“Hey, I know that guy,” is usually the response viewers have when John C. McGinley appears on screen. While not necessarily a household name, the actor’s face is well known what with being a regular on for eight seasons as Dr. Cox on TV’s Scrubs while having key roles in such films as Office Space, Platoon and Any Given Sunday, among many others. Like the great character actors of old, McGinley comes in, makes a distinct impression in three or four given scenes and then moves on. This has kept him steadily employed since he first began acting in 1985.
His latest role is that of legendary Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber in the Jackie Robinson biopic 42. After only ten days in release, the film has grossed north of $52 million and is on track to be the most successful baseball movie ever released. And while the bulk of the film focuses on Robinson and Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey, Barber plays a key role in the drama as it was through his broadcasts that the Dodgers’ faithful came to know Robinson and through him, come to accept him as a player and a person.
Visiting Chicago on April 16th to take part in ceremonies at Wrigley Field dedicated to the 66th anniversary of Robinson’s first game, McGinley was kind enough to sit down and talk about how he approached this role and how important Barber was in providing a bridge between Robinson and the public. Affable and comfortable, barefoot and in a light summer suit and a Dodger Blue 42 cap that I immediately coveted, the actor was eager and more than happy to talk about the broadcaster and his approach to bringing him back to life.
The first thing I asked was how the actor approached the role, which provided a unique set of challenges. In the film, McGinley is shown in various pressboxes providing play-by-play to key games in Robinson’s career. As a result, he never interacts with any other actors in the cast – he simply reacts to nothing, as he was either looking at a blank stage or a green screen upon which computer rendered facsimiles of famous ballparks of yore were recreated. I pointed out that this lack of interaction must have been difficult for him.
“Actually, it was a bit of a dream,” he said, instantly warming to the subject, "because there were no distractions. I was able to immerse myself in Barber’s world and my sole focus was in recreating how he approached the game. I had a great deal of time to study how he talked by listening to hours upon hours of recordings of his work and it was full of surprises. If you listen to him, it’s hard to believe that he was Mississippi. I don’t think that he did it consciously but he obviously made some adjustments to the way he spoke we he first began broadcasting in Cincinnati and probably again when he went to Brooklyn. I tried to be conscious of all of this.”
Being originally from the Deep South, one would assume that Barber had some prejudicial views where race was concerned. In a brief film clip seen on YouTube, Barber relates that he had some initial reservations about broadcasting Dodger games once Robinson made the team. However, he comes to realize that he had to give Rickey the benefit of the doubt.
“I saw that clip as well,” says McGinley, “and you can tell he was reticent. When you listen to the broadcast of Robinson’s first game, which we recreate in the film, when he describes him as ‘obviously a brunette’ you can detect the slightest hint of racism coming through. Yet you can hear him come to accept him and even pull for Robinson as the season goes on.”
And just how important was Barber’s role in making Robinson accepted by the public? “Let me put it to you in the form of an SAT question,” he says. “Red Barber is as important to getting Jackie Robinson accepted is to Walter Cronkite and the public’s changing perception of Vietnam. As Uncle Walter’s view of the war changed, you could tell that the public was following him. The same can be said for Barber and Robinson. Without the support he showed in his broadcasts, I think it would have taken much longer for the Dodger fans to embrace him. To be sure, his performance on the field helped get him accepted as a player but I think Barber helped get him accepted as a man and that can’t be underestimated.”