When Warner Bros. “42” hits screens April 12, the Jackie Robinson saga will slap moviegoers with a fresh take on just how accepted racism was in the U.S. back in 1947, when Robinson broke the color barrier as the first African American player admitted into Major League Baseball. That’s the word from Alan Tudyk, who plays Robinson tormentor Ben Chapman in the Brian Helgeland film that stars Chadwick Boseman as Robinson, and Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey.
“It’s a very, very good telling of the story, starting with the amazing script Brian wrote,” notes the “Suburgatory” and “Firefly” actor. “He’s obviously a proven writer — ‘L.A. Confidential,’ ‘Mystic River’ and so many things. This is a brilliant, straightforward telling of this story. People who know the history and the trivia of this time are going to like it because it’s an accurate portrayal. A lot of the quotes known from this story are in the movie.
“I certainly wasn’t aware of the extent of the abuse Jackie had to take and how different the country was,” Tudyk admits. “Racism was very openly accepted as a form of humor — blackface, things like that. In that atmosphere, the things that were considered offensive are just completely outrageous. To my ears and my eyes in 2013, it was amazing, what he had to put up with and how he had to meet all the threats against him. He couldn’t react.”
Tudyk’s character, outfielder-turned-Phillies Manager Ben Chapman, was among the biggest thorns in Robinson’s side — opposing integration and instructing his players to bean him with the ball at every good opportunity.
“He goes out on the field and calls Jackie every name in the book. Then he catches grief for it from the press and gets called out for being a racist. Then, in an effort to save face, he asks Jackie — or, that is, he tells Jackie — that he wants to take a publicity picture with him out on the field before they play the next time. So Jackie agrees to go out and take pictures with this guy, who has been such an ass to him. He’s the bigger man. And then, even when he goes out on the field to do this favor for him, Ben Chapman won’t shake his hand! They’re like, ‘Shake his hand.’ And he’s like, ‘I’m not touching his hand.’ There’s a famous picture of the two of them that’s recreated in the movie, when Jackie says, ‘Here, we’ll just both hold this bat so you won’t have to touch my skin.’ That picture — you can find it anywhere.”
Tudyk admits that shooting the scenes in which he berated Boseman with racial epithets left him feeling “awful. I was in a terrible mood. It’s just a lot of hate. You get kind of like a hate hangover for a day or two.” Still, he was required to adopt Chapman’s mindset to play his part in the feature that also stars Christopher Meloni and T.R. Knight.
“Brian Helgeland said, ‘You know, when you read interviews with people who knew Ben Chapman, a lot of the guys said, “Hey, yeah, he had a temper and he was a racist, but beyond that he was really likable,”‘” recounts Tudyk with a rueful laugh. “Brian wanted to capture that person. He’s like, ‘Have you ever met a good ol’ boy — that’s who he was, a good ol’ boy from Alabama — and you’re having a great time with him, and he’s joking and he’s nice and he buys you a beer and everything’s great, and then he says the most racist thing you’ve ever heard in your life and you’re like, “Oh my God. I’ve got to get out of here”?’ I don’t want him to come out like a villain with Darth Vader music. He’s a guy who is trying to make his team laugh half the time.”
As Tudyk puts it, “He has his own thuggish, cruel cham.”
Small wonder Tudyk would like to play a nice character next. “Some sweet fool would be nice — some sweet, affable fool.”
He and the rest of the “Suburgatory” team just wrapped the ABC series for this season. He’s currently doing voice work for an animated feature “I’m not allowed to talk about.” He’ll be seen in the Netflix reboot of “Arrested Development” in May. And he’s bracing himself for the release of “42.”
“There’s so much racism still today,” comments Tudyk, some 66 years after Robinson’s admission into the major leagues. “I think it’s really a great time to tell this story again.”