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Behind the Birmingham scenes of Jackie Robinson biopic ’42’

John might not have, but a friend of the editor, an extra on the film, did.

I had a chance to visit the set of 42— the biopic on Jackie Robinson that filmed recently at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field.  I had already planned to roto-geek out over the film for two reasons: 1) It’s about sports history; and 2) It is directed by Brian Helgeland, who wrote “L.A. Confidential,” one of the best 1940s movies ever.

But when Ernie Malik, unit publicist, replied to an email with an invitation to observe, that turned up the geek heat.  Armed only with that sheet (and a MapQuest printout), I headed to the field.

One observation: In terms of access and relaxation, the location set was to a college football practice as absolute zero is to the melting point of platinum.  Parking: no problem. (Of course, they were so desperate for extras, it was not surprising.)  I was directed to walk around Rickwood Field — amidst the cameras, crews, cast, etc. — and look for Ernie.  I just can’t imagine being told to walk around the practice field and look for the SID.

Malik was gracious.  Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News was also observing, and Malik introduced us around to cast and crew.  If you’ve looked at the IMDB page for the film, I’ll tell you up-front that Harrison Ford and Christopher Meloni were not there.  Neither was John C. McGinley (Dr. Cox from Scrubs), who plays broadcaster Red Barber, the prominent sports media figure in the film.

Perhaps the biggest name we saw that night was T.R. Knight, late of Grey’s Anatomy and the sordid drama instigated by a fellow cast member’s homophobic comments.  Knight will play Harold Parrott, traveling secretary for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who worked closely with Robinson during that first season.

We watched several scenes being filmed, but I am not allowed to tell you the specifics.  But I can tell you that this will be an awesome picture.  You can guess that, of course, knowing that Helgeland’s name is attached to it.

In particular, I was impressed by a scene in which Chadwick Boseman, who plays Robinson, showed his baseball prowess.  He is good.  The director will not have to edit around a marquee name’s suspect skills.

Plus, the production designer, Richard Hoover, really sweats the details.  The uniforms are the same fabric, mainly wool, that they used back then.  They turned to Rawlings for baseballs, even though Rawlings doesn’t supply MLB anymore.  And if I had half a brain, I would have snapped a photo of the hauler loaded with 1947-era cars.

(One hyperlink tangent: While looking up Hoover on IMDB, I saw that he is working with Aaron Sorkin on a new series called “The Newsroom.”  Score!)

Ernie was gracious to introduce me around as someone who is working on a book about former commissioner Ford Frick, who was National League president at the time.  That had a nicer ring to it than “annoying professor from Auburn.”

I was disappointed to learn that Frick is a speck in the film.  Nothing about his supposed facing down of a strike by the St. Louis Cardinals.  In fact, the strike story was probably fabricated by Frick’s friends in the NYC press, to give him an active role in the integration of baseball.

It’s a great subplot, pitting Frick against baseball commissioner Happy Chandler, the former Kentucky governor who used to annoy the owners by singing “My Old Kentucky Home” in a tenor that had the same effect as a needle through the brain.

I told Ernie about the story, then awaited the offer to join 42 as a contributing screenwriter and technical advisor. It never came.  At least, it hasn’t yet.  Not a problem.  I will be blogging the heck out of this — a quality sports history film by a top-notch director.  We can’t have enough of those.

Photo by Alex Salter.

John Carvalho, associate professor of journalism at Auburn, blogs about the sports media at johncarvalhoau.tumblr.com. Find him on Twitter at @johncarvalhoau. Read his previous columns here.

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