Written By April | May 2013 : Page 26
Written by Brian Helgeland POrtrAitS by JILLY WENDELL I 42 : REVIVING AMERICA’S TRUE SUpERhERo ’m sitting on a bus with my 80-year-old father. We’re nearly halfway through the sixth hour of a journey from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to the Port Authority Terminal in Manhattan. Not exactly a trip to Bountiful, but Helgelands have always traveled in style and today is no exception. Three days earlier I had answered my phone on Point Dume, Malibu, its mean streets forever immortalized by John Fante in My Dog Stupid. The call was from my father. I settled in for another long burst about his health issues or lack thereof. Instead, he surprised me: “I feel like going to Brook-lyn to look around at my old neighborhood. If you’re not doing anything, would you come home and take me?” “I am home, Dad,” is how I’d like to reply. Instead, I say yes; I will return him to his ancestral home. I call my sister to find out what’s wrong with him. “Nothing,” she informs me, “he’s just sentimental since Walter died.” Walter was my dad’s kid brother. Recently deceased. Born in Brooklyn as well. There is a famous family story about how my dad saved him from drowning in a public wading pool when they were kids. I put two and two together. Seeing through my self-absorption, I now understand why he wants to go see a place he hasn’t been since 1941. I’ve been watching Upper Manhattan pass by from high up in the bus; it’s always nice to get a new perspective on things. Maybe not so much on I-95 South, but we’re almost to our destination when my cell phone rings. “Brian, it’s Thomas.” Thomas Tull is a throwback mogul. He has an opinion, he’ll tell you what it is, and strangest of all, he loves movies. Plus he dials direct. He asks a perfunctory, “What’s going on?” 26 • WG A W Written By AP ri L | MA y 20 13
The Father Of Us All
42: REVIVING AMERICA’S TRUE SUpERhERo
I’m sitting on a bus with my 80-year-old father. We’re nearly halfway through the sixth hour of a journey from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to the Port Authority Terminal in Manhattan. Not exactly a trip to Bountiful, but Helgelands have always traveled in style and today is no exception.
Three days earlier I had answered my phone on Point Dume, Malibu, its mean streets forever immortalized by John Fante in My Dog Stupid. The call was from my father. I settled in for another long burst about his health issues or lack thereof. Instead, he surprised me: “I feel like going to Brooklyn to look around at my old neighborhood. If you’re not doing anything, would you come home and take me?”
“I am home, Dad,” is how I’d like to reply. Instead, I say yes; I will return him to his ancestral home. I call my sister to find out what’s wrong with him. “Nothing,” she informs me, “he’s just sentimental since Walter died.” Walter was my dad’s kid brother. Recently deceased. Born in Brooklyn as well. There is a famous family story about how my dad saved him from drowning in a public wading pool when they were kids. I put two and two together. Seeing through my self-absorption, I now understand why he wants to go see a place he hasn’t been since 1941.
I’ve been watching Upper Manhattan pass by from high up in the bus; it’s always nice to get a new perspective on things. Maybe not so much on I-95 South, but we’re almost to our destination when my cell phone rings.
“Brian, it’s Thomas.” Thomas Tull is a throwback mogul. He has an opinion, he’ll tell you what it is, and strangest of all, he loves movies. Plus he dials direct. He asks a perfunctory, “What’s going on?”
“Not much,” I reply. I’ve got nothing to hide or be ashamed of, but all the same I’m not going to cop to taking calls on a green bus that says peter pan on the side of it. Five seconds in he gets straight to the point.
“What do you know about Jackie Robinson?”
Now my dad is asking who is on the phone and what do they want. I wave him off, which does no good, then turn to face out the window. We’re a little north of Lincoln Center, as near as I can tell. I’m not too clear about the Upper West Side.
“I know what everybody knows,” I reply. “Tough guy, ended segregation in baseball, his number is the only number ever retired league-wide.” Yup, I know all about him. Thomas explains he is pursuing the life rights. When I ask him who owns them, he answers that Robinson’s widow does. “She’s still alive?” I guess I don’t know everything about him after all. Or her.
