The Case of the Missing Folder: Part Two
The Robinsons, the Obamas, and the case of the missing folder: A Two-Part Hollywood Mystery – Part 2
Sidney Poitier said of Jackie Robinson, “To be compared to Jackie Robinson is an enormous compliment, but I don’t think it’s necessarily deserved.”
His Academy Award in 1964 broke barriers for Black actors as viable leading men. Poitier thus earned the moniker “The Jackie Robinson of Hollywood.” And Poitier was the man Robinson wanted to portray him on the silver screen.
“You, Sid, are ideal to play the Jackie Robinson part,” he said in the letter he drafted with Martin Stone. “We’d like to say that Sidney Poitier is very much interested in playing the Jackie Robinson part…I’d be delighted if I can have your enthusiasm.”
This story unfolded with a bit of chicanery or Hollywood hijinks. Like much of Jackie Robinson’s life, the true-to-life plot seemed almost too farfetched for Tinseltown. The right to tell his story played out like a gumshoe telenovela, with studio power brokers playing the part of the woeful sheriffs who made disappear the key piece of evidence.
When the would-be producer of The Jackie Robinson Story went to find his contract, he stared into the manilla folder in disbelief. The man who gave us Orion and Bull Durham had absconded with Jackie’s contract. It left the producer without answers; and Jackie, heretofore tied to United Artists, was free from his studio obligation.
An older, savvier Robinson wanted to tell his story to America his way. Jackie wanted to create his own narrative, no longer obliged to save face, no longer part of a team. As his writing during the 1960s reflects, Jackie wanted to use his story to inspire others, but this time he wanted to do it with the appropriate gravitas. Who had more gravitas than Sidney Poitier? The fire that Poitier brought to his characters reflected Jackie’s ethos. Jackie wanted Sidney Poitier to show America the real Jackie Robinson.
While Robinson was winding down his pioneering baseball career across the East River in Brooklyn, Poitier was a teenage immigrant sweeping floors at the American Negro Theatre. Robinson demonstrated to young Black men like Poitier that they could reach for more. Like Jackie, Poitier aspired to more. Poitier and Robinson shared a similar creed. Poitier uncompromisingly eschewed stereotypical roles and learned the movie business behind the camera, giving opportunities to other Blacks in the industry as a producer and director. Like his friend Jackie, the Oscar winner used his position as a platform for civil rights in America and the newly independent Bahamian nation, which Jackie visited in the 1960s.
Despite their friendship, Sidney Poitier’s portrayal of Jackie Robinson never came to pass. Instead, In the Heat of Night, To Sir with Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner all premiered in 1967. All three depicted strong Black men in roles that defied stereotypes. Poitier slaps a White man, teaches an all-White class, and in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner plays Dr. John Prentice, who marries the daughter of Katherine Hepburn (played by her niece Kate Houghton) and her husband, Spencer Tracy. By the time the movie came out, Hepburn was a widower. Tracy died of a heart attack just seventeen days after filming. The movie came out the same year as Loving v. Virginia unequivocally declared interracial marriage permissible. It was hitherto illegal in some parts of the country; considered sodomy in certain states. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was banned in 12-states at the time, despite the First Amendment.
Within the decade, Jackie’s attitudes about America had changed. He could no longer salute the flag by which he once swore. America had gradually eroded the faith of an avowed and proven patriot. As Jackie’s health declined, his personal life was inexorably altered. Jackie Jr. returned from Vietnam addicted to heroin, which became front-page news. Jackie almost died from an infection following knee surgery. Diabetes ravaged his body. The protective family cocoon Rachel had tried to provide was broken. Fate can be cruel. A car accident killed a sober Jackie, Jr. in 1971.
Jackie Robinson made his last appearance on the baseball diamond at the 1972 World Series, where he called for racial equality in the front office and in the dugout. Nine days later, Jackie was gone, dead of a heart attack at just 53 years old. Rachel was a virtually broken woman in the summer of 1972.
Searching for constructive outlets for her grief, Rachel asked her friends, “What can we do to keep Jack’s legacy alive? If we work on that, maybe we’ll feel better, we’ll feel closer to him. So that’s how the organization began, and how I recovered, as we began to help these young people get educated.” The Jackie Robinson Foundation was born. By 1973 Rachel was picking up the pieces. Though Robinson’s vision of Sidney Poitier erasing any memory of The Jackie Robinson Story with an Oscar-caliber production never came to fruition, the idea of making another film never disappeared. Poitier also helped keep Jackie’s legacy alive as a member of the board of the Jackie Robinson Foundation from 1979 until 1996.
