F&M Stories

Captain Of His Own Story: Randy Wilkins '01

Growing up in the Bronx, rooting for the Yankees was a given for Franklin & Marshall graduate Randy Wilkins '01. 

So when Spike Lee asked him to direct and produce “The Captain” – an ESPN docuseries focused on baseball hall-of-famer Derek Jeter – the emerging filmmaker was in disbelief. 

“I almost dropped the phone,” Wilkins said. “I was shocked that Derek actually wanted to do something in public like that. The opportunity to tell that story was overwhelming in the moment.”

The seven-episode series covers the life and career of Wilkins’ favorite Yankee, shortstop for the Bronx-based MLB team from 1995 to 2014. The team earned five World Series championships between 1996 and 2009, with Jeter at the captain’s helm from 2003 to 2014. 

Footage features in-depth interviews with Jeter and his family, former MLB stars like Alex Rodriquez and other prominent athletes of the era, including Michael Jordan and Eli Manning. Lee is among its executive producers.

With a professional rapport spanning two decades, Lee knew Wilkins was fit for the task – as Jeter soon discovered.

Randy Wilkins, director of "The Captain" ESPN docuseries

At the urging of Spike Lee, Randy Wilkins '01 directed and produced “The Captain,” an ESPN docuseries focused on Yankees baseball hall-of-famer Derek Jeter. (Photo by Deb Grove)

Working with Randy was an absolute pleasure,” said Jeter in an email to F&M. “Initially, I was hesitant to do the documentary, and Randy’s professionalism and passion along with his emphasis on telling an accurate story were critical factors in moving forward. He put a lot of preparation into every question, interview and decision in constructing the series. I am really proud of how ‘The Captain’ came out, and a big reason for that is the trust that I built with Randy.”

Released in July 2022, “The Captain” has catapulted Wilkins’ name to the forefront of sports storytellers. But what’s more, he managed to crack the code of a notoriously private megastar. 

“It’s a love for baseball. It's a love for the sport. It's a respect for the sport,” said Wilkins, a former centerfielder for the Diplomats. “I lived Derek's entire career. I saw his very first at-bat in Seattle and I saw his last one in Boston. I understood the game.” 

How did a kid from the Bronx end up here to begin with? It all started with a dinner at F&M. And, for better or worse, a torn ACL. 

"I am really proud of how ‘The Captain’ came out, and a big reason for that is the trust that I built with Randy.”

- Derek Jeter

It’s only appropriate that Wilkins’ entrance into the film industry started with a conversation about baseball. An argument, to be exact.

In fall 2002, Wilkins—then a senior at F&M—found himself sitting next to Lee at dinner prior to the filmmaker’s Mueller lecture. But rather than talk cinema, America’s greatest pastime was on the agenda.

“We got into an argument about Pat Burrell, an outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies at the time,” Wilkins said. “We had this sports argument right off the top, which is appropriate. We've always had some kind of sports conversation in the time that I've known him.”

At the famed director’s urging, Wilkins enrolled in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts graduate film program. While there, he balanced academia and an internship with Lee.

He has since served as lead editor on several Lee projects, including "She's Gotta Have It" and "Rodney King" for Netflix.

Branching out on his own, Wilkins has earned two Emmys for his cinematography on the FOX 59 Promo "Indiana Made” and PIX 11 Promo “Lionel.” His short film “Osvaldo,” chronicling the plight of a Puerto Rican family navigating the loss of their matriarch, earned an exclusive license agreement with HBO for broadcast.

In another twist of fate, Wilkins didn’t discover a passion for filmmaking until his final – and delayed – semester on campus. A torn ACL during intramural basketball caused Wilkins to temporarily suspend his spring 2001 studies to recover.  

"If I didn't get hurt and miss that second semester, I would have a totally different life."

- Randy Wilkins '01

“That led me to stay at F&M an extra semester, where I started refining my craft without realizing it. And that’s how I met Spike. If I didn't get hurt and miss that second semester, I would have a totally different life,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins needed just one more art credit to graduate. He enrolled in a video narrative course taught by alum Mary Haverstick ‘82, the only remaining class that fit his schedule. 

“Very quickly, Randy stood out – particularly as an editor,” said Haverstick, an accomplished filmmaker who has worked with Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden and Tony-winner Marian Seldes.

