We didn't know it at the time, but 30 years ago this past winter and spring – February and May, to be exact – we guys were given two of the great “guy” moments of our time or any other time.
First, the harsh reality: 30 years, three decades, since “Field of Dreams,” became a movie, since we learned that ... if we build it he will come, since we learned no, this isn't heaven, it's Iowa, since we were introduced to Moonlight Graham and Ray Kinsella and Terence Mann, who of course we all knew at the time was really J.D. Salinger carefully disguised as James Earl Jones.
And 30 years – those same three lost decades in which we may or may not have done very much with our own lives – 30 years since “Lonesome Dove,” since Augustus McCrae – “Gus” – and Woodrow F. Call headed north on the Hat Creek Cattle Company drive from Texas to Montana.
But you know the stories, both of them, and if you don't there's neither time nor space here to tell them adequately. Suffice it to say that both are tales of seekers, searchers, men mostly in search of either who they are, who they were or, more importantly, who and what they might become in whatever time is left to them.
“Field of Dreams” is simply a baseball movie until it becomes so much more. “Lonesome Dove” is simply a western movie until it becomes so much more.
“Lonesome Dove” actually was a TV show, a miniseries back before Netflix, before we knew what binge watching was. It ran from Sunday through Wednesday, Feb. 5 through 8 of 1989.
By the end of that week, Gus and Woodrow and Jake Spoon and Lorena Wood and the persistently evil Blue Duck had become part of the American story, if Larry McMurtry's great novel of four years earlier hadn't already put them there. Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones became forever “Gus” and “Woodrow.”
Much the same with “Field of Dreams.” W.P. Kinsella, a Canadian writer who spent a lot of time hanging around the haunts of the University of Iowa, published “Shoeless Joe” back in 1982. Literary types called it a “magic realist novel,” a book about real guys like big league baseball player Joe Jackson – he of the Black Sox scandal of 1919 – and an obscure ball player named Archibald Graham, who played one game in the major leagues in 1905. Nicknamed “Moonlight,” he went on to become a doctor in a small Minnesota town. The “magic” part, of course, is what makes the movie magic. You either believe or you don't.
It's all about guys and their fathers and baseball and it's very complicated. Just like “Lonesome Dove” doesn't have very much to do with cattle.
But you know all this. What you might not know is that the original title for Kinsella's book was “The Kidnapping of J.D. Salinger,” which makes sense only if you recall how Terence Mann got from his Boston apartment to an Iowa cornfield, a field just outside of Dyersville, Iowa, to which many of us have made a pilgrimage and trotted around the bases.
And “Lonesome Dove” began life as a much shorter story by Larry McMurtry titled “Streets of Laredo,” which sat on the shelf for 15 years. McMurtry and moviemaker Peter Bogdonavich originally intended for John Wayne to play Woodrow, Jimmy Stewart Gus and Henry Fonda Jake Spoon. As so often happens in the Hollywood world, it never happened.
So, a dozen years later, writer McMurtry is driving along some street in Texas, where he has always lived, sees an old bus with “Lonesome Dove Baptist Church” painted on the side, goes home immediately and begins the job of rewriting all that Laredo stuff from 15 years earlier.
He builds around a couple of real-life characters named Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, who had, in fact, done something much like Gus and Woodrow were about to do. The book, the novel “Lonesome Dove,” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986.
In the original casting, Robert Duvall was to play Woodrow, but Duvall wisely declined and opted for the Gus part. In another irony, James Garner had originally agreed to play Woodrow. That changed; Garner was then 60 years old and Jones was 41.
And in one little intersection between two great movie moments, remember how I said Jimmy Stewart was the original actor looked at to play Gus? The very same Jimmy Stewart was the first pick to play Doc Graham in “Field of Dreams.” He declined and Burt Lancaster stepped in.
We aren't in the movie review business here, but if you haven't seen 'em – “Lonesome Dove” and “Field of Dreams” – go get them and watch them. If you have seen them, watch them again.
You forget a lot over 30 years.
Ed Breen is the retired assistant managing editor for photos/graphics at The Journal Gazette. He wrote this as a commentary for WBAT-AM in Marion.