Thom Loverro: Brian Helgeland shows Jackie Robinson's burden in '42'

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Two years ago, Brian Helgeland's 81-year-old father called him at his home in California. He had a request of his son: Could the writer/director come back to Rhode Island and join his father on a pilgrimage of sorts to Brooklyn, where his father grew up?

"Out of the blue he called me and said he wanted to see his old neighborhood and apartment," Helgeland said.

So Helgeland flew back east, and the two of them got on a bus to Brooklyn. His cell phone rang as the bus made its way down the west side of Manhattan. It was a producer who wanted to talk to Helgeland -- a 52-year-old Academy Award winning screenwriter for his "L.A. Confidential" script -- about Jackie Robinson.

While they were talking, the bus stopped in traffic. In the street was a poster for a public service campaign that read "Character: Pass it On."

It was a picture of Jackie Robinson.

Jackie's widow, Rachel Robinson, had been trying for 30 years -- with many false steps -- to get his story made. Now she and the producer wanted to know whether Helgeland was interested.

The next day in Brooklyn, of course, Helgeland bought a copy of Jackie's autobiography, "I Never Had It Made." A few days later, Helgeland met with Rachel to lay out how he would tell her husband's tale of triumph and courage in breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947.

That is how "42" -- directed by Helgeland and opening in theaters Friday -- was born.

Jackie's story perhaps means more to more people than that of any other athlete in American history. It goes beyond the baseball diamond as far as social impact. Baseball was the national pastime in 1947, yet black players were forced to create their own game -- a wonderful game, I might add -- by playing Negro League baseball.

Following World War II, particularly with new commissioner Happy Chandler in charge of the game -- it was time for that color barrier to fall. "42" is the story of how Robinson came to be the player Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey picked to do it and the burden of responsibility Jackie carried as a result.

That burden has dogged Jackie's story for decades. There is a film called "The Jackie Robinson Story" -- released in 1950 and starring Jackie as himself (done well and highly recommended, I might add) -- but there have been numerous failed efforts to tell the story again since.

It is such an important story that Rachel wanted to make sure it was done right.

Helgeland recognized that tremendous responsibility.

"I was very aware of that from the start and was game to do it," he said. "You have to set your own ego aside as a filmmaker and writer to serve the story."

It is a story that was long overdue for a new generation to witness.

Examiner

columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.

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Thom Loverro

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The Washington Examiner