Thomas starts to give me the lowdown on the rights as the bus comes to a stop at a red light. And all of a sudden I’m looking across at Jackie Robinson, and he is looking right back at me. It’s a poster on the back of a bank of payphones.It says something like, here’s to you, mr. robinson, and then character, have some. That’s how I quote it at first.Turns out it was, character—pass it on. It was from a series of public-service spots. I remembered seeing one with Jim Thorpe on it a few blocks back, but holy smokes, what are the odds of this? Sometimes kismet hits you square in the face with a baseball bat.
As Thomas details the situation, I stop listening and try to take a photo with my phone’s camera. Too late, the bus is moving again. There is rarely a Take Two in life is as profound as I get. Back on the call, Tull is saying, “There are other producers circling, and Mrs. Robinson wants to know how we would tackle the story, so if you’re interested I need an answer in a couple of days.”
I tell him I’m in New York, that I’ll go to the bookstore and pick something up about Robinson. I don’t tell him about the poster. I don’t tell him I take the movie gods very, very seriously.If I think they’re trying to tell me something, it’s very hard to hear anything else. Right now they’re screaming.
Lest We Forget
The next day I’m in Brooklyn with my dad: Eighth Street to be precise. He’s hasn’t walked down it since he was 12 years old. There are no Norwegians here anymore. It’s Chinatown now. All the same, he finds a couple of the old apartments he used to live in. He’s thrilled about that. He even finds the Wan Shou Funeral Home. He explains his friend’s dad owned it back in the day. It was Halversen’s back then. “Get away from the funeral home, Dad.” I don’t like seeing him standing out in front of it. But he’s happy as a clam and makes me take a picture of him standing there.
I know I’m doing the right thing, but I’m tired, a little jetlagged, plus I stayed up late reading the Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson autobiography, I Never Had It Made.A hundred pages in and once again the more I learn the less I know. I do as much math in my head as I am midnight-able, and this is what I come up with. In 1946, Major League Baseball had 16 teams, each with a 25-man roster. That’s a league with exactly 400 players . . . 400 white Caucasian players. In 1947 that number dropped to 399… 399 to 1. If I didn’t know how the story Ended, I wouldn’t like his odds.
My dad, unprompted, is now going on about the Dodgers, how he followed the team long after he moved to Massachusetts.I remember a game I took him to at Dodger Stadium when he was only 70. I’d asked if he resented them pulling up stakes and leaving for Los Angeles. “Why would I do that?” he answered. “I left Brooklyn a long time before they did.”
We don’t go to the former site of Ebbets Field. It’s too far from his neighborhood, but the Dodgers hang over the entire day like a blue apparition. We end our pilgrimage at Sunset Park where my dad stops a Parks Department employee to tell him he used to play here. Don’t, Dad, I think to myself, He doesn’t want to hear it. Except it turns out he does.
The guy is in his 60s, African-American, and before I know it they are both nodding in agreement about how times were different back then and how the milkman could leave the milk unmolested on the stoop and kids had respect. I watch the two of them and wonder for the umpteenth time what it is in people that makes them so nostalgic for the Depression or the 1960s and that everything’s gone to Hell since then.
My father and I walk around the park and have nearly completed the loop when he stops dead in his tracks. He looks like he’s walked into a wall as he blinks at a dry, blue concrete expanse before us. Except he’s looking at something far away, decades away, in fact. “This is it. This is where I saved my brother from drowning.” It’s a drained wading pool, the very one from family lore. And my dad is reliving the moment.There’s a 3-year-old boy floating face down out there and an 8-year-old is splashing out to save him. My father finally sighs and looks away. “Some good it did.”
“Well, Dad, you did buy him an extra 70 years or so.Think of it like that.”
The next day I put him on another green bus and say goodbye. It’s funny when you say goodbye now; you might really mean it. But what can you do? I’m soon in a taxi on my way to JFK to catch a flight. We’ll probably both get home at the same time.
I had made it through another 100 pages of the Robinson autobiography the night before. In 1945, America’s greatest generation returned home from war. Except the country has a sickness. And Jackie Robinson is its medicine.His spring training in 1946 would be a few hundred miles from where, and within six months since, two African- Americans had been lynched in Live Oak and Madison, Florida. Robinson would be run out of town in nearby and ever-tolerant Sanford and nearly arrested on the field in De- Land for threatening the foundation of society by playing baseball with white boys.
