#27 — Wilford Brimley as Pops Fisher in The Natural (Barry Levinson, 1984)
When Barry Levinson directed The Natural, he was interested in the mythology of baseball. Aided by Caleb Deschanel’s lush cinematography and Randy Newman’s score which somehow infuses stirring possibility into the very notes, Levinson spins a yarn that makes the misty romanticism of the grand old game and makes it as real and true as the crack of the bat. Hitting the cover off the ball is no longer mere hyperbole; it’s something that mysterious middle-aged rookie Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) can actually accomplish. To accomplish this, Levinson needed to ground the fantasy in the believable, merge archetypes with more nuanced characters. He needed actors capable of embodying the cliche while simultaneously transcending it. Few in the film accomplish that tricky task better than Wilford Brimley.
Brimley plays Pops Fisher, the manager of the New York Knights. When Hobbs arrives at the dugout, the Knights are the doormat of the National League, and Pops sits on his end of the bench glumly surveying the sloppy baseball played by the athletes who were the same uniform as him. It is no surprise that Brimley plays the cantankerous nature of Pops in convincing fashion. That’s so clearly his normal mode that he could seem gruff pitching oatmeal on television. What he also brings to the role is the agitation of a competitive spirit that is being thwarted by individuals outside of his control, even though controlling those individuals is basically what he’s been hired to do. The restlessness and wounded focus is familiar to any fan who believes the team they’ve committed to should be putting more notches in the win column. In this case, Brimley’s thin sheen of disgruntlement hints at plot revelations to come.
The wariness in Brimley’s performance also makes him an important audience surrogate in the film. He sees the arrival of Hobbs as one more affront. Untested and unknown, Hobbs is of an age that’s closer to an athlete’s typical retirement than his first trots around the basepaths. As the film relays the fairy tale of Hobb’s emergence as the best hitter in the game, a player capable of putting a team on his shoulders and carrying them all the way to pennant, Pops needs to be slowly won over to the possibility of this new Knight’s outsized capabilities. Brimley stands in for the audience’s collective reluctance to suspend disbelief, and he plays the irritated doubt so effectively that his gradual enthusiasm becomes a sort of permission for everyone to believe.
As Pops, Brimley operates with the earned shuffle and no-nonsense demeanor of an old-timer who’s seen it all. Amazingly, he was still in his late forties when he filmed the part, only two years older than Redford, who still looked like a movie star designed in a lab, with perfectly weathered handsomeness as a defining goal. Brimley’s aged appearance helps the part, but there’s a creaking authority to him that doesn’t really come from genetics. Though Pops is a somewhat modest role in terms of what’s on the page, Brimley does what actors are always supposed to do: though ever bit of his approach, every touch of shading he adds to different lines, he suggests the totality of a lived life. Previously, Pops may have thought he’d seen it all. When sparks rain down on the diamond in his gaze, Brimley shows that the completeness of experience has finally, decisively arrived.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys