Robinson's story emerges on big screen in '42'
After completing his MVP season in 1949, Jackie Robinson returned home to Southern California to star in "The Jackie Robinson Story." Released in 1950 and co-starring a young Ruby Dee as his wife, Rachel, the future Hall of Famer held his own playing himself, and the film is still played on television from time to time.
In the ensuing 63 years, common logic would assume that the story of a man who broke baseball's color barrier by enduring racial abuse with the eyes of America watching and, in doing so, helping start the civil rights movement, would have been told a few more times on the big screen, but only two television movies -- "The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson" and "Soul of the Game" -- covered small parts of Robinson's momentous story.
In 1997, under the direction of Commissioner Bud Selig, Robinson's No. 42 was retired across all of Major League Baseball in an unprecedented tribute.
"I'm surprised from the standpoint of such an American icon that it had not had his story told, but sometimes things happen for a reason, and hopefully this was the right time," said "42" producer Thomas Tull, whose production company, Legendary Pictures, has produced some of the most successful films of the past decade, including "The Dark Knight" trilogy, "Inception," "The Hangover" and "The Town."
"42" opens in theaters on April 12.
A baseball fan who first heard of Robinson when he visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame at age 7, Tull had to convince Rachel Robinson that he was serious about producing a big-budget film that treated her husband's story with the reverence it deserved, and Tull said he knew the right person to tell it.
"Brian Helgeland was the first and only person I called," said Tull of the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "LA Confidential." "We wanted to make sure it was best foot forward across the board, and Brian is an exceptional writer and a great director."
"I was just struck with the immense bravery of him," said Helgeland. "I love 1970s movies and he's a '70s movie hero -- in his reticence and his toughness. He's a real man and a real story with real events and huge stakes. So all that rolled into one package just appealed to me as a writer and a filmmaker."
"It was one of the strongest scripts we'd ever read about him," said Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter, who, along with her mother, came around to support Tull and Helgeland. "We knew he had it done in the right direction. He had done his research and was able to make it dramatic enough to make it an exciting movie."
Helgeland was also wary of trying to cover Robinson's entire life and felt it was important to center the film on Robinson's recruitment by Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey in 1945 and finish with the end of the historic 1947 season that changed baseball and American history forever.
"It was the right call," said Robinson. "We'll have this film that will spike the interest and tell the entry story and bring history alive for kids, and then we will have a full documentary by Ken Burns, that covers his whole life, finished in a couple of years."
Casting the two main characters of Rickey and Robinson was the key to making the film believable. Tull and Helgeland both agreed that Hollywood legend Harrison Ford as Rickey would not only bring star power to the film, but also showcase Ford's range as an actor.
"My instinct was that you needed a character actor to play Branch Rickey," said Helgeland. "When I first met with Harrison, I thought, 'Well, he's a movie star,' and I told him my concern and he said that was his concern as well, and he was determined to disappear and submerge himself into that part."
The film legend agreed.
"If I wasn't completely Branch Rickey for the audience, they'd be looking at Harrison Ford pretending to be Branch Rickey because of audiences' familiarity with me -- so I wanted to fully be Branch Rickey," said Ford.
In order to do so, the actor would be in makeup every day for at least 30 minutes, adding 30 pounds with a fat suit, bushy eyebrows, covering his well-known scar on his chin with makeup and the addition of Rickey's round-rimmed glasses -- all of which made the actor almost unrecognizable.
"He's remarkable," said Dodgers broadcast legend Vin Scully, who was hired by Rickey in 1950 and attended an early screening of the film in January. "It's hard to see people playing the roles of people you have actually known, but they've done a wonderful job and I would recommend the movie, especially because of his performance. When he says 'Judas Priest,' he sounds just like Mr. Rickey."
And then there was Robinson. Just like the weight of the world rested on Jackie Robinson's shoulders 66 years ago, the weight of "42" rested on the shoulders of Chadwick Boseman, a young actor who had done a handful of films. But Helgeland saw something in him the moment he auditioned for the role.
"When he left the room, I turned to our casting director, Victoria Thomas, and said, 'That's the guy,'" recalled Helgeland. "He hadn't played baseball since Little League and he trained for five months for the film, especially trying to get Jackie's characteristics, his swing and how he was on the basepaths."
"I knew it could be a life-changing experience," said Boseman. "I knew it was one of those things that everybody had a stake in it, so it was a great responsibility. And everyone should have a stake in it, because this is American history -- not African-American history -- American history."
"He really got my father's character," said Robinson. "He comes off as a strong, proud black man, and his athletic ability is good and believable. He did a tremendous job."
What film and baseball fans will love is the movie's attention to detail, from the names of all the Dodgers players in 1946 on Rickey's chalk board to the re-creation of Ebbets Field. The producers had the complete cooperation of Major League Baseball in making the film.
"Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame were terrific partners," said Tull. "The Commissioner and his staff have been, from day one when I called and said we'd like to do this, have embraced it, have really rolled out resources, have been a great partner and they understand that this is part of the very DNA of the game."
"I'm so looking forward to one of the most important moments in our history being told in '42,'" said Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. "I have often said that baseball is a social institution. Jackie Robinson's ascension to the Major Leagues remains the game's proudest and most powerful moment."
"It's a lesson of change in American society," Ford said about the film and what Rickey and Robinson helped to accomplish. "If this hadn't happened in baseball, the civil rights movement would have been further down the road, so I think it's a real important moment in American history. And it's a story we need to remind ourselves of, because there are still things in American society, which need to be changed -- should be changed -- and maybe this will help give us the courage to do that."