To football fans he was known as the fearsome running back for the Cleveland Browns who broke many rushing records during his nine-year career. His amazing accomplishments led to The Sporting News naming him the top football player of all time.
To casual movie fans, he was best remembered for 1966’s The Dirty Dozen as R.T. Jefferson, one of the World War II military prisoners given a chance of redemption when he’s recruited to take part in a dangerous mission behind enemy lines overseen by Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin).
To others, he has been known as a broadcaster, an activist or a criminal who spent months behind bars for damaging his wife’s car.
What many forget, however, was that Jim Brown was also a movie star, a man who successfully turned his popularity on the gridiron into a string of successful movies in the 1960s and 1970s. He was a genuine box-office draw, bringing the no-nonsense approach he had towards football, combined with a special brand of charisma and machismo, to the big screen.
As evidence, Warner Archives is unleashing four of Jim Brown’s efforts on DVD.
While Brown certainly didn’t start out as a star in the era of blaxploitation films—early cinema efforts, opposite Richard Boone and Stuart Whitman in Rio Conchos and scene-stealing supporting work in The Dirty Dozen and Ice Station Zebra, preceded the trend—he became a leading man in a series of films designed for African-American audiences.
The Split (1968) piggybacked on Brown’s sports career with its tale of a half-million-dollar heist from an NFL playoff game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Brown is well cast as a career criminal looking to make one last score for himself and ex-wife Diahann Carroll. The suspense stuff is solid, thanks in part to the work of Brown and an impressive supporting cast that includes Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Julie Harris, Jack Klugman, Warren Oates and Dirty Dozen co-star Donald Sutherland.
Kenner (1969) takes Brown, who quit the NFL at the age of 29, to India for action and intrigue. He played a take-no-prisoners sailor seeking revenge against the drug dealer who killed his partner. In Bombay, he encounters a young Hindu kid and his dancer mother (Madlyn Rhue), whom he falls for. The reviews were not kind, and as, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby noted, it was Brown’s sixth movie to be released in New York in nine months (taking the second part of a twin bill with Mayerling).
Kenner came out less than a month after 100 Rifles, the western with the much ballyhooed love scene between Brown– as an Arizona deputy pursuing half-breed bandito Burt Reynolds—and bodacious Native-American guerilla leader Raquel Welch. Certainly, the buzz afforded the Brown-Welch pairing didn’t hurt the former athlete’s box-office draw.
…tick…tick…tick (1970) took some of the elements that made the Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night a smash and tried to reposition them for further success. Brown portrayed the new sheriff of a southern town whose election rubs many of the residents the wrong way. When he places the son of a town power broker in prison for running down a little girl, racial tensions explode, and the townspeople and former sheriff George Kennedy must decide what is right and what is wrong.
The southern milieu and racial discourse may not have taken the film as far as In the Heat of the Night, but Brown got good notices for his portrayal. The New York Times noted that while Brown was “still a tentative actor, this big, fine-looking giant of a man has a rock-ribbed sincerity and natural dignity that rivet attention…”
Brown continued his prolific output throughout the early 1970s, just as the black exploitation cycle hit its stride. He starred in such genre entries as Slaughter; its sequel, Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off; and Black Gunn before making The Slams (1973). Brown essays the role of a man convicted on a minor charge and thrown into a prison where most of the inmates believe he’s hiding $1.5 million from an infamous heist. Where is the loot, and how can the jailbirds get it? The rough and tumble prison drama also stars Judy Pace, Frank DeKova and Ted “Lurch” Cassidy as a racist inmate.
Brown, now 75 and known for being outspoken, continued cranking out movies and eventually made his way to regular appearances on TV, but working with gang members and other socially-oriented activities became more of a priority. He tried his hand at sportscasting, wrote an autobiography, became the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary Jim Brown: All-American and works currently works with the Cleveland Browns players in community relations.
In recent days, it has been announced that there are now solid plans for Hollywood to tell Jim Brown’s story in a feature film.
You can be sure he’ll have an opinion on it.