Sharon Robinson (Photo by John Vecchiolla)

Ralph Carhart: An Interview with Sharon Robinson

This article was written by Ralph Carhart

This article was originally published in Not an Easy Tale to Tell: Jackie Robinson on the Page, Stage, and Screen (SABR, 2022), edited by Ralph Carhart.


Sharon Robinson (Photo by John Vecchiolla)In September 2020, I had the good fortune of speaking with Sharon Robinson, Jackie’s daughter, over the course of two interviews in which we discussed representations of her father. The conversation is frank, detailed, and gives a keen insight into just how involved the Robinson family has been in telling their patriarch’s tale. Sharon also discussed her father’s artistic legacy, the role of context in telling history, and what it was like for a little girl to see her father portray himself in a movie for the first time, surrounded by a group of her White friends.

Carhart: Thanks so much for speaking with me. How are you doing today?

Robinson: I’m good, I’m good.

Carhart: I’m going to ask you some questions about the long arc of your father in film and other fictional adaptations of him, and I’m going to start way back at the beginning. I know that you were only one month old when The Jackie Robinson Story started filming, but were there any family stories that were floating around about the making of this picture? Did he ever talk about his experience making this picture and what that was like for him?

Robinson: The stories I heard were from Ruby Dee and my mother. My mother and brother and I came out to the set when I was a month old. And Ruby Dee tells me, because she was playing my mom, that she held me when I was a month old on the set. It’s interesting that my dad didn’t talk about the making of the film, but he didn’t go back, so he didn’t talk about his baseball years.

I didn’t know anything about the making of the film, really, or even about the film, until I saw it at day camp. It was a rainy day and rainy days meant that we all gathered in the big gym/everything room, sat on the floor, and watched movies.

Carhart: Did the counselors ask you if you were OK with that?

Robinson: There was no warning or preparation, and it was shocking to me, uncomfortably shocking. I was the only Black kid there. I didn’t know about or understand race or racism at the time. I was 7 or 8. I felt very uncomfortable watching this film surrounded by campers who I knew. I was watching this part of my father’s story that I didn’t know, and I didn’t know what it meant. It made me uncomfortable because I also lived in an all-White neighborhood and went to school with all White kids and I’m like, well, what does this mean?

That was my first real experience with that film. Silly enough, I didn’t go home and say, “You know what they showed today in the camp?” I was a quiet kid at that point in my life and very shy – so I didn’t make a big deal out of it when I got home. I sat with these uncomfortable feelings for a number of years.

Carhart: Wow. Did you ever talk to your father about those feelings, or to your mother about it?

Robinson: I did not. I didn’t really deal with it until I became an adult and I had to see that film again and had to hear people say they thought it was a great film.

Carhart: What do you think of it?

Robinson: Now as an adult? I realize why I was so uncomfortable. I didn’t even recognize my father playing himself. I mean, I saw him there. But he was more passive than I knew him to be. I didn’t like the voice. He had a high voice but when you combine that with the directing and the writing, you know…

Carhart: You talked a little bit about Ruby Dee. She was pregnant herself during the making of the film, and I know she became very attached to you as a baby. I know she and your mom got closer later in life with their advocacy and their philanthropy. Did you have a close relationship with her as well?

Robinson: I had a very loving relationship with her. I didn’t see her often, but when I did, there was a bond. I adored her. There were two people in our family that were actresses. I’m saying family; I’m saying close friends. So it was Ruby Dee and Billie Allen. We called her Aunt Billie and she wasn’t as acclaimed by any means, and she was more of a Broadway stage actress, but the two of them – and they were friends too. When either one of them was around, I was in heaven.

Carhart: It’s interesting that you talk about how the film lacks your father’s fire and passion because Ruby was later interviewed as regretting the way she portrayed your mom as rather passive. The director said to her, “This is a film about Jackie, you’re just there to support him and play it as such.” She realized after she met your mother that she made all the wrong choices. That wasn’t who your mother was at all.

Robinson: Yeah, no. [laughs]

Carhart: Between your father’s passing and when the Broadway musical, The First, came out in 1981, there were no fictionalizations of Jackie. Was that a choice on the family’s part or did New York and Los Angeles just take a while to call you?

Robinson: That is absolutely correct. My dad died in ‘72. I was just coming out of college. We were focused on getting the Foundation up and running and my mother had taken over my father’s construction company that they founded before he died.

Carhart: The one that provided housing for the underserved.

Robinson: Yeah, and they were focused on that. And he was not recognized by baseball yet, so it was a quiet period, absolutely.

