Sure, we kind of assume that a Ken Burns documentary will be richly crafted, with depth, intelligence and emotion. But Burns' latest -- "Jackie Robinson," Monday and Tuesday (April 11-12) on PBS -- is particularly good. Burns, 62, and Rachel Robinson (Jackie's widow), 93, talked to reporters about it; here's the story I sent to papers:
(Very interesting TV
story on the “Jackie Robinson” PBS mini-series, Monday and
By Mike Hughes
For Ken Burns, this
was familiar turf: At a classy hotel in upscale Pasadena, Cal., he
was discussing his latest documentary.
But for this film –
a biography of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson -- there was an
irony: Pasadena, a far different place back in 1920, is really where
the story begins.
When Robinson was 1,
his mother took her five kids and moved from rural Georgia to
California. She would work as a housekeeper and soon buy a small
is a cheery place where Burns was grand marshal at this year's
Tournament of Roses parade. But in '20, he said, the Robinsons met “a
different kind of ... Northern racism.”
At times, Burns
said, it reached extremes. “There were crosses burned on the yard.
The neighbors called the police whenever Jackie and his brothers and
sister rollerskated ....
“The pool in this
apparently enlightened community was segregated. But once a week,
they had 'international day,' when the black and Mexican and Asian
kids were allowed to swim.” Before whites-only swimming could begin
the next day, the pool was drained and refilled.
Jackie's brother, later became “a beloved figure here” as a
mentor, Burns said. But after winning a silver medal in the 1936
Olympics, trailing only Jesse Owens, he couldn't find work.
“He ended up as a
street-sweeper,” Burns said, “and would often wear his Olympic
medal and jacket as he swept the streets of Pasadena.”
Jackie starred at
UCLA in baseball, football, track (the national broad-jump champion)
and basketball. And in his senior year, he met the freshman who
would become his wife.
“I had heard ...
he was 'big man on campus,'” recalled Rachel Robinson, 93. “And I
thought, 'Oh, that's terrible. (He'll be) egotistical ....
“I was all set up
for this bad man. And when he approached me, he had the most
beautiful smile .... His manner was so quiet and respectful and
supportive of me and himself in that conversation, that I think I
fell in love with him on that first day.”
They married five
years later, in 1946, a year before Robinson would break the color
barrier in Major League baseball. His widow describes him as calm at
home, but strident when confronting racism. After confronting a bus
idriver in Fort Hood, Texas, Robinson faced a court-martial and was
But Branch Rickey,
the Brooklyn Dodgers general manger, insisted that Robinson simply
turn the other cheek for the first three years. “His personality
was one of being strong and being vocal,” Rachel Robinson said. “It
was very hard on him and I worried about it having an effect on his
Robinson did face
long-term heart and diabetes problems. He died at 53 in 1972.
By then, however, he
had become a sports icon. He was rookie-of-the-year in 1947, most
valuable player in '49, an all-star six times. His number was retired
by all Major League teams ... except on
Jackie Robinson Day
(April 15), when every player wears No. 42.
His widow went on to
be an assistant professor at the Yale School of Nursing and to start
the Jackie Robinson Foundation. One son, who had drug troubles, died
early, but another son and daughter are active in American education
and in an African coffee cooperative, she said.
Family links are
also important to Burns. When he introduced the 1990 “Civil War,”
his daughter Sarah was an elementary-school kid, handing out press
releases. She went on to create the award-winning “Central Park
Now she and her
husband, David McMahon, have written and co-directed “Jackie
Robinson.” Her dad also co-directed and sees it as continuing thei
story that started with “Civil War.” It tells, he said, of “the
grandson of a slave, making the statement in the largest and most
Robinson,” 9-11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday (April 11-12), PBS