The taxi passes under a sign for the Jackie Robinson Expressway.
You don’t have to drop an anvil on my head. When exactly did signs start having signs? I take out my phone, get a picture of it, and then call Tull.
“I’m in,” I inform him.
He’s pleased. “Excellent. Get to work.”
Rachel Robinson is a tough cookie. She carries herself with a grace and bearing any Queen of England would envy. I am, simply put, afraid of her. It’s a week since I last saw my father, and now I’m back in New York sitting on a couch in Mrs. Robinson’s office on Varick Street. I have just finished explaining to her how I plan to whittle her husband’s life down to a period spanning parts of 1946 and 1947. I’m leaving the rest of his time on Earth out. I’m not sure it’s what she wants to hear, but I am sure it’s the way to tell the story. Get to the cauldron Jackie Robinson found himself in.
She takes her time considering what I’ve told her. She explains how her husband’s life was much more than those two years, both before and after. I agree, but I counter that for me, the passage of time is often the enemy of a screen story and that nowhere is this danger greater than in a biopic. I explain it may serve to present Jackie through the period that defined his life and let that illustrate the man on either side of it.
She accepts this and agrees to it. I’m not sure she’s convinced, but she agrees. She looks over at Tull and asks him when we intend to be shooting. “When we have a script,” Tull replies. “Soon.”
She informs us she’s not getting any younger (she was 88 at the time) and that she’d like the movie to be done before she turns 90. Tull guarantees her this will be the case. She smiles, thinking that’s impossible, and clarifies, “Sooner than later is what I mean.” She adds she’d also like it to be a film that everyone can enjoy and take something away from. No pressure.
So now I have a man’s life in my hands. I decide to take this on in pieces. To consider the whole is too daunting.
go home and throw myself into research: the good, the bad, the little things, and the despicable. How he stood in the batter’s box, what he did in his spare time, how he endured the hate. Everyone involved, anyone who touched the year 1947, seems to have written a book about it. That helps; the Rashomon of it helps.
About 15 cubic feet of photocopies from the Baseball Hall of Fame come in handy as well. Newspapers of the time.Nearly every sports column written by African-American sportswriter Wendell Smith. It all helps. Before I’m through, I know everything, from which hot dogs they served at Ebbets (no one ever died from eating one) to the name of the guy who sang the National Anthem on opening day: Everett McCooey, to be precise.
I believe that my work as a writer, the best of it anyhow, carries the common theme of identity. I’m interested in identity.It was for sure what hooked me on 42. Because Jackie Robinson’s story is about identity at every turn. His identity, America’s identity, it’s all there. It strikes me that he is the one person who knows who he is. Everyone and everything around him is trying to figure out who and what they are, but he knows. There’s a line I come across that swiftly works itself into the script: “He changed the world, but refused to let it change him.” I use it as my guide to his character.
All the same, self-knowledge can carry you only so far; Jackie’s low point must’ve been awful and try as I might I cannot quite find it. I go to Mrs. Robinson and ask her where it happened and what shape it took. She crosses her arms and leans back as she studies me. “My husband knew what he had to do and he got on with it.” There was no low point, or at least she’s not giving it up. I respect her for that.
She’s protecting her husband, still looking after him after all these years.
Ralph Branca doesn’t cross his arms and lean back when I ask him the same question; he just shakes his head like I’m an idiot and starts pointing at his own stomach.
A former 21-game-winning Brooklyn Dodger pitcher, he now sells insurance in Rye, New York. In his mid 80s and he still goes in to work every day. Branca’s shadow is forever cast across baseball lore as the man who served up Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world.” More importantly, he was a teammate of Robinson in 1947 as well as a pallbearer at the man’s funeral. I figure he knows a thing or two about a thing or two.
He continues jabbing toward his own midsection.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Branca, I don’t speak finger,” I finally offer.
“Guts,” is the four-letter answer I get back. “Guts,” he repeats. “Jackie Robinson had more guts than any man I ever saw in my life. I wouldn’t name a number two because it would be such a distant second it would be an insult to the man to mention anyone else.” Branca says it all with a flash of anger, like I’ve impugned his friend. It’s like the man he’s extolling and defending is sitting a few lockers away.Holy smokes.
