The Oscar-nominated actor describes lessons learned from portraying Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey in the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42.
Actor Harrison FordOriginally aired on April 18, 2013
Tavis: More than a decade before civil rights activists took to the streets to challenge Jim Crow laws, Branch Rickey, general manager of the then Brooklyn Dodgers, and played by Harrison Ford in the movie “42,” went up against a wall of segregation and brought in Jackie Roosevelt Robinson to integrate America’s then all-white pastime.
It was a courageous move by both men. Robinson endured horrendous opposition, of course, from racially charged taunts to death threats, all the while triumphing on the field. Rickey took on the baseball establishment, defied owners, general managers, and fans.
That important piece of history is front and center in “42,” a movie that celebrates how Rickey and Robinson changed America. Before we start our conversation with Harrison Ford, let’s take a look.
Tavis: First of all, good to see you again, welcome back.
Harrison Ford: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Congratulations, number one last weekend.
Ford: Yeah, I’m very pleased.
Tavis: Off to a good start. I specifically asked for this clip, and I wanted this clip because it is to me one of the most powerful scenes in the movie. By the way, I know how badly you need the money, so I went to see this.
Ford: Oh –
Ford: Senior citizen discount? (Laughter) Yeah, it’s coming right out of my pocket.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I brought a Sharpie. You can sign that for me later. (Laughter) I got a feeling that that ticket’s going to be worth something when we’re done. You might see that on eBay in a few years as this movie becomes a classic.
But I really wanted to go see this because I wanted to experience it with people. The studio’s nice, they send me these screeners, but I wanted to go sit and watch this thing, so I did last weekend when it opened.
That was one of the most powerful scenes in the entire movie, in part I think because even though people know the story, the top line of the story of what Rickey did and what Robinson did, the rationale for why he did it, that scene was so powerful to me.
Ford: Well, I think he had a combination of motives. He was a very religious man, devout Methodist, and I think he had a number of motivations besides the ethical and moral feelings that he had, and I’m not so sure it had a lot to do with race, because he grew up in a context where there was race prejudice.
But as well, he was a baseball businessman, and he wanted access to the rich pool of talent that were in the Negro leagues, and Robinson, as he said in the film, was only the first. Very quickly, others were signed from the Negro leagues.
So I think it was a number of motivations. Whichever one predominated, I don’t think we know.
Tavis: But he was honest about that. Throughout the movie he kept saying money, money, money.
Tavis: I thought that was authentic.
Ford: Well, he was responsible. I think he felt – he was a responsible human being. He felt responsible for the business he was running, he felt responsible for the society that he was a part of, and I think he wanted both to prosper.
Tavis: Going back through your long discography of all the stuff you’ve done, a brilliant corpus of work, and unless I’ve missed something, is this the first time you’ve played a real-life –
Ford: A historic character?
Tavis: Historical, yeah.
Ford: Yeah, I think so. Yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. When you say you think so, did it occur to you that that’s what you were doing? (Laughter)
Ford: No, no.
Ford: All I thought I was doing was having fun on a story, dressing up and pretending to be somebody else, which is all what I did. The fun of it – of course, the reason I went so far in terms of the physical was because our director had it in his mind, and I think he was absolutely right, that he didn’t want a recognizable character, actor, in that part.
He wanted both the focus to be on Jackie Robinson, but he also didn’t want the distraction of having, for instance, Harrison Ford in his movie, and I fully understood and agreed with him.
Tavis: Well, there is – I was going to ask you about that, so I’m glad you went there. There is a risk in that, though. Obviously you’re a great actor, but there’s a risk in being able to disappear in that character. You were not intimidated by that at all?
Ford: No. I thought it was great fun.
Ford: First time I was ever on a stage I had a pillow under my jacket and talcum powder in my hair, playing Mr. Antrobus. That’s the fun of it, of the whole game for me.
Tavis: Yeah. What’s your read of the significance of this moment in history, given that you had a chance to play this character?
Ford: Well, I think it accelerated the opportunities for the civil rights movement and for racial progress to be made. If it hadn’t happened in baseball, I think it would have been a number of years before it was able; the progress that was made by the civil rights movement would have started.
Tavis: What’s that say to you, then, about the power of sport in our society?
Ford: Oh, it’s extraordinary, and baseball – and you’ve got to remember that back – you remember; younger people might not remember that baseball –
Tavis: Is that your way of not calling me – did you just call me an old man?
Ford: No, I’m not – (laughter) I called you a fellow traveler.
Tavis: I’m just busting your chops, yeah.
Ford: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter) No, I’m saying that – well, I’m talking about something I think is really relevant – that young people really don’t know that much about Jackie Robinson.
Tavis: Absolutely, that’s right.
Ford: What they read is a kind of footnote in history, but they don’t know what it felt like to stand on that field and take the insults that he took. That’s what I think the value of this film is, more than anything else, is that it’s experiential. Young people will be able to experience what it felt like to be part of that time.
