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The Jackie Robinson biopic and me

By Mike Downey, Special to CNN
updated 8:16 AM EDT, Tue April 9, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "42" is a new movie about Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball
  • 20 years ago, Mike Downey was hired to write the script for a Jackie Robinson biopic
  • After constant squabbling, rewrites and interference, he and co-writer were fired
  • Downey: After many starts and stops over years, the film is out, thanks to Robinson's widow

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

(CNN) -- I saw Brad Pitt in "Se7en" and saw Fellini's "8½." I saw Daniel Day-Lewis do "Nine" and why Bo Derek was a "10." I saw the 1919 White Sox sell out baseball in "Eight Men Out" and the 1961 Yankees belt out baseballs in "61*.

The one movie I wrote in my mind a hundred times and on paper nine or 10 times, though, was "42." Of course, it wasn't called that 20-odd years ago when I was under contract to be the Jackie Robinson biopic's screenwriter.

And I have zero to do with the "42" -- named for Robinson's uniform number -- that will slide into a theater somewhere near you on Friday.

Rachel Robinson, 90, Jackie Robinson\'s widow, attends an event at the White House to celebrate the movie \'42,\' a biopic about her late husband.
Rachel Robinson, 90, Jackie Robinson's widow, attends an event at the White House to celebrate the movie '42,' a biopic about her late husband.

It nonetheless will leave me a little choked up.

Dorothy Parker once described Hollywood as the one place where you can "die from encouragement." Well, once upon a time, I was encouraged to bring Robinson's life story to the screen, only to be discouraged by the way reel life turns out.

The buzz on "42" is strong. Jackie's widow, Rachel Robinson, 90, was guest of honor at a recent White House showing where Michelle Robinson Obama said, "We think everybody in this country needs to watch this movie."

Mike Downey
Mike Downey

A long overdue film, "42" features an up-and-comer, Chadwick Boseman, as the infielder who changed the face of baseball, and Harrison Ford, of all people, as the insider who held open the door to the big leagues. Indiana Jones found a few fake treasures in his day, but Branch Rickey's unveiling of Jackie Robinson was a true discovery for the ages.

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I spent many hours with Rachel Robinson cramming to learn details of the life they shared. I went to her family's foundation in New York to pore over documents and correspondence. I tapped away on the West Coast on a clunky early '90s computer, not knowing that this cinematic masterpiece I was eager to deliver was doomed.

Who was I to do Jackie's story (and hers) justice? Oh, no one. I so wanted to hit it out of the park for her. When I failed, well, don't we all?

It began in the late '80s. It had occurred to me that a mighty figure of American sport and African-American culture had been insufficiently immortalized on film.

The man I mean is, naturally -- well, not Jackie Robinson, but an equally monumental gent. Joe Louis.

Apart from being a heavyweight champ, Louis was a model citizen, a military vet and a true difference-maker when too many men and women were still struggling to become color-blind.

A script called "Brown Bomber" was born. It was co-written by myself and a Detroit journalist friend, Jon Pepper, as a specific look at a 1930s span when Louis lost to the popular Max Schmeling to whites' delight, only to transform into a red-white-and-blue hero in their eyes, triumphing in the rematch against a German example of so-called white supremacy.

We fought to get it made.

Producers and options came and went. Notes given. Rewrites written. During which time we discover what quite a few of Hollywood's movers and shakers want more and more of, beyond all else.

They want more Max.

To them, it isn't the story of a man. It is the story of two men. A black man and, hey, guess what, a white man. Think of who we could cast!

"Wouldn't it be great," a producer babbled at one point, "if we could get Arnold Schwarzenegger for this?"

"For what?" I ask.

"For Max."

"I have a couple of questions," I reply. "Why would a movie star play a guy who ends the movie by getting his ass kicked? And how do we explain why Max is built like Mr. Universe?"

With logic that makes me laugh to this day, he says: "Hey, if you can get Schwarzenegger, you get Schwarzenegger. The other stuff will work itself out."

A good thing does happen, though. Someone familiar with our script slips a copy to Rachel Robinson, in the hope she will give her blessings to Pepper and me taking a crack at Mr. and Mrs. Robinson's remarkable tale.

We are told who the producer will be -- he has a few noteworthy credits -- and a deal is cut. Lorimar is backing the movie, ostensibly to air on HBO.

A meeting is held in a packed HBO conference room. Rachel expresses reservations -- it does not escape her eye that there is no non-Caucasian in the room -- but life is short and she is willing to give it a shot.

"The Jackie Robinson Story" is under way. At first, we keep the title of the 1950 film, in which the title role was played by the man himself. In 1990, TNT airs one called "The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson," based on an experience in the U.S. Army. I remember Rachel being pleased by Andre Braugher's portrayal of Jack.

(Note: I have never heard Rachel call her husband by any name but "Jack.")

It is 1991. I have a full-time job -- L.A. sportswriter -- which I have made clear must come first. I spend all morning and afternoon in New York at the Jackie Robinson Foundation, conferring with Rachel and doing research. I catch a 5 p.m. flight to Pittsburgh for a baseball playoff game, cover it, catch a dawn plane to New York, repeat the previous day. I nearly collapse at 5 as I run to grab a cab. I hear my producer tell my partner: "He's not putting in enough time on this!"

Nothing is ever enough. The writers are never right. No draft is acceptable. The producer wants it one way. Rachel wants it a different way. He wants the baseball years. She wants the life beyond baseball. We write it both ways. Both hate it both ways.

We are fired. My co-writer tells me. No one else -- not the producer, not Rachel, not anyone from the studio, not our agent -- ever speaks to me again.

Worse, the film is killed.

Cut to 1994.

I read in Bill Rhoden's column in The New York Times that director Spike Lee is teaming up with Rachel Robinson to do a Jackie movie. Hey, who better? I had long thought Lee to be the right man to do the right thing by 42.

Rhoden writes that documentarian Ken Burns was to do a film, but neglected to consult Rachel first. She is quoted: "I really felt, and I still feel, that a black man can understand another black man and all the nuances of his life better than anyone else can." I do not disagree.

Cut to 1997.

I read a story on how Spike Lee's option has expired. A quote from Rachel: "He couldn't put all the pieces together -- the studios, the funds, the star, the script. It's not the first time the project has been aborted. I've been trying to get a movie done for the past 15 years and haven't succeeded. But I won't give up."

Cut to 2013.

That's right, that's how long it took.

Rachel, you made it. I know writer-director Brian Helgeland made it and Chadwick Boseman made it and Harrison Ford made it, but you made it. You persevered. You endured. You have your whole life. So did Jack.

I give it thumbs-up and, hey, I haven't even seen it.

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