By Christopher Smith
Ralph Dockery of Rocky Face and his late father have a few things in common.
They both saw Jackie Robinson play second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Even though Ralph Dockery was born in 1957 — a year after Robinson retired from Major League Baseball — he said he’s witnessed Robinson play at stadiums in Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh through the magic of movies.
“All from the same place,” Dockery added with a laugh.
That’s because the city skylines from where Robinson played were taken from their actual location and put outside Engel Stadium in Chattanooga with a little movie magic and a 15-foot green screen.
Even though the large screen, cameras and film crew stood as reminders that the Robinson on the field was really actor Chadwick Boseman, Dockery said being an extra for the film “42” felt “like the real thing.”
“42” chronicles Robinson’s struggles as he becomes the first black Major League Baseball player during the racially-charged 1940s, when segregation was still legal. The film opens nationwide today, but a year ago the Legendary Pictures film crew held public auditions for extras at Eastgate Town Center in Chattanooga.
Dockery said he was “so excited to be part of the film” that he was one of the first to arrive at the mall.
“I loved every second of it,” Dockery said of his time being an extra. “I went out and got me a flat hat, an old shirt and went up to Eastgate. They took pictures of us and we filled out an application. They called me back and told me I was going to be one of the extras. It was so exciting, but it was also a lot of work with long hours. We would start sometimes at six in the morning and go till six at night.”
But the hardest part of being an extra was portraying a member of a racist crowd of hecklers at Engel Stadium where most of the movie’s baseball action was filmed, Dockery said.
“I just don’t remember people mistreating people because they were black around here,” he said. “At least, not the people I went to school with at Westside High School (now Westside Middle School). Black people were pretty popular and fitted in and there was no hate.
“So it was weird to be angry about race. We were hollering at Chadwick Boseman when he came out on the field and he looked me right in the eye, just staring at me. I shouted, ‘Get off the field.’ He made me nervous. He’s a good actor. He looked really mad because of what I was saying.”
James Reed of Tunnel Hill said being an extra in the angry crowd was a “harsh reality.”
“It was tough to yell at Chadwick Boseman,” he said. “I got there early the day of shooting, so I was taken to the stadium sooner than the others. We went to the stadium and this lady gave me a piece of paper with some pretty racial lines on it.
“A short time later, when Chadwick Boseman came out to film, I yelled one of my lines. I said, ‘Go back to the cotton fields,’ and he just glared at me. I apologized after they stopped shooting and he said, ‘Don’t worry. I know it was just acting.’”
Hearing that advice didn’t make Reed calmer because he said he was already star struck.
“It was very nerve-wracking being there with stars,” he said. “But overall it was a very fun experience. I met Christopher Meloni (of ‘Law & Order: SVU’ fame, who played Leo Durocher) briefly and talked to Lucas Black (of ‘Friday Night Lights,’ who played Pee Wee Reese) for about 20 minutes. I got a picture of that too, which was really cool.”
Dockery tried to talk to Harrison Ford, known for his roles in “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” as he entered the stadium playing baseball manager Branch Rickey.
“We were filming, but there was no dialogue,” Dockery said. “They were just getting video so we knew it was OK to talk. And I said, ‘Hello, Mr. Ford.’ He nodded at me and smiled, but all he said back was, ‘Damn, it’s hot outside.’ I was told not to interact with him too much. They (the film crew) told us he couldn’t possibly talk to everyone at the stadium so we had to leave him alone and be professional ... I remember where I was standing when that happened.”
Dockery has already appeared in one of the film’s theatrical trailers, but he’s going to be looking for the spot where he talked to Ford when he sees the film tonight. Reed said he believes he has seen himself in the trailer, but hopes for a close-up.
“It’s hard to tell if it’s me in the trailer but I think it is,” he said. “I hope I made the final cut.”