The foundation was a tangible way to avow Jackie Robinson’s values and maintain his memory. Embracing her new role as custodian of Jackie’s legacy, Rachel remained his devoted partner and guardian angel. No different from when Jackie was alive, Rachel was fiercely protective of her husband. She had clear ideas about portraying his legacy.
In 1973, CBS wanted to do a 90-minute film on Jackie’s life off the field, something that piqued Rachel’s interest. She had notions of revitalizing Jackie’s story on film. Acting on her behalf, Stone wanted assurances about the quality of the production, noting how the 1950 experience had haunted Jackie. Stone told CBS a full-length feature film was what they had in mind; then told MGM, Columbia, and Warner Bros. that Rachel was considering offers for a film.
In life, Jackie and Rachel were the quintessential power couple, with Jackie in the spotlight. Jackie’s widow proved equally formidable as the trustee of his memory. Though he was just a memory, it was Jackie’s story and Rachel’s gravitas, different but equal to Jackie’s. Steadfastly both, she was measured where he was tempestuous – but you might mistake her demure visage for pliability at your own peril.
In 1979, the first draft of a feature film came across Rachel’s desk. Roger Gimble of CBS and Ernest Kinoy presented Rachel with a film treatment. She met with the duo, then reiterated her clear vision for the film in a letter, to which she attached eight pages of notes. The notes provide a fascinating look at how Rachel views herself and her husband.
“I, like you, won’t be satisfied until we have a film that we can all be proud of,” Rachel wrote to the writers. “It seems we are in agreement on our purpose, that is, to depict the life of Jackie Robinson, a heroic person, in the context of his times, family, work, and life challenges. Clearly, his struggle was against racism and its derivatives, but the uniqueness of his story lies in the way he chose to deal with both extraordinary and common life developments. Through it all, he never lost sight of deeply held personal goals. He was determined to contribute to the advancement of Black people and to provide for the security of his family. Our family needs to be justifiably proud of our role in this achievement.”
As if Jackie Robinson’s life hadn’t already had sufficient drama, the script wanted to emphasize conflict; and thus focus on the turmoil between Jackie and his son, which Jackie addresses candidly in his 1972 memoir, I Never Had It Made.
Love of family and the want for their financial security was why Robinson had hastily gotten into the movie business in the first place. As Rachel reveals in her notes, she is meticulous and measured, whereas Jackie, while fastidious, was more impulsive. Her notes on scripts and film treatments evince their dynamic chemistry. Rachel, who eschewed the spotlight, quietly shone as the vessel through which the story of her iconic husband filtered.
Rachel Robinson with former President Barack Obama. (Photo: Pete Souza / White House)
“We’re quite proud of the act that our son, in spite of a very serious heroin problem, overcame it,” Jackie told Dick Cavett five days before his last birthday in January 1972. “It took three tremendous years of his life, and it took a lot of work on our part, but I think love and understanding did it for us. We were extremely proud that Jackie [Jr.] did overcome it.”
As Jackie explained, his son, now a rehab counselor, followed in his father’s footsteps, turning his struggle and fortitude into an opportunity to aide others. His fatal accident came while planning his own Cascade Road Jazz Concert to benefit Daytop. Jackie gave a posthumous voice to the mission borne of his son’s recovery.
“I think our federal government is putting its priorities in the wrong place. If this country is to survive, we’ve got to deal with that drug program,” Jackie told Cavett fifty years before the so-called opioid crisis. “It’s the worst problem that we have in this country today – even worse than the race problem.”
Rachel explained that redemption was crucial to their story. Reconciliation and recovery, followed by death. “We failed to demonstrate and elucidate the strengths of the family as a unit,” wrote Rachel in 1979, “Though the circumstances of this family created many emotional peaks and valleys, the basic life was experienced as satisfying, positive, and potentially inspiring. Resilience, solidarity, and joy were largely absent from the chosen events and anecdotes.”
She added: “We tend to dwell on family pathology and tragedy, and Jack’s decline and failures.” While leaving others to tell their story in death, Rachel saw to it that she shaped how people remembered Jackie. “Jackie would not have said that,” she plainly noted.
