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Tim Busfield

Fantasy Dreams

by Editor Rick Cabral


T his summer marks the 25th Anniversary of Field of Dreams, a movie that introduced to the American lexicon the mantra, “If you build it, he will come.” 

Sacramento enjoys a direct connection to the film through actor / director / producer Timothy Busfield, who started Theatre for Children in Sacramento in 1986 (popularized under the name Fantasy Theatre) and along with his brother Buck formed B Street Theatre in 1991. 

On the weekend of June 14, the Dreams cast and crew congregated in Dyersville, Iowa to commemorate the 25th anniversary on location at the “Field of Dreams” complex. In between organized games, people played catch with dads and ran the bases on the iconic ballfield to create their own special memories. “That movie means a lot to a lot of people,” remembers Busfield, who played the antagonist, Mark (“Ray, you have no money!”). “It turned out to be a film where all the elements really worked and affect people as you would hope films would do.” 

 Busfield_25th_FOD
Tim Busfield (left) and Kevin Costner being interviewed by NBC's Bob Costas regarding the 25th Anniversary of the film, Field of Dreams.
Photo Robert Ciridon/TODAY



At nightfall, everyone gathered on the field to watch the film on an outdoor screen. “We were all crying at the end of the movie,” Busfield says. “It was really great.”  

When the movie was released in 1989, Busfield was riding high in film and television, and bringing live theatre to Northern California school children at the rate of 200,000 per year. Three years later, B Street Theatre had been up and running for more than a year. 

The Busfields had established their theatre in a tin building on B Street between the ballfield at 28th and C Streets and the train tracks. The Sacramento Smokies, a semi-pro team established by local baseball legend Larry Manuian, worked out on diamond adjacent to the theatre's parking lot. Tim would watch them practice, and the baseball juices began flowing again.

One evening as the Smokies were working out, Busfield asked Manuian if he could throw batting practice. “Get away from me, kid,” the manager said brusquely. Unfazed, Busfield countered “Well, you’re parking in my parking lot here, pal. I would hate to have to move ya.”  

As Busfield turned to go back inside the theatre, someone whispered to the Smokies manager that the redheaded actor had appeared in the film Field of Dreams. Manuian called him back and discovered Tim had played high school, American Legion and semi-pro baseball and had been keeping in shape consistently since then. Manuian thought he caught him offguard when he asked if Busfield had “a cup” with him. To the manager’s surprise he did and Busfield was allowed to toss batting practice that evening. That performance earned him an invitation to come out to the team’s next Sunday game where he would pitch a couple innings, Manuian told him, “as a publicity stunt for us.” Busfield, who threw with a submarine delivery went five innings, allowed just two runs, and sufficiently impressed Manuian who brought him back in a recurring role as a Sunday starter. 

Two Smokies’ pitchers—former major leaguers Butch Metzger (Kennedy High) and Steve Brown (UC Davis)—eventually helped Busfield refine his slider and changeup. “His slider actually was more like a Frisbee slurve,” Metzger laughs. But after their tutelage “he started getting more downward action to it. He didn’t have D-1 (collegiate) or pro stuff, but it was the kind that would mess up really good college hitters,” says Metzger, a Texas Rangers area scout and the 1976 National League Co-Rookie of the Year.  

 

Busfield-Brown_Smokies
Tim Busfield (left) and Steve Brown share a laugh on the Sacramento Smokies bench. Photo courtesy John Storey

Over the next 10 years, Busfield says he started 50 games for the Smokies, posting a 30-12 overall record. “It turned out to be a good experience for me and (Manuian),” Busfield says. 

~ ~ ~ 

Busfield always played “up” in youth baseball with older brother Buck and his friends. By his senior season at East Lansing High he was a frontline pitcher, posting an ERA “under 2,” he recalls. He enrolled at East Tennessee State with the hope of playing collegiate baseball. But a shoulder problem prompted the coach to declare him a redshirt. At that point, Busfield asked for directions to the school’s theatre department and recalibrated his future. It shouldn’t have taken much convincing, for his father Roger Busfield was a playwright and taught in college drama departments. 

Early on at East Tennessee State, Tim approached theatre department founder Harold “Bud” Frank and requested one-on-one personal training. There he learned “the Stanislavski system,” an approach that calls for an actor to develop a character from “the inside-out.” After college, Busfield’s first professional acting job was with The Green Mountain Guild’s Theatre for Children, which planted a seed that would blossom in Sacramento.  

While he delved headlong into theatre, he never lost his passion for baseball. In Los Angeles, while his acting career took off, Tim played baseball in a men’s 18-and-over league. For exercise, he tossed a ball against a wall, keeping his arm limber. 

By the late 1980s, Busfield had established himself as a working actor with numerous recurring roles on television, including the series All My Children, Trapper John, M.D., Family Ties, plus he had occasional film roles including the Bill Murray-led movie, Stripes (1981) and Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and its sequel.

In the late 1980s, Busfield landed the first of two big breaks: the role of Elliot Weston on the hit television series thirtysomething established him as a player.

Also around that time Busfield auditioned for the role of the brother-in-law Mark in Field of Dreams, the movie adaptation of the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. Kevin Costner, fresh off the baseball movie Bull Durham was cast in the lead as Ray Kinsella, with James Earl Jones playing the fictional American writer, Terence Mann. 

Busfield almost didn’t get the role because of the narrow time window in his summer schedule to shoot the film. But he enjoyed a good relationship with the casting director, and writer/director Phil Alden Robinson liked Tim’s ability to infuse “heart” in the antagonist’s performance. Plus he “had a few good years rolling into Field of Dreams. It was a nicely earned spot, but not a miracle,” the actor recalls. 

