Jackie Robinson’s widow says ’42' hits home
NEW YORK — Above all else, Rachel Robinson remembers the kissing.
When the taunts at the ballpark grew too fierce and the naysayers too loud, her husband, Jackie, would come home to their Brooklyn apartment and the couple would try to block out the world.
“So many people are curious about how we were at home, thinking that we brought all the anger and chaos in there with us,” Rachel Robinson, 90, said last week as she perched behind a desk at the gleaming offices of the education foundation she runs in lower Manhattan. “But we had a pledge to each other that we were going to try to keep the house a haven. Someplace safe. Someplace we didn’t have to replay the mess outside.”
That “mess,” and the need to take sanctuary from it, hit its peak in spring 1947, when the Brooklyn Dodgers’ No. 42 became the first African American to play Major League Baseball. More than 65 years later, Rachel Robinson vividly recalls the death threats her husband faced from fans, the teammates who refused to play with him, the managers around the game who said he didn’t belong — the “whole experiment,” as she and her husband, who died in 1972 at age 53, called his crossing into the all-white league.
Though that breakthrough transformed professional sports, and the saga was more dramatic than countless other ballpark films, Rachel Robinson resisted a Jackie Robinson movie for decades. None of the producer pitches she heard over the years could do the story justice, she felt; nothing captured what the young couple really endured.
But a few years ago Robinson sold the rights to financier and producer Thomas Tull of Legendary Pictures (“The Dark Knight”) and gave her blessing to studio Warner Bros. and writer-director Brian Helgeland, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “L.A. Confidential.” On April 12, “42,” the first big-screen look in more than a half-century at that pivotal season, will hit theaters.
At once a sociology-minded period piece and gentle character study, “42" re-creates in large-scale, studio-worthy scope the events of Robinson’s first season with the Dodgers as well as his private life.
In 1947, Robinson batted .297 and was named the National League rookie of the year. But “42" is less interested in the player’s skills than his crucibles — a Montreal Royals minor-league game in which he responded to a hateful pitcher by cannily baiting him into a balk, or a Philadelphia Phillies contest in which Robinson was harshly taunted by Ben Chapman, the team’s segregationist manager, but held his tongue.
Rachel Robinson said she warmed to the idea of a movie about her husband — always Jack, never Jackie — as the march of time and integration left a new generation increasingly ignorant of those days before the civil rights era. Though her own memories of the period remain sharp, a film, she thought, offered the opportunity to educate people growing up in Barack Obama’s America about those charged days, when black fans in the South were seated separately beyond the outfield wall, and some restaurants wouldn’t seat her or her husband at all.
“I was getting older, and I really wanted kids to know who Jack was and to think about what they can do with their own lives,” said Robinson, who met her husband when the two were studying at UCLA.
And while she might not put it that way, the film also offered a more personal opportunity for Robinson: the chance to relive a relationship that ended way too soon.
“After Rachel saw the movie for the first time I said, ‘What did you think?,’” recalled “42" writer-director Helgeland. “And she said, ‘I loved how much we kissed.’ And then she got emotional. It was the only thing she ever said to me about the finished film. And it hit me: Her take-away from the whole thing was that she got to see her husband one more time.”
“42" stars the Brooklyn-raised, Oxford-educated newcomer Chadwick Boseman, at once warm and stoic, pioneering and workmanlike, as Jackie Robinson, while the role of Rachel — Jackie’s emotional ballast and new bride — is played with appropriate steadfastness by Nicole Beharie (“Shame”). A lively, cigar-chomping Harrison Ford portrays Dodgers President Branch Rickey, conveying a noble opportunism as he breaks baseball’s color barrier for reasons both moral and capitalistic. Hamish Linklater embodies young pitcher Ralph Branca, one of Robinson’s few welcoming teammates.
Also figuring into the story: the Southern men in the Dodgers dugout like Pee Wee Reese, who eventually came around to accepting Robinson, and those who never did. And of course there are the opponents who threw epithets and much worse.