I Never Had It Made was delivered to the publisher the week before he died. Jackie worked right up until the end. “Jackie Robinson as a functioning person tends to get lost,” Rachel wrote, noting his determination and ability to fight back and stick to his goals.
“The transition from baseball to business contains many significant elements,” Rachel asserted. “Among them is the ‘strategy’ my [Rachel’s] word, not [Jackie’s] that determines his selection of activities to engage in. He believed that Blacks had to move into the mainstream of business and seek political power as well.”
In modern parlance, what happened was that Rachel sensed the script was tinged with a White savior complex. “The mentors are presented as all White. Not true. They were Black and White,” Rachel noted. “Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson were dynamic young leaders whom Jackie turned to when he began to lose confidence in the static leadership of the NAACP.” His confidants were too numerous to include in just two hours, from Governor Rockefeller to Stone.
“All of [those mentioned] will tell you that Jack sought counsel, but his decisions largely grew out of his own assessments and agonizing internal debate.” Nobody could accurately depict Jackie Robinson without conveying that he was, if anything, inimitably his own man.
A working title was Jack and Rachel. Said Rachel: “I do not wish it to be such…the working title somehow contributes to a lessening of the importance of Jackie Robinson as a public figure. We’re very different from the Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor.” (ABC had aired a television movie with that title.) Others could interpret, but his story had to have Rachel’s perspective to get her cooperation.
Rachel provides a vignette of what drives her as the widow Robinson and a wife, mother, and Black woman who, like her husband, aspired to carve out her own identity while remaining the bedrock of the family. Her script notes provide a unique autobiographical portrait.
“Rachel’s planning and suffering are more contained than represented,” she wrote. “Suffering alone was and is much more characteristic of her. Also, oppressed people learn over time to present their most confident self when faced with the enemy (re the episode with [the] builder in Stamford).” Rachel is referring to the racism they encountered when looking for property in Connecticut, even after Jackie was a nationally renowned baseball star depicted on the silver screen. They were still Black in America. After public outcry, Rachel found their haven on Cascade Road.
“In the particular circumstances surrounding this family in 1955,” wrote Rachel, “building a house met more than grading shelter. It was providing a protected retreat-like setting to support the family’s development (out of the fishbowl). It gave the family the opportunity to gain personal territory and freedom. And it was conceived of as the needed basis for stability and security. Alas, we do not control all aspects of our destiny.”
Still, Jackie faced resistance when the admitted golf addict sought to join a country club. And yet, Rachel remembers studying for her Ph.D. on the back of a golf cart. Jack did resist, but Rachel went back to school. Eventually, she became a hospital administrator and Yale professor, satisfying her need to establish an identity distinct from her husband’s. Rachel’s individuality did not prevent her from yearning for Jackie after his passing.
“Rachel Robinson,” she wrote, “like other creative homemakers of her era, though frequently seduced by family, ignorant of rights, and generally undercut by the society, derived much satisfaction from the role and functions…The period of relative protection provided the opportunity for growth and preparation for real independence and interdependence. Five-year plans [are inextricably tied to] Rachel Robinson’s existence, and waiting is not a passive activity.”
Notably, the Jackie Robinson Awards were established in the mid-eighties, a manifestation of Rachel’s “five-year plan” or vision for the Jackie Robinson Foundation. The foundation grew, allowing them to endow students in need with hundreds of scholarships. Jazz concerts at Cascade Road that once funded the civil rights movement evolved to fund the JRF.
Of Jackie, she writes in 1979: “Well known characteristics have been well portrayed. Depicting well, less-known characteristics would provide important insights. He was deeply not simply spiritual and religious, humble and shy, not given to despair or depression, but easily aroused to anger, particularly in the face of injustices. He was fun, loving, played cards, loved children, golf, and horseraces. Gambled modestly and with great glee. Never drank, but enjoyed rapping with his contemporaries in small, intimate places, for example, backstage at the Apollo Theatre.”
Rachel recognized this was just a first pass, yet was clear about the story she wanted to tell – one that reflected Jackie, the man, rather than Jackie, the ballplayer. Rachel endeavored to go ‘Beyond 42.’