Shooting on location in Dyersville, Iowa a severe drought wiped out that summer’s corn crop, which was central to the movie’s plot. Consequently, that delayed production and for a time, it appeared Busfield might have to return to Hollywood and the role recast. But Fate intervened when the Writers Guild of America strike lasted five months through August 1988, allowing Busfield to remain in Iowa and finish the film.  

While standing on the ballfield one day, Busfield enjoyed a magical moment of his own when he learned he had won an Emmy-award for his work in thirtysomething.  

Ironically, in a movie filled with dozens of ballplayers, Busfield wasn’t called on to demonstrate his skills on the diamond. But the actor maintains that only a thespian with baseball experience could have pulled off the scene where his character Mark storms onto the field and interrupts the game in progress.  

After two run-throughs, Robinson the director wanted to compress the sequence. This required a much tighter window for Busfield to complete the scene, escalating the stunt’s danger factor. “Now as a director, I know that he was trying to commit me to a stunt that could have cost me my left ear,” Busfield says in that famous sardonic voice. They worked out the blocking and in the final take the actor improvised with a raised hand and the verbal greeting “Hi!” demonstrating impeccable timing as he passed between the pitch and the batter’s swing. “That took (the skills of) a ballplayer,” he says proudly. “It took confidence that you wouldn’t get hit by the ball unless you’d played (base)ball.” 

Busfield also shed light on one of the script’s oddities. He explained when Ray Kinsella asks his father “’Dad, do you want to have a catch,’ that’s a very Brooklyn way of saying it,” Busfield notes. “That came from Phil (Robinson, who was raised and schooled in New York). We would say, ‘Do you want to play catch?’” the Michigan native explains. “But you don’t argue with the writer; it’s his vision.” Busfield noted that Robinson was nominated for an academy award for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture, while the film garnered a third nomination for Best Original Score. 

Whereas Costner and Jones are frequently associated with their role in the iconic movie, when Busfield is recognized in airport terminals and hotel lobbies, it is seldom for his part as the antagonist, Mark. “(It’s) the ultimate honor, when you’re so pivotal to a movie they’ve seen 10 times and they say ‘No, you weren’t in that movie!’” Busfield relates. 

~ ~ ~ 

Busfield remembers the day when brother Buck showed him the inside of an abandoned tin building that once housed a roofing company. Tim was brought there to consider the location for their future facility. He also learned that once again the National Endowment for the Arts had turned down their grant application. Tim became furious at the repeated rejection and told his brother they would form a new for-profit theatre company targeting adults, in that very location, and pronounced “We open Mass Appeal right here in one month.” 

Tim Busfield had performed the two-person play Mass Appeal years before as a fundraiser for his alma mater with another alumnus, Ed Claudio. Claudio agreed to reprise his role in the play, and joined the Busfield’s production company as Artist-in-Residence. In one month, they built the risers, acquired and installed the seats and lights, and converted the tin building into a bona fide theatre in one month’s time. The play went on as scheduled and B Street Theatre was born.  

For their second project, Tim Busfield brought to Sacramento a promising new playright, Aaron Sorkin. Tim had appeared on Broadway in 1990 in Sorkin’s production of A Few Good Men, playing Lt. Daniel Kaffee, a role Tom Cruise would popularize in the movie version. Sorkin moved out to Sacramento and for several months wrote the play Hidden in This Picture. When cast, the play featured Tim Busfield, Claudio, Amy Resnick and the author himself. Sorkin the scribe went on to spin television gold writing such TV programs as Sports Night, The West Wing and The Newsroom along with hit movies The Social Network and Moneyball

The first two B Street Theatre productions ran for 12 weeks to give the new theatre group a chance to grow an audience. Claudio—who operates the Actor’s Workshop of Sacramento—has enjoyed a friendly, working relationship with Tim Busfield for three decades.  

“He’s one of the most generous, open-hearted people you ever want to meet,” says Claudio, who came to Sacramento at Tim’s invitation. “And I might add, he’s the best actor I’ve ever worked with, that’s for damn sure.”  

During the early years the theatre company relied on residuals from Busfield’s film and television appearances. Finally, after they took B Street Theatre non-profit (folding both the original children’s Fantasy Theatre under the same umbrella) and developed a subscription-based program, they became financially viable. In 2001, Tim Busfield took on a producing opportunity in New York and completely turned over the reins to his brother and the company’s board of directors. Tim now resides in Howell, Michigan with his third wife, actress Melissa Gilbert. 

The theatre company plans to move into a new $26 million building that will house two state-of-the-art theaters (one with 350 seats, the other 250 seats). They just received an $8.4 million loan from the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank, which allows them to break ground on the new facility—located catty-corner from Biba Restaurant on Capitol Avenue—in October. Busfield’s original long-term goal was “not to make it my theatre, but Sacramento’s theatre,” he adds. 

The new facility culminates a lifelong dream. Much like his goal of pitching pro baseball. 

In 1993, Manuian fielded a call from a professional team in Saskatchewan of the Northern League, dangling $500 per month for the entertainer to pitch in Canada. “That was quite an honor to get that call from Larry saying I had an offer from a pro team—at (age) 35,” Tim remembers with some pride. 

He finally hung up his cleats in 2001 after pitching the Sacramento Smokies to the Western Baseball Association championship. 

But around the Capital City region he’ll probably best be remembered for his contributions to the theatre community. “It’s Sacramento’s B Street Theatre now, not Tim and Buck’s B Street Theatre. And we’re very proud of that.” 

If you build it, they will come.  

 

  Uploaded 6/25/14
All contents © Rick Cabral 2014
(except where others hold the copyright)

 

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