I think that equips them emotionally to want to make sure that that is not the context they and their children grow up in.
Tavis: Yeah. Was there a particular part of the filming that made you uncomfortable, even though you knew you were playing an historical figure in the era of Jim Crow, when racism was that in your face? I ask that because I don’t know where you were when they filmed these particular scenes.
But when we see the movie we see you as Rickey sitting up in the stands while the coach of the Pittsburgh team is calling Jackie Robinson everything but a child of God. I don’t know if you were there when they filmed those particular scenes, but –
Ford: No, I wasn’t, but I listened to the tracks back. No, it’s horrifying. When I saw the film assembled in the first couple of cuts that we had, I felt that was a really powerful part of the film.
Sitting through the film with an audience, I know what it felt like. Mrs. Obama talked about it when we had a screening at the White House, how excruciating that scene was, and how she wanted young people to see how far we’ve come and to realize that we’re not there yet.
I think it’s more than just racial discrimination. I think it’s discrimination of all kinds – religious, ethnic. I think we need to do a better job.
Tavis: Yeah. I know, given your stature, it’s not about you going to the White House. There are presidents who wanted to meet you when they come out this way. But I am curious as to whether or not there was – this represented a moment for you to be in the White House with a Black First Family with a movie being screened with this subject matter.
Ford: I’m so over thinking of him as a Black president. I think of him as our president, wrestling with so many daunting issues and problems. I was delighted to be there.
One of the things that was important in that visit is that Mrs. Robinson was there with a number of Jackie Robinson scholarship recipients from across the country, young kids who were brought to White House, saw a screening of the film that morning, and were hosted by Mrs. Obama.
There was a great question-and-answer session with these kids, and it was great to see the work that is continuing to be done in Jackie Robinson’s name by his widow, the very passionate and extraordinary Rachel Robinson.
Wow, she is awesome.
Tavis: She’s a fighter still.
Ford: Yes, sir.
Tavis: Yeah. One of the many things I’ve always loved and respected about her is the degree to which she has protected his legacy and fought for his legacy to be expanded. Earlier this week, in fact, in Major League Baseball we had Jackie Robinson Day.
Everybody knows the story of what happens on that day with the number 42. Give me your sense of what it was like to be around somebody, spend time with someone who was that protective of the legacy of someone they love that dearly.
Ford: Well, I think she’s also extraordinarily pragmatic and reasonable and sophisticated woman, and you might think that such a fierce protection of her husband’s legacy might encourage her to make choices that would not be the kind of artistic choices you might want to make as a filmmaker.
But in fact she was nothing but a resource. She didn’t want to make decisions. She wanted to be part of the process, and correctly so. I think she was extraordinarily useful to Chadwick Boseman, who played her husband, and to Brian Helgeland, our director.
Tavis: Yeah. I don’t want to call him a kid, but this is obviously the movie of his career so far. What do you make of this Chadwick Bo?
Ford: An extraordinary actor, a really extraordinary person. He worked from mid-January to May, five days a week, five hours a day, on perfecting the baseball skills that were necessary to play Jackie Robinson.
He really understood the opportunity that he had and the challenge that he had, and I think he took tremendous advantage of that opportunity. He’s a great kid. We’re going to be seeing him a lot.
Tavis: Yeah. I know that your career is not about living and dying by the numbers, but I did mention at the top of this show that you have made about $6 billion worldwide with the films that you’ve put forth.
What does it say to you, if anything – back to what I referenced earlier – that this movie was number one last weekend. Not just number one, Harrison, but number one defined by some millions the best expectations of what they thought this was going to do.
Ford: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: What does that say to you?
Ford: It says that the culture is anxious and hungry for positive stories about challenges that America has met and partially overcome, because they’re hungry to know how to perfect this society.
I think that that’s really at the heart of it. We want to know that the high ideals that we’re formed around are continued. We want to know that these challenges still require to be met, and that there’s so much divisiveness and fractiousness in our society, and there’s a big industry that is constructed around keeping us apart and servicing our opinions and fostering and supporting our prejudices.
I think it’s the hunger to want to feel like an American, and want to come together to help meet the challenges that we face.
Tavis: You’ve said something here now very powerful, and I want to take it, for the sake of conversation and for the sake of pushing you to get your thoughts, and flip it on you. I think you’re right about everything you’ve said. In the tradition of the Black church, I’d say “Amen” in agreement with everything you’ve just said.
I think that it could be argued that one of those industries that keeps us apart is, in fact, the industry called Hollywood. Are there lessons, not just for the American people, that you’ve just laid out about what the success of this movie means; are there lessons for Hollywood about what the success of this kind of story means?
Ford: I’ll take minor issue with you.
Tavis: Please, please.
Ford: I don’t honestly believe that it’s Hollywood. I believe that it’s the broadcast industry. It’s what passes for journalism.
Tavis: I’ll agree with that – amen, amen, amen.