Carhart: I know your mother was a consultant on the musical. Were you a part of that process at all?

Robinson: Yes, I was definitely around, but I was a single parent with a toddler in ‘81. So I would come to the set, we met all the cast, we saw the pre-production stuff, but I was not involved. I didn’t read scripts or anything like that. They definitely involved us and wanted us to be there, but I think, unlike 42, my mother was less involved in the creation of it. They pulled her in more around the marketing.

Carhart: The newspapers mentioned that she was present for first rehearsal and gave that inspirational speech that all the actors always need at first rehearsal.

Robinson: I think that was her role. I don’t know that she read scripts. I have been going through papers and I still haven’t seen any notes on The First, where I saw notes on other things.

Carhart: Other fictionalizations? Other times she was a creative consultant?

Robinson: Right, like where Spike was working on his version of The Jackie Robinson Story.

Carhart: It was so kind of him to share the script with the world for our quarantine entertainment.

Robinson: It sure was.

Carhart: It’s a shame that it didn’t get made. So many of the fictionalizations focus on 1946 and 1947 and that’s about it. Lee’s took a more holistic view of his life, beyond baseball into his activism and what came next. It’s a shame it never happened.

Robinson: He feels the same way! That’s why he finally released it and that’s exactly what he said to me. I did not see it when he released it publicly, but he sent me a copy. He called and he said, “Did you ever read this” and “I want you to read this” and “This is why I’m disappointed.”

Carhart: The other part of it that I really loved was the way, because so many of the stories tend to isolate Jackie, as though he was alone on his journey, Lee’s script made Don Newcombe a character; he made Roy Campanella a character; he made Joe Black a character. Lee’s story recognizes that Jackie opened the door, but then there was so much more to the story that came after.

Robinson: Exactly. Yeah, well that’s the problem when you only do ’46 and ‘47, you don’t get to see the aftermath.

Carhart: After The First, there was this cottage industry that was created where plays were written about Jackie intended for school age audiences.

Robinson: Lots of them, yeah.

Carhart: I was wondering if your family was ever involved in any of those or did those all sort of just happen on their own?

Robinson: They all happened on their own. Various groups would invite us, it may have been in a different city or wherever, but I don’t know that we really went.

Carhart: You have made your father a character in your own writing, and you’ve written books that are largely focused on that same age group. I’m curious, what is it about your father’s story that you think is particularly relevant to kids?

Robinson: It’s his character that, to me, makes it most relevant. It was his strength of character that made him successful. Along with that comes the supports that he had: my mother, his mother, those kinds of supports. I always felt that his story was very translatable for children as long as we can contemporize it. By making it about his character, it helps support kids in their own development. In my research with Major League Baseball, we realized that we had kids playing baseball up to the age of 12 and then we started losing them. So, I was trying to get the kids younger than that and older than that; to keep them engaged in baseball in an interesting way. But also, I felt that this movement from elementary school into middle school was so critical to a child’s development that I wanted to work with them during a period when they listened, and you can have some direct influence on them; help them so they are more prepared as they go from middle school into high school and then consequently into life. So that was kind of my thinking around age group in my writing and with the program I created along with Scholastic and Major League Baseball.

Carhart: I guess they are more open vessels, right? To be willing to hear new things and learn new ways. Very few 5- or 6-year-olds are racist. They’re willing to hear stories about all people. It’s not until we get older that those prejudices set themselves in.

Robinson: Correct, yeah.

Carhart: There were a couple of TV projects: The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson and Soul of the Game. I know your mother is on record stating that she didn’t like Soul of the Game because it portrayed a much less authentic version of your father and the dynamic that he had with Satchel Paige, but what did she, and you, think of Court Martial?

Robinson: Loved it.

Carhart: Yeah? Why?

Robinson: It was well done. It was part of his life that people didn’t know about; part of his early activism people didn’t know about. We were very impressed. As far as I know, we didn’t have a lot of involvement in that process. I can’t say for sure that my mother didn’t read scripts. I haven’t finished going through all her papers. Our general goal, not so much with major motion pictures, but on books and some of the other creative processes, was to get as much factual stuff out there and allow people to do their own creative process. So, rarely will I agree to consult on a book about my dad. I don’t even think I could be objective about it.

Carhart: It’s great that you have that personal insight to see that.

Robinson: I respect people and I respect their work as artists, but I don’t get involved in it. We get very involved if someone is doing a sculpture because that’s likeness. Or an art piece when we are asked to be involved, we will comment on art. So right now, for example, well it all got stymied because of COVID, but there is a hologram piece. We’ve been very involved with the kinds of things where you are trying to make him look like himself.

