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The Fretts on Film Interview: Christopher Meloni

April 12, 2013

Among the murderers’ row of character actors in the great new Jackie Robinson biopic 42, none stands taller than Christopher Meloni. Which is ironic, since Leo Durocher—the famously fiery Brooklyn Dodgers manager he plays—stood only 5’9″. But the SVU veteran embodies the skipper beautifully. Here, my New York Daily News interview with Meloni goes into extra innings.

What made you want to play Leo Durocher?

For whatever reason, I had a good feel, a good vibe for the guy. But I must say that when I auditioned for Brian Helgeland, his words didn’t hurt any. He really wrote a very beautiful piece. And I felt what Leo stood for and what came out of his mouth was really pretty—it was easy to like the guy from what came out of his mouth so I connected to it, thankfully.

What did you know of him before you got the role? What was your impression of Leo Durocher?

What did I think? Real character. Larger than life. When you’re a New York player and your name reverberates throughout the times—I didn’t know specifics about Leo, but he was part of a New York baseball. Like Babe Ruth—you know; Willie Mays—you know. But Leo—what is it about him? So once I got to dig a little deeper, I’m so glad that I really enjoyed how much I liked the guy. He reverberated.

It must have been disappointing that you didn’t get to follow the whole season through. You had to follow the facts of the story, but the facts were that Leo was suspended and he wasn’t really there for the majority of the season.

And I’m sure that Leo absolutely felt that disappointment far more than I, and I thought what I felt was very profound. And I carried this with me—it wasn’t Jackie Robinson. And there were rumors that they butted heads, and the more I got into it—and I talked to Jackie’s widow—that was not the truth. But the thing that I thought was very poignant and very heartbreaking was the fact that Leo moved on and he dealt with Willie Mays. And Willie Mays spoke at his funeral—I mean, Willie Mays loved that man. Even though he loved publicity and he was kind of a showman, he walked the walk and he truly did mean, ‘I don’t care if you’re black, white, yellow or a zebra,’ and I think he beared it out with his relationship with Willie Mays.

leo-durocher-jackie-robinson__120202005227-200x225So you truly think that he wasn’t a racist, and it wasn’t just that he was taking advantage of the situation that Jackie would help the team? You think that he was really standing for something, as well?

I think that it would have been very interesting to see how his relationship with Jackie—maybe he could have helped Jackie with the transition. I think Jackie was a really profoundly great individual. But I really think that it shortened his life….he could have helped. So I think those were my feelings as I delved into the times and the situations and the personalities.

What sense did you get, either from talking to Rachel or from reading up on it, on how Robinson felt about Durocher?

She was very sweet. I said, ‘What was Leo like?’ And she said, ‘Oh Leo was a rough, he was a tough man, he was a rough man, but when it came to the ladies or say polite and civilized society, as opposed to the baseball field, he could turn it on.’ He knew what audience he was playing for, he knew what waters he was swimming in, how to modify/modulate his behavior. Make no mistake, the baseball field was rough—these were bad men, these are tough guys. And then I brought it up—I said, ‘I heard they kind of butted heads.’ And she said, ‘No, they respected each other.’ And I get that. There are a lot of relationships like that—I’ll curse you out and I’ll butt heads with you, but that’s all that means. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect you. It might mean that I think more of you.

Leo was so outspoken—they called him Leo the Lip and he was always clashing with the umpires. It seems like he was kind of an outsider in his own way. Do you think he identified with Jackie on that level that he was necessarily easily accepted by people on the baseball diamond?

Absolutely. Jackie’s a black guy—that’s obvious he’s a lightning rod. But Leo also fomented that sort of atmosphere around Leo. And for whatever reason—maybe that’s just how he got his juices going.

He sounds Billy Martin, in a way. I was reading that he would get fired, and then hired the next day. It sounded very familiar.

Yeah. The Yankees—the Yankees are the Yankees and they’ve always been the Yankees. Who were the Brooklyn Dodgers? They were the bums. So it’s that underdog mentality, that junkyard dog mentality that I think we all identified with.

Right. And the fans must have identified with him. The Brooklyn fans must have loved him for the same reason that he was one of them in some way.

Yeah. I mean, 5’9, 160 pounds, never a great hitter—very good fielder and shortstop—but always considered mehhh. You know, he’s just the underdog, I think.

Were you at all concerned with your physicality being larger and more muscular than Leo’s was? Was there anything you could do to counteract that?

No. When you see Leo, he’s only two years past his prime. He played up until he was 42, and here he’s around 44. He was a player/manager there for a while.

So you were there the day Rachel Robinson came to the set?

Yeah. It was fantastic. What a wonderful spirit she possesses.

So I know you weren’t able to actually shoot it in New York. What was it like to shoot down South, but channel the New York energy of that time?

Oh well, as soon as you walked into the stadium, what they did between costumes and the set design—and I haven’t seen the film, but in post—but even without CGI, you just looked around and the guys dressed in white, selling peanuts…oh man, it was such a wonderful…it was so easy to be in that place.

In terms of 42, why do you think this story is still relevant and still important today? I know your kids are a little young, but is something that at some point, you’d want them to see and learn something from?

Yeah. And I think in this day in age, everything is very quick in the media, and I think a sense of history sometimes gets lost because everyone is just so overwhelmed with the here and now and the latest and greatest. And I think a film like this—this is a big word sometimes—but it’s an important film. I think it’s important because it showcases who were are and what our nation is—the bad and the good of it. There’s greatness in this nation and in this story, and there’s also profound sadness and disgrace. And there you go—that’s what makes our country great—is that we can confront these issues.

Will you be lining up to see 42 this weekend? Post a comment!

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