David Robinson (L) and Rachel Robinson, wife of Jackie Robinson, waves to the Los Angeles Dodgers dugout prior to a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds at Dodger Stadium on April 15, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
In the 1980s, power brokers like Les Moonves of 20th Century Fox vied to tell Jackie’s story. Stone informed Rachel of the 1984 negotiations. “I made it plain that 20th Century Fox has to come up with an offer inasmuch as they are the pursuer, and you are a reluctant pursued. I also explained that Moonves’ suggestions were entirely inadequate, and he would have to do a lot better.” By then, ABC had beaten the offer and even put out a contract proposal to Marty Edelman, another close confidant who was Jackie’s private attorney.
Rachel was equally tenacious, just a better diplomat. If others wanted to make money from his name, they would have to pay. “Jackie Robinson” was copyrighted. That dangling carrot could fund many a scholarship while perpetuating the brand. It takes money to grow and run a successful foundation, and Rachel saw that she hired the best and cut no corners. From 20th Century Fox, Rachel wanted $3.5 million for the rights to use Robinson’s name on film and the industry standard 5% residuals. She wanted $5,000 for the option and up to $25,000 to supervise the script, depending on how much time was involved. She asked for another $45,000 if the film went to production. Rachel was smart. Money in, money out. The stakes, and quality, would reflect the investment.
Moreover, scholarships cost and JRF mentored over fifty kids per year. Production and script approval meant that Rachel maintained control of Jackie’s brand. That was non-negotiable.
In 1990 Andre Braugher became the first actor to portray Robinson on screen, the small screen. Braugher was famous for his role in Homicide, distinctively innovative for its diversity on network television. Braugher was the only actor to depict Jackie Robinson before Chadwick Boseman, who, like Jackie, worked until his untimely premature death. At the time, cable was the contemporary version of the many newfangled streaming options, the fastest growing form of entertainment. Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner, the founder of CNN and Turner Networks, was there for the nascence.
Thirsty for original programming that made a mark, Turner Networks produced “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson” for TNT, Turner Network Television. TNT had recently launched itself by buying broadcast rights to the nascent NBA. TBS, Turner Broadcasting Superstation, made Turner’s Braves America’s team by showing them all over the country.
The budget reflected the medium, but Jackie spent no time in combat or on the baseball field during the war. Spartan barracks don’t call for intricate set design. For a cable film, it was textured and reasonably accurate in its portrayal. Braugher’s depiction of Robinson is faithful. Never a baseball fan, Braugher, like Chadwick Boseman, read Jackie’s memoirs and his military records and spoke to Rachel, who was a paid script consultant.
Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing
The war is the only period Rachel and Jackie spent apart from the time they met at UCLA. Jackie gave Rachel an ultimatum, so Rachel sent Jackie back his ring and bracelet. She called off the engagement. Obviously in love, they reconciled. Jackie later owned his mistake but alluded to their equally stubborn personalities.
“I want people to empathize with Jackie not from a 90s perspective, but from his perspective. In his day, an act of defiance was almost a death warrant,” said Braugher in 1990, who also spoke to his own family about being Black in the military during the Second World War. “Jackie Robinson is a legend, an icon…I wasn’t attracted to the role because of his athleticism. When I read the script and read his biography, what I saw was a strong man, gifted and articulate, who fought for what is most precious, his manhood.”
Ruby Dee, a Hollywood legend by 1990, reprised her place at the center of Jack’s life. The Jackie Robinson Story was Robinson’s first foray into mainstream culture for those who may never have seen a baseball game. After 1950, Jackie Robinson transcended sports across racial lines. Forty years after she depicted a more passive Rachel than she grew to befriend, Dee depicted a more textured Mallie Robinson. Dee’s generation came after Hattie McDaniel and Lucille Beavers.
When TNT began showcasing the NBA, hip-hop and basketball embraced the connection between entertainment and sports from a Black perspective. Turner’s “Inside the NBA” discusses issues of race and culture the way Jackie did after those initial years of solitude. Magic Johnson, whose presence was ubiquitous on TNT as a player and broadcaster, is now part-owner of Robinson’s Dodgers.
In April 1997, MLB celebrated the Golden Anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the unprecedented retirement of Number 42 around the time his old friend Sidney Poitier was named America’s Bahamian Ambassador by President Bill Clinton. Rachel Robinson was next to President Clinton at Shea Stadium in New York when Commissioner Bud Selig proclaimed April 15th, on the 50th Anniversary of his 1947 debut, Jackie Robinson Day.