Carhart: Is there one of those happening right now?

Robinson: Yeah, Major League Baseball has been working on it for a long time, but like I said, everything stopped. They were very close to finishing up. It was supposed to be for the Smithsonian Museum. I did a lot of work with them, and I’ve seen the hologram and commented. They’ve been trying to get the facial stuff right. I also have a young, female artist right now that is doing a gigantic mural for a youth sports facility. She just sent me the work and I thought it looked really promising.

 

Sharon Robinson and I had to end our initial conversation at this point, but a few days later we resumed our chat.

 

Robinson: I did get to one of my mom’s files, and she answered your question. This was a file where she worked with Leslie Moonves. I guess he was president of Lorimar back then? 1990. He did The Court Martial. She definitely was a consultant on it. And she opens up by saying, after her conversation with the producer, “and I mentioned the resurgence of interest in Jack that had been evidenced since 1987, the 40th anniversary of his entering into baseball. It manifested in proposals to me, books in progress, even the enhanced value of his memorabilia. Enclosed are a few clippings to give you some idea of projects underway. I have great faith that a quality production with fresh material in depth would be well received.”

Carhart: What were the specific parts of the film that you and your mom thought were well-executed?

Robinson: First of all, it was a story that most people didn’t know about. That alone, we were happy about. I’m just looking over her notes on [pause]. Interesting… “I have just completed my work as a creative consultant and in the process have confirmed my opinion that the end product heavily reflects the kind of research and conceptual thinking that is done in the pre-production phase. I think this is especially true when we are dramatizing a life within a historical context.”

Carhart: One of the things I loved about the movie so much was how much airtime it gives to your parents’ love story. It pays attention to their relationship in a way that a lot of the others, to that point, had not. Especially their dynamic. I mentioned to you last time that Ruby Dee didn’t really love her performance as Rachel in The Jackie Robinson Story because she thought she had played Rachel as too passive. I love how – in that one moment in Court Martial (because they had that brilliant casting idea of bringing Ruby back to play Mallie), where your parents had split up because Jackie was jealous about your mother being in the cadet corps, and Mallie tears into him. “You’re just being a man and Rachel isn’t like that. Rachel is too strong for that.” And I always see that speech as sort of Ruby’s apology for the passive performance that she gave in The Jackie Robinson Story. I really love that moment in the movie.

Robinson: This is the advantage of when you serve as a consultant on these things; you get more authenticity. In her notes she clarified a number of times the depiction of that whole scene. There was an earlier draft with their wedding plans and the giving back of the ring, and she had to clarify all that and make sure they understood it. So obviously she felt good about it at the end but still wanted to keep everything within a historical context. And that’s always been important to us. To tell a story outside of the historical context is not a full story.

For example, a lot of people say, “Oh, your father was a Republican.” Well, the majority of Black people were Republicans and that’s coming out of Abraham Lincoln’s days. The split started happening around Kennedy versus Nixon. And even with my father, he was a moderate Republican with the Rockefeller group and they got knocked out of the water in the 1960s. If you don’t put it in context and you look at the voting record, you don’t know. He was much more independent in his thinking, and it shifted, you know what I mean?

Carhart: Right, and by the time he died he had fully renounced Nixon and had voiced his disappointment in Nixon and his inability to follow through on his promises.

Robinson: Absolutely. Historical context is extremely important.

Carhart: Especially with film, it’s a thing that historians are always battling, because film has this way of creating reality, right? People walk away from a movie thinking of it as fact, so it’s important.

Robinson: And many people came up to us after seeing 42 and loving it and asking “Was that accurate?” And we felt good about being able to tell them it was, you know, basically, accurate. Certainly, there were some Hollywood components. When he asked her to marry him on the telephone after meeting with Branch Rickey, that kind of thing. There was more that went into that. But that’s where Hollywood stepped in.

Carhart: What was the timing on that? The story that commonly gets told is that Rickey said, “Marry that girl because you’re going to need her,” and then history just jumps straight forward to the wedding.

Robinson: Exactly. No, they were engaged in 1941. They were engaged for five years. They tend to skip all of that. She was going to finish college and have a year or two to work and he was going to have a job; he would be employed. It happened in a recent interview, the guy had it backwards. He didn’t have it that she had stated what she wanted to achieve before she got married, but what she expected of him to achieve. But both sides were equally important.

