As a kid he was the envy of the neighborhood. Not only did Roy Campanella Jr. own the biggest bubble-gum card collection around, he actually hung out in big-league clubhouses, jawing with the likes of Gil or Don or Willie. They gave him so many baseball pointers that his own Little League batting average once soared to an astronomical 50. He was the versatile captain of his high school team who caught, pitched and played first base, and it seemed only logical that this eldest son of a Brooklyn Dodgers legend would wind up in the majors someday.
Not so. At 37, Roy Jr. is still hitting high averages, but he is doing it as a TV film director. “I’m as happy behind the camera as my father was behind home plate,” says Roy the younger, whose directing stats already list nearly a dozen episodes for Dallas, Knots Landing, Lou Grant, Simon & Simon and Knight Rider. He co-produced the pilot of NBC’s current sitcom success, 227, with Maria Gibbs, and he is writer-producer-director of Rites of Passage: The Making of Jo Jo Dancer, a 12-minute documentary on Richard Pryor’s latest film, which is airing this month on HBO.
But his proudest effort to date is an hour-long documentary, Passion and Memory, to be shown this week on PBS (May 14 in most regions, though scheduling varies). As its producer, director, co-writer and co-editor, Campanella examines the role of black actors in Hollywood through the careers of Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry, Bill Robinson, Hattie McDaniel, Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier. His thesis: Despite being relegated to demeaning roles at the beginning—Fetchit as buffoon, McDaniel as perpetual housemaid—each of them transcended racial stereotyping to add a richness to American films. “Hattie McDaniel, for example, was more earth mother than [Scarlett’s] servant and was at the very core of the success of Gone With the Wind,” he argues. “She won the Best Supporting Oscar for it despite being told by an agent that she was ‘too black and too ugly’ to be in movies.”
The Campanellas know about racial pioneering. In 1948 Campy became the first black to play in the minor league American Association, catching for the Dodgers farm team in St. Paul, where Roy Jr. was born. In midseason, Roy Sr. was called up to the parent Brooklyn club, 14 months after Dodger teammate Jackie Robinson broke the major league racial barrier. The elder Roy’s on-field heroics ensured a comfortable life for his growing family (he would marry three times and have five children and three stepchildren). There would be big homes in the suburbs and a yacht. But the younger Roy can also recall the candy store that refused him service, the Florida hotels that turned his family away, the public pools in which he was not allowed to swim.
And there were family tragedies. In 1958, shortly before the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, Roy Sr. was driving to his Long Island, N.Y. home when his car skidded on ice and struck a telephone pole. He was left paralyzed below the neck. “Even as a youngster,” says his son, “I recognized the tragic proportions of what had happened. After the accident I was responsible for signing his autographs, because I’m Roy Campanella, too.” Three years later his father and mother, Ruthe, separated, and two years after that Ruthe died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Roy Jr. was not yet 14.
No one in the family put pressure on him to try to pick up his father’s career, which had been tragically cut short. As a baseball player, Roy Jr. says, “I played naturally, but I didn’t feel gifted.” Noting that Roy Sr., a three-time National League MVP, was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1969, Roy Jr. adds, “The likelihood of my being as good as my father was highly improbable.” Instead, he nurtured his love for movies, developed from his childhood habit of studying films by watching the same ones over and over on TV. Always a good student, he thrilled his father by enrolling at Harvard to major in anthropology—”the perfect academic discipline for someone who wanted to be a filmmaker. A good director,” he says, “is a good people watcher.” After graduating with honors in 1970, he started at Boston’s WGBH before joining CBS, first as a film editor and later as an entertainment division exec. He picked up an MBA from Columbia University, then transferred to the West Coast, where he since has launched his own company, Morningstar Productions.
Divorced five years ago, Roy Jr. is now a single parent to two teens. They share a modest Beverly Hills apartment that is an easy drive to the Woodland Hills home of Roy Sr. and his wife, Roxie. (The senior Campanella, still wheelchair-bound, works in the Dodger organization as coach, instructor and community-relations executive.) His father’s baseball fame, though, carries “no currency, opens no doors” for Roy Jr. today, which is the way he likes it. On a recent location-scouting trip he happened to pass a ballpark. “I’ll bet you wish you were in there,” a colleague said. “No,” replied Roy Campanella Jr. firmly, “I want to be where I am right now.”