Spike Lee, whose Jackie jersey is an iconic image in Do the Right Thing, Lee’s film about race in working-class Brooklyn, endeavored to make a film about Robinson, slated to premiere during the 1997 celebration. Lee released a 1996 screenplay, a fifth draft, during the pandemic in 2020, months before the death of Chadwick Boseman. Denzel Washington was slated to play an older, textured Robinson. Based on I Never Had It Made, the film fell apart over creative differences. It seemed to align with Rachel’s notion of examining Jackie off the field – but was bleaker. The film would have ended with Jackie collapsing in Rachel’s arms while he’s having his fatal heart attack at Cascade Road.
Still, there was no film. Finally, Tull’s Legendary Pictures agreed to produce the multimillion blockbuster Jackie had always envisioned and tapped Brian Helgeland to write the script. It was over a half century since Jackie Robinson was depicted on the silver screen.
A consultant with script approval, Rachel envisioned a broad story, a theatrical version of Ken Burns’ Jackie Robinson, but eventually trusted Helgeland’s judgment. He examined the climax of The Jackie Robinson Story, Rickey’s Noble experiment, from Jackie and Rachel’s perspective. Chadwick Boseman, then a relative unknown, played Jackie Robinson.
Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in 42.
“42” manifested what Jackie and Martin Stone conceived back in the 1960s. “…it should not be a story about the breaking of the color line. It is the story of America… That’s the contribution I can make to America, to tell how all people who deserve a job should have the opportunity, whatever their color or creed… I think this deserves telling all over the world. That can best be done with a splendid film good enough to win an Academy Award.”
“I’m thrilled by the film. I waited 30 years to have it made,” Rachel told the Academy over 60 years hence. “We’ve had some false starts, but we’ve got a really great picture.” Aside from Jackie’s artistic legacy, one of the first things to come to mind was the Jackie Robinson Foundation. She mentioned that the film’s success was directly tied to the foundation’s visibility. A decade hence, the Jackie Robinson Museum is a reality.
“Rachel Robinson is a fascinating woman very much interested in preserving her husband’s legacy,” Harrison Ford said at the White House in 2012. “One of the genius things about this film is that we don’t talk about the story…this is a film which gives the audience the experience of…what it was like to meet the challenges that Jackie and Rachel faced, the visceral experience of what Jackie Robinson went through.”
“I started 20 years ago wanting to have a film that examined what was happening in America during those years,” Rachel explained. “I think what I thought about it then, and still do. The challenges didn’t drive us apart, Jack and I; they made us feel like it’s the two of us against the world.”
“The most interesting thing about their love story is that she is still so loyal and devoted and enamored by him to this day,” said Nicole Beharie, who played Rachel.
“Children would know Jackie Robinson from my performance,” Boseman told MLB Network. “I’m responsible for being the face of that and portraying all of the characteristics, qualities, and principles that he lived… I also know a lot of people viewed him as a hero, and they would be let down if I didn’t live up to those expectations…I also knew the family – I had a responsibility to them because they were carrying on his legacy. I just concentrated on the family… If there’s anybody you should seek approval from, it’s them.”
The inspirational message harkened back to 1950 when The Jackie Robinson Story proclaimed, “A story of victory…can only happen in a country that is truly free…A country where every child has the opportunity to become president or play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers.” Robinson spent his life advocating for that reality which is still a contested cultural contingency.
“Do you understand we are here with Rachel Robinson!” Michelle Obama exclaimed as the crowd applauded Rachel at the student workshop hosted by the First Lady for the premiere of “42” with Rachel, Till, Helgeland, Ford, and Boseman. “Her presence here today makes us realize just how connected we are to that part of our history. It is very real and very tangible…Jackie and Rachel Robinson’s story reminds us how much hard work it takes to move the country forward. It reminds us how much struggle is really required to make real progress and change.”
As the tagline of “42” suggests, Jackie’s is “The True Story of an American Legend.”
A happy ending and a postscript: United Artists and Orion, who became part of MGM, are all owned by Amazon. The only thing more American than baseball, Jim Crow, and Hollywood is capitalism. Thus, our story ends where it began, and The Jackie Robinson Story ended, a parable about the American Way. This story underscores why Jackie Robinson always maintained that equality is as important at the ballot box as it is at the bank, which is why he helped found the Freedom National Bank in Harlem. Should you want to know more, download one of the many Jackie Robinson books on Amazon Kindle or stream a colorized version of The Jackie Robinson Story on Amazon Prime, where you might catch your favorite team’s next ballgame.