The Jackie Robinson biopic 42 comes out on Blu-ray this week, in an immaculate transfer that lets you see the clear, bright colors in the 1940s baseball diamonds and period dressings. There’s even more history in the movie than just Robinson, who is of course front and center. Another piece of history in the movie is baseball announcer Red Barber. Red gives color commentary on all the Brooklyn Dodgers games in the second half of the movie. A longtime favorite character actor from TV’s “Scrubs” and movies like Platoon and Se7en, John C. McGinley plays Red Barber in 42 and we got to speak with him by phone about his in-depth work in the film, and a few choice career highlights.
CraveOnline: First of all, I can’t believe they cancelled “Scrubs” after only nine years.
John C. McGinley: Ha! Almost 200 episodes, right?
It was always a gift that we kept getting one more, and one more. I liked what they were doing with medical school. Would you have done a 10th?
Oh my God, I’d still be doing it. It was the greatest gig of all time. I liked it so much, the guy who invented “Scrubs,” a guy named Billy Lawrence, had a new show that he wrote called “Ground Floor” and he sent it to me. So we shot the pilot and now TBS picked it up, so we’re going to go to work on it at the beginning of August. I’m going to be back on board with Billy Lawrence, the head of “Scrubs,” so that felt pretty good.
I’m happy to hear that. With 42, did you have to audition and how did you sell yourself as Red Barber?
I did have to audition. The casting people, for some reason I couldn’t get any traction through the traditional “your agent submits you and you go and audition.” I come to find out the writer/director Brian Helgeland lives up the driveway and two doors down. I’ve met Brian on the street a bunch of times walking dogs and stuff, so I said to the agent, “I should be in this movie and I should be Red Barber, and if the casting person can’t wrap their head around it, no disrespect but I’m going to go over and buzz his gate.” And I did.
We had about an hour where we were chatting and he said, “Why don’t you take a week or two, go try to get Red’s sound and then I’ll come over and you can do it for me.” I took about three weeks and I got his sound okay. Then Brian said, “Great, you can do Red.” Then I started to obsess out on it and Brian gave me about six different World Series CDs where Mel Allen and Red were doing the broadcast together. I have a rehearsal space out here that I call “The Lab” so I took it down to The Lab and just devoured it for a little more than a month. Then I was ready to do it.
It’s not just a New York accent. It’s a New York in the ‘40s accent, right?
No, no, it’s not a New York accent. It’s a guy who grew up in Mississippi, moved to Sanford, FL then came up through the Cincinnati Reds organization and found himself in Brooklyn. He, at times, was shy about being a southerner so he tried to get rid of that sound which is impossible, so he had adopted, was imprinted by these four different regions that he spent time in. That crazy syncopation of his, that rhythm is a product of those four different regions.
And of the era, the time period in which he worked too?
Red Barber to me sounds like the ‘40s because it’s a little Martin Scorsese accelerated in its pace and it’s a little elevated in its tenor, and it just feels like the 1940s and the 1950s to me. The minute you hear him, it locates an era.
We’re watching these games unfold in a movie, and we live in an age where there are hundreds of sports networks and different ways to see games. Did you imagine a time when radio was the only way to follow a live game?
Oh, it’s my favorite. Wait ‘til you hear this. Before Red came along, as he was coming up with the Cincinnati Reds, guys in New York were huddled down in the bowels of the Chrysler building and they were doing games reading ticker tapes. So they had problems with the technology getting the radios up to The Polo Grounds, up to Ebbets Field, up to Yankee Stadium. So they’d read the ticker tape and create the game in some room in the basement of the Chrysler building. When they actually got to go out to the yard and watch the game, it must have been Nirvana.
I saw some pictures and it looked like Red had curly hair like you. Why did you go with the slicked down look?
The pictures I have of him where I think he looks most handsome, he has a very 1940s part so it’s more towards the center of your skull than off to the side. I wasn’t as concerned with Red’s look as his sound because to tell you the truth, as it is in the movie, I knew we were going to hear him much more than we were going to see him. I wanted him to be neutral 1940s guy since he was the sound of the Dodgers, not the image of the Dodgers.