The movie "42," much of which was shot in Chattanooga at Engel Stadium, was a launching pad for actor Chadwick Boseman, but it kickstarted to a much smaller degree Gary Miller's acting career, as well.
Miller, 67, laughs at the very idea of calling it a career, but he has been in nearly two dozen TV and film projects since 2013 when "42" was released.
He had small parts in "Anchorman 2," "The Hunger Games," "Insurgent," "Powers" and "The Phenom," again as an umpire. He's also worked on "Captain America: Civil War" and "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," a film about an Iraqi War veteran, starring Steve Martin and Chris Tucker and directed by Ang Lee. Among his more recent bits were "Sully," directed by Clint Eastwood, and "Dog Years," starring Burt Reynolds. His most recent role was playing a New York City police captain in "The Watchmen."
"It's crazy, but '42' started all these great adventures for me," he said.
The movie made a star of Boseman, who would go on to become a much loved and respected actor and the star of "Black Panther" before dying of cancer last week. AMC Theatres announced this week it would re-release "42," the Jackie Robinson biopic, in 300 theaters, including several in the Chattanooga area, to honor the late actor.
Miller, now a retired small business owner, had spent time umpiring local youth and high school games. When word went out that a Hollywood film crew was coming to Chattanooga and needed umpires with experience for small roles, Miller took a chance and auditioned in Atlanta. Not only was he chosen, he was given a part as a featured extra, which is a level up from an extra and means he could potentially be "in focus and on frame" in a scene as opposed to merely being a warm body in the background.
He spent all 14 days on set during the shooting at Engel Stadium in May and early June of 2012 and got to know lead actors Boseman, Harrison Ford and Lucas Black well during the long hours of setting up scenes and between takes. He also had his status upgraded to actor, meaning he could get a speaking part and would get a credit.
He also was able to attend the premiere in Hollywood with his late wife, Sharee, and the after parties.
"I got to introduce her to Chadwick and Lucas and Harrison. That was special," he said.
He has remained in contact with the film's director, Brian Helgeland, in the years since, exchanging emails a couple of times a year.
Miller said he was greatly impressed with the level of commitment Boseman had to the role and the film.
"I was really impressed by his drive to get it right. He was really determined to get every detail as authentic as possible. As was Brian Helgeland," Miller said.
He noted that the film could only be made "with the OK and participation of Jackie's wife, Rachel, and they went all out to make sure it was as authentic as possible."
Miller said Boseman worked especially hard on getting Robinson's unique way of waving his hands out in front of his waist while running correct.
"He practiced that a lot," Miller said. "He would also do tai chi in the on-deck area, and I asked him one day what he was doing. He said, 'It helped him relax and stay focused.' He knew this film was important to him, and I can't imagine the pressure he was under."
The movie is the story of Robinson's role in breaking the racial barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. Ford played Brooklyn Dodgers' general manager Branch Rickey, and Black played Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese. Engel Stadium, which was built in 1930, was chosen as one of several classic old stadiums used for filming because they remained much as they had always been.
Over the years, Engel has seen legends such as Harmon Killebrew, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Babe Ruth stalk its basepaths.
Janna Jahn was the executive director of The Engel Foundation at the time and worked closely with the film crew, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which has the rights to the facility, the city and the state to make the film happen here. She said the movie served as a catalyst to renew interest in the stadium, which had been home to the minor league Chattanooga Lookouts until 2000. After that, it was used sparingly by local high school and youth teams.
"I'm looking at a poster from the movie now remembering what a great experience that was," Jahn said. "A learning experience."
Part of that experience was learning to bridge the gap between "a well-oiled Hollywood machine that comes to town trying to get the best deal and doing what it needs, and protecting what you have.
"But it helped re-engage the community in Engel Stadium and it drew people and generated interest and helped build momentum for using it later for sports and entertainment events," she said.
The film crew paid to alter parts of the stadium to suit its needs but also made repairs, such as to the roof and the left field wall, which had partially fallen, and left the field in playable condition. Tennessee Temple University and Notre Dame High School used it as their home fields for several years.
Where To Watch
"42" will be shown locally at Northgate 14 in Hixson, Walnut Square 12 in Dalton and at Bradley Square 12 in Cleveland today through Tuesday. Check listings for times.
The film crew used a combination of camera tricks and computer-generated imagery to make Engel look like the old Crosley Field in Cincinnati, the old Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, Ebbets Field and Shibe Park in Philadelphia.
About 200 people were outfitted in period costumes each day for shooting, and other seats were filled with life-size dummies for crowd shots. The sidelines and area behind home plate were moved, and a hole was cut into the third-base dugout so that Boseman as Robinson could be shot standing in the opening as the crowd jeered.
Fans of the movie, baseball and the stadium will have the chance once again to watch the movie on the big screen, try to figure out which scenes were shot at Engel and maybe find themselves or a friend in the crowd.
"It's a special place," Jahn said.
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.