Carhart: During the 1990s and the early 2000s, there were multiple attempts to make a big-budget film. We talked about the Spike Lee one. I know that Robert Redford was trying to get one put together where he would play Branch Rickey. Were there any other attempts to make a big-screen adaptation, high profile or not, before 42 was made in 2013?

Robinson: Not to my memory.

Carhart: What do you think is the main reason that Lee and Redford weren’t able to get these movies made?

Robinson: Spike ran into getting support financially and getting the studio to be behind it. That’s the same thing with Redford. So, you have this idea and you bring it forward but if you don’t have the studio. They didn’t think it was the time. That was before some of the major celebrations that have changed the legacy.

Carhart: Right, sure.

Robinson: But [producer] Thomas [Tull] already had the studio connection. And this was a passion project for him. He had made big films, made it big for the studios. And he was “It” right then. So he was the hot one able to pull it off. He came to us with, “I can get it done. I can get it done before/within the year and it will get done” and he never backed off that and he had the studio behind him.

Carhart: How involved were you and Rachel in the making of that?

Robinson: Oh, very. Very. Mom certainly more. Mom was the main person involved. Again, she was the consultant. But, you know, we were all – David and Mom and I all read scripts and Dave and I made our comments and Mom turned it in along with her comments.

Carhart: What was some of the feedback that she gave that changed the script and made its way into the movie, do you know?

Robinson: Oh gosh. Some even didn’t totally make its way in. I think the overarching things in getting the story straight was to show his strength of character, the strength of their partnership, the clarifying relationship between he and Branch Rickey, you know, more employer to employee and then developing a friendship of sorts. He actually came to Dad’s induction, when Dad was elected to the Hall of Fame, Branch was still alive, and he came. Those kinds of factors were important to us, getting that relationship as close to correct as possible.

Carhart: Let me ask you about Chadwick Boseman. I read an article where Boseman said that the first time he met your mom, she said to him, “Who are you and why do you get to play my husband?” And by the time the meeting was over he had earned her trust. What was it about him for you or your mom? What won you over to the Chadwick Boseman camp?

Robinson: First of all, he is smart. He understood history. He wasn’t just a young actor coming in there who hadn’t studied. He had studied both for the role but also studied Jackie Robinson, so he had his questions. With my mom he was – my mother is, you know, she’s a very sharp business woman. I’m much more emotional [laughs]. She had to make sure that he was the right person. Because we were concerned that the material that’s done be historically accurate. So if you’ve got an actor who comes in and already studied and understands the importance and the significance, that’s part of the battle right there.

Carhart: For sure.

Robinson: But he’s also very charming and he meets you honestly. He meets your eye. He is open on his side too, you know, he wasn’t a closed person. So, when you meet him and talk to him, he will share about his family as well as wanting to know about yours. That leads to a sense of trust about someone, you don’t feel like they’re hiding. He was Southern-born, which was important to us given the fact that dad was Southern-born, even though basically raised in California, still raised by a very Southern mother, so he understands that aspect again, historically as well as familiarly. It’s a very familiar person for him to play. And he was very respectful of my mom, he was always respectful of the family. We embraced him. And then even before we saw his actual performance on the screen, we had embraced him as a person.

Carhart: Was your mom on set? Did she see him working?

Robinson: She was on set one time. Thomas arranged to pick her up and fly her to the set, I don’t exactly remember where they were shooting that particular scene, but I know they had to fly, and she spent the day on set. So yes, she did see all of them work.

Carhart: The end of the Chadwick Boseman story is just so sad. [Note: Boseman had died of cancer at the age of 43, just a few weeks before Sharon Robinson and I spoke.]

Robinson: We lost the man, which is very heartbreaking, but he produced so much in his short time. I always remembered from Jesse Jackson’s eulogy of my father, the thing that struck me most, because I was young, I was 22. I’d seen my dad age very rapidly but I didn’t understand how somebody could just die like that. Even though I knew he was sick, and I knew he had a heart attack. Jackson helped put it in context. I didn’t hear it at the funeral, but I went back and listened to the eulogy after, when I could hear. It was on the radio so there were no distractions. What got me most was when Jackson talked about a life. That you don’t measure it by how many years, but by what you’ve accomplished in that period of time. It always helped me throughout my life. We’ve both had young people die in our family. Mom and I each have lost a child. It forces you to actually get beyond the real grief of it. I’m six years out of mine and I’m just able to look back and find, you know, really wonderful parts of our life together. I was just thinking about that today. It really takes a long time to get to that level so you can understand what Jackson was saying that day. Don’t try to measure it by the number of years. As devastated as we felt about Chad’s passing, I am just so grateful for the work he left behind and the fact that he just kept working.

