Jim Brown, the NFL titan who appeared in “The Dirty Dozen,” many Blaxploitation films plus Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday,” “The Running Man,” Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks” and Spike Lee’s “He Got Game,” to name a few, died Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 87.
His wife Monique posted the news of his death on Instagram, saying, “He passed peacefully last night at our L.A. home.”
In nine extraordinary seasons as a fullback with the Cleveland Browns, Brown set an array of NFL records. In 2002, The Sporting News named him the greatest professional football player ever. That phenomenal athleticism and a charismatic personality made him bankable as the first African American action star.
“On behalf of the entire NFL family, we extend our condolences to Monique and their family,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “Jim Brown was a gifted athlete — one of the most dominant players to ever step on any athletic field — but also a cultural figure who helped promote change. During his nine-year NFL career, which coincided with the civil rights movement here at home, he became a forerunner and role model for athletes being involved in social initiatives outside their sport. He inspired fellow athletes to make a difference, especially in the communities in which they lived.”
Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bill Cosby had come before, but they were not action stars, and Fred Williamson was a Blaxploitation star like Brown in the 1970s, but he did not get the chance to appear in mainstream studio action films in the 1960s like Brown did.
Despite the strength of the cast in Robert Aldrich’s 1967 World War II film “The Dirty Dozen,” a tribute to the enlisted man that starred Lee Marvin, Brown was fourth-billed. An enormous commercial success, the film raised the fortunes of everyone involved, including Brown.
The football star-turned-actor next starred alongside Rod Taylor as a pair of mercenaries in Africa seeking to heist some diamonds in Jack Cardiff’s “Dark of the Sun,” then was first billed in the little-known mystery-drama “Kenner” as well as in the heist film “The Split,” starring alongside Diahann Carroll; his final film of 1968 was the fairly anemic but high-profile submarine thriller “Ice Station Zebra,” starring Rock Hudson.
Next was the far meatier “Riot,” Buzz Kulik’s grim, realistic prison drama in which Brown starred with Gene Hackman. Roger Ebert was underwhelmed by the film but declared: “‘Riot’ does demonstrate in Brown’s case that he can now move on from simple action roles to more challenging parts. He has an easy, humorous way of delivering a line that wins spontaneous approval from the audience.”
The 1969 Western “100 Rifles” starred Brown as an Arizona lawman who ventures into Mexico to find Burt Reynolds’ Yaqui Joe, a Native American who robbed a bank to buy rifles for his people. There he tangles with a beautiful Native leader played by sex symbol of the era Raquel Welch; much was made in the press of the interracial love scene featuring Brown and Welch, but Brown apparently grew impatient with the actress because of the control her people exerted over the film. “When I’m on a picture,” he told Ebert at the time, “I have two bosses, the director and the producer. My co-star is not my boss.”
After playing Jacqueline Bisset’s husband in “The Grasshopper,” Brown starred opposite Lee Van Cleef in the Western “El Condor.” He was about to turn a page in his career: The actor starred in a series of Blaxploitation films starting with 1972’s “Slaughter,” in which he played a former Green Beret captain in Vietnam, referred to only by his last name — the title of the film — who seeks to avenge the murder of his parents by the Mafia (a sequel, “Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off,” followed in 1973). But also in 1972, he’d also made “Black Gunn,” in which he played a successful nightclub owner whose brother is part of the militant African American organization BAG (Black Action Group); the Mafia was again the enemy. In 1973 he starred in the Roger Corman-produced, “Papillon”-like exploitation film “I Escaped From Devil’s Island” and in prison picture “The Slams.”
For 1974’s “Three the Hard Way,” director Gordon Parks Jr. teamed the three biggest Blaxploitation stars — Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly — in the story of a team that battles white supremacists plotting to somehow kill the Black population of the U.S. by poisoning the water.
Brown, Williamson and Kelly were reteamed the next year in a largely bland spaghetti Western called “Take a Hard Ride” in which the villains, led by Van Cleef, were mostly white; the film was released not by one of the exploitation distributors but by 20th Century Fox.
Brown did another Western with Van Cleef, “Vengeance,” in 1977, and then made an unexpected move for an action star: He appeared in James Toback’s directorial debut “Fingers,” starring Harvey Keitel as a pianist and collector for his loan-shark father.
Scott Tobias of the Onion A.V. Club wrote: “Keitel’s character gets involved with a sexually pliant sculptor who’s drawn more powerfully toward womanizing stud Jim Brown, whose supreme confidence throws Keitel’s weakness and uncertainty into sharp relief. Produced independently by George Barrie, ‘Fingers’ delves into racial and sexual territory that was considered taboo even in the more permissive and adventurous studio system of the ’70s.”
