even catch him on his book tour.

Q: What else has Dwier Brown been up to more recently? Both acting and otherwise?
Dwier: I am totally enjoying signing books and seeing baseball games all summer. I plan to continue writing and to continue acting. Being in Field of Dreams was a fantastic lucky break and I am grateful for it. But I am aware that I had a very small part in a magical movie that Phil Robinson deserves most of the credit for. I've always felt that Phil and Kevin and James Earl and the rest of the cast and crew did the hard work of opening the audience's heart, and all I had to do was take off my catcher's mask and walk right in. I am honored to have been given a free pass into people's most tender feelings. But with my book, I feel a real sense of accomplishment that I wrote every word and that my wife Laurie designed the cover and I scanned in all the pictures myself. I get an entirely different sense of pride from it. I want to enjoy that feeling as long as it lasts...

I am so pleased that Dwier was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. You can keep up with him at his official website, his Facebook page and on Twitter .Be sure to buy his book if you can! I want to take this occasion to again thank Dwier Brown for his contributions to '80s pop culture especially through Field of Dreams and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.

Follow @OldSchool80s on Twitter for a daily dose of  '80s nostalgia and read more Retro Interviews on RD80s.

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