Welcome to The Daddy Issue, our very fatherly tip of the cap to the father figures in our lives as well as all the fatherly stuff they can’t help but do — from pretending they’re not asleep on the couch, to the dad jokes that make even Tony Soprano smile. We’ll talk to famous dads and their equally famous progeny and also deconstruct fatherly influence in each and every one of its forms. In doing so, we hope to come out the other side with a better understanding of our own — and everyone else’s — daddy issues. Read all of the stories here.
About a week before leaving L.A. to film a small part in the movie Field of Dreams in 1988, Dwier Brown received a phone call. “It was my mom, and she was calling to say that my dad was in the hospital, and that I needed to come home,” Brown recalls. “I told her I was going to be filming in Iowa and planned to be home in a week anyway, but I got the feeling that I needed to get there sooner, so I did.”
Today, Brown is largely known for that role he’d go on to film in Iowa. He plays John Kinsella, the dead father of Kevin Costner’s character, Ray. In the final scene of the movie, Costner is given the chance to ask Brown, his “dad,” if they can play one more game of catch. It’s an emotional exchange that cemented Field of Dreams as one of the greatest father-son movies of all time and has become something of an emotional touchstone for people’s relationships with their dads.
So much so, that some 34 years later, Brown is a cultural icon for both baseball and fatherhood, and he still spends a lot of time on the road, throwing out first pitches and signing autographs at minor league baseball games. “People will come up and ask me if I want to ‘have a catch’ with them,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if their dad played catch with them every night with their shirt sleeves rolled-up and their tie thrown over their shoulder, or if their dad never played catch with them, or if their dad died when they were three years old — everyone has that longing for one more game of catch with their dad.”
Back in 1988, however, Brown went into the Field of Dreams shoot with no idea of what it would become. It also all hit very close to home, as even before arriving on set, he had to grapple with the unexpected death of his father. “I ended up leaving after my mom called and got a chance to talk with him in Ohio before he passed,” Brown tells me. “Shortly after his funeral, I left to go play a father coming back from the dead to have a catch with his son. I think I carried all those emotions from that experience into the scene with me.”
Despite carrying the weight of his father’s passing, Brown still wasn’t expecting his part in the movie to be anything special. “I was hired for three days originally, so I was just going to fly in, do that scene and leave,” he says. But Brown noticed the tenor of the scene shift over the course of the shoot. Phil Alden Robinson, the film’s director, was intent on “shooting the scene during magic hour, which is about 15 minutes of golden light just after sunset,” he explains. “So when it got close to sunset, everyone would run out of the house and set up the dolly track and bounce boards, and we’d rehearse as we waited for just the right moment.”
Once the sunlight was perfect, filming would start, and Brown would say his now iconic line, “Is this heaven?” Then the director had him say it again: “Is this heaven?” And one last time: “Is this heaven?”
“Then that’d be all the time we’d have,” Brown laughs. “And so, the next day we’d come out and they’d turn it around, and Kevin would go, ‘No, it’s Iowa.’ ‘Okay, do it again.’ ‘No, it’s Iowa.’ ‘That was great, one more time.’ ‘No, it’s Iowa.’”
It’s not easy to capture a moment when you’re restricted to 15-minute windows each day for two weeks, but through it all, Brown couldn’t help but feel the presence of his own father. “When my dad died, on top of all the grief, I’d had this overwhelming feeling that he’d been freed,” Brown explains. “He’d lived a hard life, so the idea that he was free brought me a sense of joy. Overall, I was a real big mix of emotions, and I think that ended up contributing in some small way to the tenderness to the scene, which is a mix of sadness and joy in itself.”
It didn’t take long before Brown got the sense that he wasn’t the only person bringing some emotional weight into the scene. Even the gaffers and grips started to grow a little misty-eyed when he and Costner recited their lines. “I sort of felt my dad’s spirit there with all the ghost players played by actors, and I think everybody else brought their relationships with their fathers to the scene as well,” he tells me.
It certainly continues to strike a chord with audiences. “It really is amazing to me how profound that little gesture of tossing a ball back and forth has become for people,” he says. “That single theme manages to cut through to pretty much everybody no matter what kind of relationship they had with their dad. I get burly Midwestern guys, getting real close and whispering, ‘I cry every time I see the movie,’ as if everybody doesn’t cry when they see it, including me and I’m in it. But the movie, its cast, the crew, the score, the location, it all combines to touch something much deeper and more emotional than I could have ever imagined. I would never have guessed back in 1988 that the movie would still have cultural significance some 30-odd years later.”
Brown says that over the years he’s had offers “to do commercials as John Kinsella,” but always turns them down. “I’m just very cautious about the profound meaning that this movie has for people, and I try not to undercut that in any way.”
To be sure, the level of fame he’s gotten from the film is something he’s grappled with for many years. “For the longest time, I didn’t think I deserved the attention I got, or got embarrassed by it,” he says. “I thought I just had this tiny role that anyone could have done, but after I wrote If You Build It and heard more people’s stories of how that particular scene changed their lives, I decided to own it.”
And so, these days, there isn’t a chat — or more importantly, a catch — he turns down, happily assuming the father-figure role for whoever needs it at that given moment. “The fans of this movie are usually emotionally touched by it and grateful for my little part in it,” he concludes. “So I’ll go to fields and sign autographs and have a catch with fans even if we’re just throwing a paper ball back and forth in a parking lot.”