I come across Red Smith’s 13 typed letters describing Robinson: Unconquerable.In the end, I can’t quite believe that is the same as invulnerable.With every other scene in the script documented in some form or another, I decide to show Jackie’s vulnerability when no one else is there to witness it: he’s alone, or at least assumes he is.
I pray I haven’t overstepped or violated my job description: someone who tried to get out of the way of himself and serve a much better man than I’ll ever be.
In the Batter’s Box
A few months later I’ve finished the script and I once again find myself sitting on the couch in Mrs. Robinson’s office.She’s had the script a week, and nobody knows what she thinks of it. The summons went out, I am here, but I don’t have the slightest clue. This is where this whole project could run off the rails. If she doesn’t like it, what then? I think I’ve done my job pretty well, but that is cold comfort as I cool my heels.
Finally, she arrives carrying the script. It’s not exactly swollen with dogears and Post-Its, but you can see it’s been read. I am holding my metaphoric breath.
At the risk of giving away the joke, there is a scene during spring training when Jackie scores after Dodger pitcher Kirby Higbe balks him in from third. A balk is a tricky thing to explain to an audience and so in the script, after the moment has occurred, the character of Rachel Robinson asks the character of sports columnist Wendell Smith what just happened.He then explains a balk.
“Well, I’ve read your script,” Mrs. Robinson starts. She fixes me with a stare. I’m expecting the worst when she asks me, “In what world do you think I don’t know what a balk is?”
I explain what I just explained above, what a tricky concept a balk is to get across to a general audience.
“Well, have someone else explain it to them, but don’t have it be me.” As far as the rest of the script, she has notes, but on the whole she understands and only somewhat reluctantly agrees to the narrowing focus of her husband’s on-screen life.
I finally exhale. She has signed off on the screenplay’s portrayal of Jackie Robinson.
I am most fortunate to have a fine young actor named Chadwick Boseman as my partner in the portrayal department. I always say that a movie is the sum of 1,000 small decisions. Some are bigger than others, obviously, but his casting is the biggest by far. We become teammates; we carry the weight together, though I suspect his end was often a lot heavier than mine.
As for the part of the previously mentioned Everett Mc- Cooey, my father’s been singing at funerals and weddings since I was little. I ask him if he’ll sing the National Anthem on opening day in 1947.
“McCooey was a baritone,” he informs me. “I’m a tenor.” “So lower your voice a little, Dad.” He agrees to take the job.The film wraps principle photography a day before Mrs. Robinson’s 90th birthday. Five months later I am screening It for her at the Loew’s Lincoln Square. It’s about two blocks from where I saw the poster of Jackie from the bus. There are maybe 120 people in the theater, many from Mrs. Robinson’s foundation. It’s a work print with a temp mix, and I’m in the back running the fader.
When the lights come up, I know the movie played well, but Mrs. Robinson is swarmed and it takes five minutes to get to her.When I finally reach her, it takes a moment for her to realize who I am.
“So, Mrs. Robinson, what’d you think?”
Again, her first response catches me off guard. She tells me how much she loved the closeness of her and her husband on screen, how often they kissed to put a point on it. She talks about it all like it really just happened. In fact, it’s basically the only thing she mentions and as she goes on I realize Mrs. Robinson just had a date with her long-dead husband, a man whose torch she’s been carrying for 40 long years. Tonight they were reunited for a few precious moments.
Just like my dad got to rescue his kid brother one last time. Just like Ralph Branca got to stand up again for the bravest man he ever laid eyes on.
As I stated earlier, I’m not too clear on the Upper West Side.Leaving the theater, I turn the wrong way and walk away from my hotel instead of toward it. I have a lot on my mind and at the same time it’s hard to think. I try to simply feel as my feet chew up sidewalk.
The past is not so far away; it’s everywhere around us. Jackie’s fight goes on and always will. My dad saved his brother from drowning but couldn’t save him from time. And Mrs. Robinson got the film done sooner than later. Talk about taking a load off.
It is cold and starting to rain. In New York for just this screening, I forgot my coat in Malibu. But that’s not the only reason I’m shivering. There are ghosts out tonight; I hope I did them justice.
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