Building upon his English major, Wilkins found a love for film narrative in Haverstick’s class.

“Within five minutes of Mary's first class, I understood that it was a language and it was a language that I understood intuitively and I connected to,” he said. “It was almost divine in a way that somebody put me in that class.”

"Very quickly, Randy stood out – particularly as an editor."

- Mary Haverstick ‘82

Wilkins credits Haverstick and other professors at F&M for challenging him in the classroom and encouraging his critical thinking ability.

“The basis of how I approach my film work is rooted in my experiences at F&M,” he said. “I was always challenged. So, in my work, I have to challenge myself and challenge the viewer. It’s all rooted in critical thinking at F&M. When you see my work, you see F&M. And I think it will always be that way, because I don’t know how else to approach it. When you see anything I do, you’re seeing F&M on the screen.”

Film was always part of Wilkins’ life, but never a career consideration. His film company – Pam’s Son Productions – is a namesake to his mother and a beloved childhood tradition. 

“Every Sunday, she would take my sister and me to the movies. I didn't realize how much it was influencing me,” Wilkins said. “At that time, I didn't know that filmmaking was accessible to people like me. It always felt like magic on the screen.”

Now, it's Wilkins who is enchanting audiences. 

“Randy had a sensitivity for story. And he clearly brought that to the Derek Jeter story,” Haverstick said. 

Wilkins’ storytelling shines in “The Captain,” a juxtaposition of candid conversations and b-roll extracted from more than 90 interviews and 20 years of archival footage. The series weaves news clips and commentary on the MLB player strike in 1995, Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, race relations and pop culture trends in the Big Apple to encapsulate events transpiring beyond the baseball diamond. 

The end result appeals to both Yankee fanatics and neutral viewers. For Wilkins, the story is about so much more than just baseball.

“When you look at a film that I make, humanity is at the forefront,” he said. 

“I think a lot of times, characters are used as vessels to prove a point,” Wilkins said. But he doesn’t agree.

“It's very important that we embrace the complexity of who we are as people, getting into the emotional and mental complexities that we all deal with in different stages of our lives. So there isn't a black and white,” he said. 

"It’s all rooted in critical thinking at F&M... When you see anything I do, you’re seeing F&M on the screen."

- Randy Wilkins '01

While “The Captain” has teed up Wilkins for promising future material, he still fondly reminisces on the first film he ever produced at F&M. His debut documentary, “100 Percent Live,” chronicles the significance of a Black-owned barbershop in Lancaster.

“We had a screening that invited the campus and Lancaster greater community, and it was packed. That's when I got the bug to really pursue filmmaking,” Wilkins said. 

His follow-up project was bittersweet.

“I'm most emotionally connected to a documentary I made at NYU film school titled ‘The Anniversary,’ a story about Timothy Ruiz,” Wilkins said. 

Ruiz, enrolled at F&M for a time, was senselessly murdered in 2004 while pursuing audio engineering studies in Greenwich Village. 

“I knew Tim for a while; we were close at F&M,” Wilkins reflected. 

With a knack for tackling compelling topics, it’s no surprise that Wilkins was able to pull back the curtain on Jeter, whose buttoned-up demeanor left journalists frazzled. 

“Their job was to get headlines. I wasn’t going to give it to them,” comments Jeter in the series' second episode. 

After two decades of tight-lipped press, Jeter opened up to Wilkins about his identity as a biracial man, MLB rivalries, injury, retirement and fatherhood. 

“When I met Derek, he wasn't sure if the director would know the game intimately. Thankfully, I had a lot of experience both playing and watching the game. I understood the shorthands and I think it created a level of comfort for him,” Wilkins said.

While the ACL injury dashed Wilkins’ dream to play pro, it created an alternate path to the MLB.

“If I was at F&M and my older self told me that I’d be making a film on Derek Jeter, I would have never believed you,” Wilkins said.

Jeter sums it up aptly in the seventh and final episode of “The Captain,” hitting a walk-off RBI single to close his iconic career.

"You couldn't have written a better script.”

Randy Wilkins "Mr. November" Derek Jeter cap

Randy Wilkins '01 sports a commemorative Yankees cap designed for "The Captain" film crew. (Photo by Deb Grove)

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