Carhart: After 42 there was one more movie, which is the only film that’s fully captured the enormity of your father’s story. It’s really only Ken Burns’s documentary that has been able to look at the full scope of his story because Burns has that luxury of four hours to work with. Did Burns approach your family first or did you all reach out to him?

Robinson: Both. My mother approached him. Years ago, I mean years before it actually happened, she told him that she wanted him to do the documentary.

Carhart: I remember he had initially talked about doing a film right after his baseball film had come out, but he had actually gotten a lot of push back from folks like Spike Lee who were concerned about a White man telling a Black man’s story and he bailed on it. Do you have any idea what sort of brought him back?

Robinson: I don’t know about that, the comment you just made. I don’t know. I thought it was that he had certain projects he was committed to, because he does these long-term plans. But, he wanted to get it done because he really wanted to be able to interview Mom for it and he was worried about her getting older. That was part of what got him. So, he interviewed us: Mom, Dave, and I first. He did it before he got heavy into the interviewing process because they wanted to take advantage of when David was in the United States and while Mom was still able to remember the facts and stuff. And so, we just made it happen. I don’t know the timing of that, but I know we were the early people in the interview process.

Carhart: I love every single interview he has with your mother in there. It’s astounding to me, the eloquence, the stories she tells about the fried chicken, about the subverted honeymoon because they got kicked off the flight. Her delivery in that story, I can hear it in my head, and I’ve only seen the Burns movie twice. There is just something indelible about her delivery of that. She is such a brilliant interview subject.

Robinson: We were all so grateful that he did it and that we have that interview.

Carhart: Was it just the interviews or did your family provide him other things like photos and other items like that?

Robinson: They had total access to what we had. They found things that we never found.

Carhart: That was my big question actually, my last question about the Burns film – was there anything about your father that you learned from working on the movie?

Robinson: So much! I can’t think of all the things, but I’ll give you one example. He clarified something that had been troubling me about the Pee Wee Reese incident, because I had written about it. I had grown up with it, the fantasy or fable or whatever it was. And yet when I went to write about it for kids, I never saw anything that was documenting that. Why wasn’t there a newspaper article, you know? And then when we started working on the statue with Joe Black and some of his former teammates, I was like, “you don’t remember anything about this story?” I was troubled by it. And then to hear him explain why it became this lore, I thought oh my god of course it makes total sense.

Carhart: Sure, the American public always seems to need that White savior to come in and sort of help make it palatable. One last question for you. There have been some wholly fictionalized characterizations of your father. Donald Honig and Robert Parker have written a couple of mystery books where your father is a character. He has even been very recently depicted in the new HBO show Lovecraft Country. Have you seen that at all by any chance?

Robinson: Nope.

Carhart: The very first episode of that show begins with the main character having a dream. And the dream starts with sampled narration from The Jackie Robinson Story, that voiceover that begins the movie, “this is the story of a boy, an American boy…” They sampled that. That’s in it, and then your father appears, and he takes a baseball bat and uses it to defeat Cthulhu, Lovecraft’s famous monster.

Robinson: Oh my god that’s great!

Carhart: My question for you is what do you think of those fictionalized versions of your father where they’re not really attempting to tell history? They’re obviously telling a fictionalized story but they’re using the mythos, the legend of your dad to help convey that story. What do you think of that and what do you think that says about the artistic desire to do that?

Robinson: Remember for me it’s all about showing his strength of character. So, when you tell me what you just told me – that is showing his strength, I love when people do it right. I love the creative process, so anybody that does it in a really creative way, creative but honest, still keeping it historically correct, I think it’s great. It also keeps his name out there. It makes a kid today say, “Who was Jackie Robinson that he has the power to defeat Cthulhu” you know what I mean?

Carhart: The eternal problem with Lovecraft’s writing is how racist it is, right? But the beautiful thing about Lovecraft Country is that Jordan Peele, who is behind all of this, is turning those racist tropes on their heads. He is sort of attacking Lovecraft’s racism so it’s significant to me that he begins the story with Jackie. He’s the first character in the first episode. And he is only there for a moment and it’s a dream, but the demon that he’s defeating with his baseball bat is the demon of racism. It’s incredible how artists can take that and transport to that higher message that your father had all along.

Robinson: Exactly, that’s my point. That higher message, yup.

Carhart: Sharon, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about your father’s artistic legacy. It has been an illuminating pleasure.

Robinson: It was great having a chance to speak with you.