On a sweltering summer day at an old-school ballfield in Macon, Ga., actors portraying some of those ballplayers were in knee-high socks doing what ballplayers in knee-high socks do — tossing balls, shagging flies, taking swings. The calendar said 2012 but out here it was 1947. Vintage buses and other props made for a convincing period tableaux — all that was missing was a cornfield and maybe some of the players summoned up by Ray Kinsella in an Iowa cornfield.
Suddenly, Rachel Robinson’s car materialized in the distance. The players gathered, eager for photos and insight. After all, they were just pretenders, playing the men who defined that summer. She lived it.
The actors lined up. One by one she looked at them, then began treating them like the men they were portraying, telling the players how she felt about them.
“Stanky, you were a bad boy,” she said, referring to the partying ways of second baseman Ed Stanky, who was lukewarm to Robinson’s arrival. With some players, like catcher Bobby Bragan, she shook hands but didn’t hug. But she embraced Branca (Linklater), her eyes lighting up at the sight of the man, or at least his reasonable facsimile, who made her husband’s life a little more tolerable.
Then, at last, Robinson himself. It was Boseman, but there was no mistaking who he really was. Not to Rachel Robinson. With a flat-top haircut, with the defined jaw, with the number 42, it was Jack.
“You’re sweating. Don’t kiss me,” Rachel Robinson said playfully but seriously, waving him away as he leaned in for a peck on the cheek. He insisted. She resisted. At last, he won.
Rachel Robinson was an essential counterbalance to her husband, say those who knew them, including Branca, now 87 and the last surviving member of the ’47 Dodgers.
“She would cool him down if he needed to be cooled down and lift him up if he needed a boost,” said Branca, who served as an important resource for both Helgeland and Linklater. “People don’t understand how important that was to a man who was not allowed to show his emotions.” An insurance agent for more than 40 years in Westchester County, N.Y., Branca said he liked that Linklater came to see him, and he offered the young actor some advice. “I told him to get plastic surgery so he could be more handsome,” he quipped.
Turning serious, Branca said he felt there was a need for the new film. “People talk about it like it’s the Civil War, like it’s ancient history. But everything that happened that season happened in our times.”
There is a round-edged, do-no-harm quality to “42’s” story of the young Robinsons — the price, perhaps, of official permission from Rachel Robinson. But the film, rated PG-13 for thematic elements and language, contains some strong whiffs of both the era and the harsh treatment the pair endured, as Robinson is repeatedly subject to epithets.
Legendary Pictures’ Tull, an ardent baseball fan and onetime wannabe minor leaguer, said he chose to make “42" and depart from his usual menu of blockbusters after former All-Star baseball player Ken Griffey Jr. told him that many teen players he tutored didn’t even know who Robinson was.
“This is a story that needed to be told, not to teach a lesson or to make people feel a certain way but just because it’s compelling,” said Tull of the film, which he said cost about $40 million.
The movie has already received a high-profile endorsement, with Michelle Obama hosting a workshop about the film and praising it for telling an important story. While historical dramas can be a tough sell, Warner Bros. is hoping to capitalize on baseball-fan interest and has appealed to a younger audience with a flashy, hip hop-backed TV spot.
There was, of course, an earlier movie, “The Jackie Robinson Story,” released in 1950 and starring Robinson himself. Unlike most as-himself exercises, this one was well reviewed. But it was close — too close — to what happened. That’s one reason Rachel Robinson (who had script approval on “42") wanted the new movie to cover her husband’s whole life: his childhood, his years after he left baseball in 1956.
Helgeland, though, resisted — he didn’t like biopics that spanned too much time.
Eventually, Helgeland persuaded Robinson — whom he described with a smile as “formidable” — that his approach was the best. They then went back and forth by email as he sought to make sure he captured the era. At one point, she summoned him from Los Angeles to New York. She had a concern with the Montreal Royals scene, which had her asking a reporter what a balk was.