Ford: Thank you. (Laughter) This whole business of lack of capacity, willingness to compromise, to see the necessity and the power of coming together and compromising, it’s critical to the next couple of years of our lives. If we don’t do it – the examples are easily available.
I think that this film really has enjoyed greater success because it brings us together with a common humanity, a feeling of our common humanity, that whether you’re Black or whether you’re white, whether you’re Muslim, whether you’re not, Christian, Jew, you feel the same things when you witness what Jackie Robinson went through.
Tavis: That’s why, because I love you and respect you so much, I’d push back ever so gently and say that I agree wholeheartedly that my industry, the broadcast industry, has a long way to go to celebrate the humanity that rests in each of us.
So it’s broadcast. You didn’t say this explicitly, but I agree with your point. It’s our politics that are very divisive, so I take your point about being long past seeing Obama as a Black president. I take that point.
But I do think it’s about Hollywood, in the sense that back to your point about humanity, there is a complexity of character that so often people of color don’t get a chance to highlight, be they Black, be they Muslim, et cetera. That’s not an indictment on the business across the board –
Ford: No, no, I recognize that, yeah.
Tavis: – but Hollywood could do better.
Ford: Well yes, and part of what’s unique about this film, “42,” is that there’s a Black love story in it –
Tavis: Which never happens. (Laughter)
Ford: Yeah, yeah. That’s pretty extraordinary. Of course it’s a very important part of the story of Jackie Robinson, the support that he got from his wife, but you don’t see that much in films, whether they’re made by Black filmmakers or white filmmakers.
Tavis: That’s exactly right. I’ll confess here on television when I first saw the screenplay, before I saw the film, I was concerned whether or not the story of Rachel and Jackie might slow down the story, or in some way get in the way of the larger story about what he was up against, the politics, the era, et cetera, et cetera.
When I went to see the movie and a few hours later I was processing what I had seen, I had to totally slap myself and just kind of recant and back up, because part of what made it work was the fact that I had seen something on the screen that I don’t see, which is the love story, which is such a part of how he overcame.
Ford: And of course the Jackie Robinson story is a much broader story than what’s contained within the limits of the period of time that “42” focuses on. He was an extraordinary athlete, he was a very successful student at UCLA, he served his country in the war – not in the war, but in the Army. He was court-martialed by the Army, which we bring up in the film
Tavis: That’s right.
Ford: He went on after his baseball career to be very important in his – instrumental –
Ford: – in the civil rights movement, all the way up through 1955, 1957, when the Black Power movement took the civil rights movement out of the hands of others –
Tavis: That’s right.
Ford: – and accepted the responsibility themselves for their destiny. He was strong then. He was not a mild man. He really continued to be an aggressive and prescient spokesman, and I’m – but time is the enemy of drama, so focusing it in this period of time was really important.
The love story really showed how he met the challenges that he faced, because he took it in and he took it home.
Tavis: That’s right.
Ford: When he came back, he was revitalized, reenergized by the love that he found.
Tavis: I loved it, and I loved – again, I had not thought about it in that way, but even the scenes where he’s having difficulty on the field for whatever reason, he’s looking in the stands trying to find Rachel. Love is a powerful thing, as you well know.
You mentioned earlier about how little young people know about their history. One of the other things I thought about when I left this movie, and I suspect because athletes are always on planes and moving around the country and have time to do this kind of stuff in between sports, I hope that every athlete, every Black athlete, every athlete period, but certainly every Black athlete, sees this.
I sometimes wonder whether or not the athletes of today really have an understanding and appreciation for what Jackie Robinson and Curt Flood and so many others did to make it possible.
Ford: I was just in Kansas City at the Negro League Museum.
Tavis: It’s the museum – oh, I love that place.
Ford: It’s amazing.
Tavis: It’s hot, I love it.
Ford: I’ll tell you one of the things that’s really – I didn’t know until I was at the museum. Actually, the Negro leagues were out-drawing white baseball –
Tavis: That’s right.
Ford: – by a real significant margin. It was a big business. Black people were in business in very significant industries and making great successes and great economic strides and were denied the social value of their work in many ways, and that’s the big revolution.
It’s not that suddenly there was – in my mind, on an emotional level, there was a very strong Black society and it was dignified and it was powerful and it was cohesive and it was successful in many ways.
But this country needed those people to be part of America as well, and that’s – it’s not just a value to African Americans to have this equality, it’s a value to our country as a whole to have everybody participating and feeling that they have an equal access and an equal input on the direction and the focus of our society going forward.
Tavis: I hate to interrupt this master class being taught by Harrison Ford. (Laughter) Because man, you are on a roll and that is, in 10 years of doing this show, that is one of the most powerful and sublime and succinct reads of why America needs all of us that I think I’ve ever heard, and I thank you for it.
Ford: Wow, thank you.
Tavis: It’s powerful, man, and what a film. You killed it. So thank you for doing it.
Ford: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Tavis: Always good to see you, man.
Ford: Thank you.
Tavis: “42,” at a theater near you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith
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