After action film “Pacific Inferno” in 1979, Brown appeared in the Fred Williamson-written and -directed “One Down, Two to Go” in 1982. On screen the film reunited Williamson, Brown and Kelly and also starred Richard Roundtree (the star of “Shaft”).
During the early to mid-’80s Brown made appearances on TV shows including “CHiPs,” “Knight Rider,” “T.J. Hooker” and “The A-Team.”
He played one of the villains in futuristic Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “The Running Man,” and he was among the stars of Keenen Ivory Wayans’ 1988 parody of Blaxploitation films, “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.”
Brown then spent years doing straight-to-video films before another effort to revive the genre, 1996’s “Original Gangstas,” starring Williamson, Brown and the top female Blaxploitation star of the ’70s, Pam Grier.
That same year he appeared in Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks” as a former heavyweight champion who works in a casino.
In Spike Lee’s 1998 film “He Got Game,” starring Denzel Washington and the NBA’s Ray Allen, Brown played a parole officer. (The actor also had a role in Lee’s 2004 film “She Hate Me.”)
In Stone’s paean to professional football “Any Given Sunday,” Brown played Montezuma Monroe, the defensive coordinator of the fictional Miami Sharks, who laments what football has become and wishes he could be back coaching high school ball.
Brown took a turn in the director’s chair with the 1999 TV movie “Keeping the Music Alive.”
He also did a story arc on Showtime’s “Soul Food” as ruthless FBI agent Willie White in 2004.
The actor appeared in the 2010 film “Dream Street,” written and directed by the actress Lonette McKee, and in 2014 he appeared as himself in the Ivan Reitman sports drama “Draft Day,” starring Kevin Costner.
James Nathaniel Brown was born in St. Simons Island, Georgia. His father was a professional boxer. He graduated from Syracuse University with a B.A. in 1957; while at Syracuse, he played football, lacrosse, basketball and ran track.
Brown was selected to the Pro Bowl every year from 1957-65; in 1957 he was NFL rookie of the year, as voted by several organizations, as well as NFL MVP. He was also named MVP in 1958, 1963 and 1965.
Brown was NFL rushing champion eight out of nine times, and he was named to the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team, the NFL 50th Anniversary All-Time Team and the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Brown was inducted into the Halls of Fame for pro football (1971), lacrosse (1983) and college football (1995).
The football star’s career coincided with the civil rights era, on which he weighed in his 1964 autobiography (written with Myron Cope), “Off My Chest,” in which he declared: “The first thing the white man must understand, the depth of our protest. Does he realize that the Black Muslim’s basic attitude toward whites is shared by almost 99 percent of the Negro population? I protest prejudice, but I am a prejudiced man. The white man has forced me to be prejudiced against him.”
During the 1960s he established the Negro Industrial and Economic Union (later renamed the Black Economic Union) to support Black entrepreneurship.
He made his film debut in the 1964 Western “Rio Conchos,” whose release was timed to coincide with the beginning of the NFL season.
The filmmakers apparently had confidence in Brown’s on-screen presence even as a film rookie — he did not have just a walk-on role and was, in fact, on camera for most of the movie. He played a sergeant in the U.S. cavalry; he and his commanding officer, played by Stuart Whitman, seek to prevent a load of hijacked Army rifles from being smuggled to the Apaches. Richard Boone and Anthony Franciosa also starred. Brown made a couple of guest appearances on TV over the next couple of years until his film career blasted off with 1967’s “The Dirty Dozen.”
Spike Lee’s 2002 film “Jim Brown: All-American” offered a retrospective on Brown’s professional career and personal life.
In 2008, Brown filed suit against Sony and EA Sports for using his likeness in the Madden NFL video game series. He claimed that he “never signed away any rights that would allow his likeness to be used,” but a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in 2009.
He was convicted of misdemeanor vandalism in 1999 for for smashing his wife’s car with a shovel. Rather than participate in domestic violence counseling, community service and probation, he chose to serve several months in jail. In several other cases, Brown was accused of offenses ranging from battery to assault and rape. In most cases the charges were dismissed or the victims refused to press charges.
Brown served as an executive adviser to the Cleveland Browns, helping the team build relationships with its players and enhancing the NFL’s sponsored programs through the team’s player programs department. In 2013, Brown was named a special adviser to the team.
Brown’s memoir “Out of Bounds,” written with Steve Delsohn, was released in 1989.
In 1988 Brown founded the Amer-I-Can Program, through which he worked with kids caught up in gang violence in Los Angeles and Cleveland. Amer-I-Can is a life management skills organization that operates in inner cities as well as prisons.