From left: MLB Photos via Getty Images; Timothy White/Trunk Archive

To get a role he coveted, Harrison Ford had to prove that he could be someone other than Harrison Ford.

While describing the uncommon experience of being rejected for a role he coveted, Harrison Ford is amused and understated. He provides the details calmly, without disdain or condescension for the director who initially refused to even talk to him. The story has a successful ending with Ford getting exactly what he wanted, but the striking part about Ford telling it is the noticeable absence of entitlement. Here is a man who has generated an estimated $6 billion in movie-ticket sales worldwide and is one of the most successful actors in film history. But he is still not even slightly offended by a hesitant director.

The character Ford found so compelling is Branch Rickey, a man of surpassing intelligence who played a significant role in advancing civilrights in this country, not only because it was morally proper but also because it was good business. Rickey was the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the man who desegregated baseball by signing 26-year-old Jackie Robinson in 1945 to play for the Montreal Royals, the organization’s top farm team. After spending the 1946 season with Montreal, Robinson was promoted to the major leagues in 1947. Their story is told in the film 42, which debuts in theaters this month.

In Rickey, Ford saw a man with complex motivations — honorable because Rickey deplored racial prejudice, but also practical because the better his baseball team, the more money he made.

“Ethnic prejudice has no place in sports,” Rickey once lectured, “and baseball must recognize that truth if it is to maintain stature as a national game.”
But another famous Rickey quote is: “The greatest untapped reservoir of raw material in the history of our game is the black race.”

Filming of the movie ended long ago, but Ford remains passionate about the role.

“I read a version of the script and I became very intrigued by the character,” Ford says as he leans forward in a chair in a conference room at his Santa Monica, Calif., office. “As I started to do research and became more involved in the process, I could see an endless reservoir of characteristics and personality that was all an actor could ask for. It was like stumbling into a gold mine.”

In director Brian Helgeland, however, Ford encountered disinterest. Helgeland would not even talk to Ford on the phone because he did not want to falsely encourage Ford.

“Nothing against him,” says Helgeland, who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for L.A. Confidential in 1997. “He’s obviously a strong actor and a movie star and someone that movie fans in the country are really fond of, but I didn’t see how it could work. I didn’t see him playing a character.”
The problem, in Helgeland’s view, was simple: The man who played Indiana Jones, Dr. Richard Kimble, President James Marshall, Jack Ryan and Han Solo was too big a star.

“I knew I was going to get an unknown to play Jackie Robinson, so I could sell to the audience that they were really seeing Jackie Robinson,” Helgeland says. “I really hadn’t thought about anyone to play Rickey, but I wanted to get a low-profile character actor. When you have a star, they are bigger than the role. When you go see Clint Eastwood, he plays Clint Eastwood. George Clooney plays George Clooney. Harrison Ford plays Harrison Ford. I didn’t want it to be Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford.”