“In what world,” she said, “do you think I don’t know what a balk is?” She wore a smile but she wasn’t joking, Helgeland recalled. So he changed it.
Though Helgeland had dealt successfully with period films before, the challenge of getting “42" right was radically different. “The night we showed it to her I said to Tull, ‘What if she doesn’t like it?’ This was a woman with all the moral authority in the world. And her opinion was all that mattered.”
Boseman said “42" was hard for him too in a different way. There was the pressure of forging a man whom many think of as larger-than-life.
“It’s not easy to re-create that — you’re playing a man we all expect to be an icon. But you can’t do it that way. He didn’t know he was larger than life. He was just moment-to-moment living with this. When Branch Rickey comes to him and says, ‘I have a job for you,’ Jackie Robinson’s response is not ‘Oh, my God, I am the One.’ He’s just thinking about how he’s going to be able to play and not react to what they’ll throw at him.”
In real life, Jackie Robinson was feisty, but Rickey discouraged him from giving in to any of the hostility he faced in his first three seasons in the major leagues. He wasn’t to argue balls and strikes, and he certainly wasn’t to reply to the taunts of people like Chapman. In “42" he is depicted as reacting emotionally only once — when he thinks he’s alone, he bashes a bat against a dugout wall. Helgeland invented that scene.
“Sometimes people attribute Jack’s actions to anger. He was very careful in the management of his anger, mostly because he didn’t want to spoil the opportunity or stop the experiment from moving forward,” Rachel Robinson said. “When he played, he was assertive. But all too often people equate assertiveness on the part of black males as anger and aggression, and that wasn’t Jack.”
Too many of the books written about her husband have gotten that aspect of him wrong, she said; she noted that she chooses to “ignore” those accounts, and she asked Helgeland to do the same. (One book she praised was “Jackie Robinson: A Biography” by Arnold Rampersad, whom she handpicked for the task and to whom she granted extensive access. “It’s beautifully researched and presents Jack as he was. It was careful not to show Jack as angry,” she said. “But then, Arnold is a black writer.”)
On April 15, Rachel Robinson will make what these days is a rare trip to a baseball game, for Jackie Robinson Day, a tradition the league started in 2004 to honor his legacy. On that date — Robinson’s first in the majors — all players wear the number 42. Rachel Robinson will be on hand at Dodger Stadium in L.A. after attending the Hollywood premiere of “42.”
“It’s good to go to games sometimes. I go to Mets games because [owner] Fred Wilpon is a friend. And it will be good to go to a Dodgers game.”
She looked around her office at the Jackie Robinson Foundation. A longtime nurse, she’s been doing this work for four decades, launching into it after a string of tragedies – her son Jackie Jr. was killed in an automobile accident in 1971; her husband was felled by a heart attack in 1972; her mother died the following year. Starting the foundation, she said, was as much personal therapy as social good.
The office-building floor where the foundation is headquartered was filled that day with dozens of employees working on educational opportunities for black men and women, the kind of chances her husband fought for. Reminders of Jackie are everywhere, the interior glass walls windows emblazoned with maxims from Robinson and Rickey.
In her own office, memorabilia and photos line the walls and shelves — a picture of her and her husband from a picnic, another with Robinson and Rickey, a third of her and Robinson in front of the U.S. Capitol as newlyweds. She is happy to show off some of them, getting a little emotional as she does. But she catches herself.
Robinson said she doesn’t have much time for nostalgia, just as she didn’t want to harbor anger 66 years ago.
“It only destroys you, so I let it go,” she said. “I remember the time at Florida [for spring-training] when Jack and I first got there and we went to a restaurant that wouldn’t serve us. We were very angry. And we went home to the little room we were staying in, in Daytona, and we sat on the bed and then we thought, ‘This is so ridiculous.’ And then we fell off the bed laughing. No one outside would believe we could laugh at that. But that was our survival mechanism. We had to laugh.”
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