While Harrison Ford knew who baseball legend Jackie Robinson was growing up, the acting great admitted he that he wasn't quite aware of the accomplishments of Branch Rickey -- the larger-than-life Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager who at age 65 showed undaunted courage in the face of blistering criticism to break Major League Baseball's color barrier by signing Robinson.
But that's why films like the new drama "42" are so meaningful, Ford said. It gives people outside the world of baseball history the chance to not only learn more about Robinson, but of the guts and grit of Rickey, the bold executive who helped change not only the game, but America, forever.
"I knew this was an important movie, and that's the way I felt about the opportunity to play him," Ford told me in a recent interview. "I'm not a baseball fan, I didn't follow sports and didn't play many sports as a kid growing up, so it was a great opportunity as an actor to play such a colorful and important person."
Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, "42" stars Chadwick Boseman as Robinson, a talented player in the Negro Leagues who was brought up to the Dodgers organization through the club's affiliate team in Montreal. But since the year was 1947 and the racial climate was highly volatile, Robinson and Rickey not only had to rise above vitriol from people in the stands, but other players and executives -- and even Robinson's Dodger teammates.
Written and directed by "L.A. Confidential" Oscar-winning scribe Brian Helgeland, "42" also stars Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, Nicole Behari, Lucas Black, John C. McGinley and T.R. Knight.
Alan Tudyk also stars as Ben Chapman, the incendiary Philadelphia Phillies player-manager who endlessly taunted Robinson on the field.
"When the Phillies went to Brooklyn for a three-game series, he would come out of the dugout and stand whenever Jackie got up to bat, and yell every racial epithet that he knew," Tudyk told me in a separate interview. "He did it to taunt him and try to throw him off of his game. He would also instruct his pitchers never to walk him, unless he had three balls. Then he'd say throw at his head."
As monumental a move as it was, Ford said the impact of signing Robinson to the Dodgers would have meant nothing if not for the incredible restraint the player showed on and off the field. In a pivotal moment in the film, Rickey tells Robinson that he will only bring him aboard on the condition that he not react to the barrage of bigotry coming his way -- because by doing that, he would be stooping to the level of his detractors.
"Branch found the right partner to do it with," Ford said. "What they gave each other was a reflection on our past to help us inform ourselves in order to commit to a better future."
As much as Rickey and Robinson accomplished, the work isn't done, Ford added. The key now is to make sure younger audiences learn, too.
"Kids need to know about them and know about a how short a period of time ago it was, that we were able overcome deep problems in our culture and to make progress, and there's more progress to be made," Ford said. "That's what it takes in a democracy."
Playing Rickey in "42" is somewhat a departure for Ford in that it's one of the very few times he's played a historical character.
"It's one of the first if you don't count a Russian submarine captain and most people don't," Ford said with a laugh, referring to his "K-19: The Widowmaker" character, Captain Alexei Vostrikov. "There were occasions in the past where I was offered or considered roles that were about real-life historical people, but I wasn't so comfortable with the point of view or wasn't sure that it was the right thing for me to do at the time. I didn't ever want to do an imitation of someone. This is the first time I really went for it."
By going for it, Ford knew that in addition to playing a great role, he could also possibly make a difference by informing people through his work -- and not outside it. Ford says the best way he can serve the public is by doing the job he was hired to do in films like "42," instead of being a cause celeb.
"I try not to be a poster boy for causes I believe in, because I feel that makes the air thinner and uses up your value," Ford said. "It's not always the most sincere way of aiding something you believe in."
Lucky for viewers of "42," the film not only entertains, but inspires and informs.
"Information has an absolute value, and emotional information is value squared," Ford observed. "I think it's the emotional value in this film that really drives it home."
Return to the galaxy?
Of course, with conflicting reports all around about Ford's return to the "Star Wars" saga with the forthcoming "Episode VII," you can't help but take the opportunity to bring up Han Solo to the screen legend, especially since it's the role that catapulted him into superstardom.
But at this juncture, while it's silly to ask of any potential details about the upcoming film in the series, it's safe to touch base with Ford about the film's director, J.J. Abrams.
"Well, if it comes to be -- and I can't talk about the movie at all -- I very much admire J.J. enormously," Ford said. "Mike Nichols and I did J.J.'s first screenplay when he was 22 years old -- 'Regarding Henry' – and I've been following his career and effect ever since. It's hard not to notice that he's enormously talented and a real good guy."