Friday, February 19, 2010

Brown Turns it Around

As the nation recognizes Black History Month, many different pioneers, crusaders and other assorted do-gooders will be discussed and appreciated. In The Underworld, however, we have our own criteria for such things as this and today’s honoree fills the bill nicely.

Born in Georgia in 1936, Jim Brown was the son of a father who was a boxer and a mother who worked as a domestic servant. Their marriage a less than secure one, he was partly raised by his grandmother until, at age 8, he and his mother moved to Long Island, New York.

Fortunately for him, he took an interest in sports, all sports, practically, and excelled at everything he tried. His record-breaking athletic career in high school secured him a place at Syracuse University where he played both football and lacrosse. He had to dart between practices in order to keep up and even showed up for one lacrosse game while dressed in his football uniform!

No matter what he did, he rose to the challenge, though football suited him, perhaps, most beautifully, so it was a no-brainer when he was drafted in the first round to the Cleveland Browns in 1956 as a running back/fullback. Though he had a love-hate relationship with legendary coach Paul Brown, and was subjected to any number of difficult situations, he smashed football records right and left. Some of them remain untouched to this day in spite of the fact that players now partake in 16 games per season (while his years were marked by either 12 or 14 game seasons) and he left the sport after 9 years at the age of 29! Had he remained, his achievements would surely have led to even more impressive statistics, but, even so, he is regarded by many at the best professional football player who ever lived. He is a member of three different sporting Halls of Fame: Lacrosse, College Football and Pro Football.

The 6’2” pillar of muscle simply could not be stopped by another player while carrying the ball. One of his opponents related his strategy when it came to tackling Brown, “Grab a hold of him and wait for help!” Due to his bull-like determination (Brown never ran out of bounds, fighting for every yard until brought down) and sheer strength, players from opposing teams would frequently try to break him by muttering epithets at him or harming him discretely within pile-ups, sometimes drawing blood. This only fueled Brown further towards being even that much more impenetrable.

In 1964, the godlike player was placed in a motion picture, Rio Conchos, where he discovered that his unbelievable physique and personal magnetism could be put to good use with the reward of financial compensation, but without the punishment that playing NFL football offered. Still, he stayed with the game for a few more years where he continued to dazzle fans.

By 1967, he had put in a guest spot on Bill Cosby’s series I Spy before taking part in The Dirty Dozen, a war film concerning the recruitment of US Army prisoners during WWII to complete a dangerous mission in return for clemency. The huge cast (of stars and soon-to-be stars) included Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, George Kennedy, Donald Sutherland and others. Jim held his own nicely amongst the ensemble and emerged an audience favorite.

During the making of Dozen, he decided not to return to the Browns in what was a controversial decision (particularly for The Browns!) and decided to concentrate on acting. He next traveled to Jamaica and England in order to film the adventuresome Dark of the Sun in support of Rod Taylor.

Few people seem to be aware of Dark of the Sun (also known as The Mercenaries), but it is an extraordinary action film featuring many tense and exciting scenes with some terrific music and stunning scenery. (The director, Jack Cardiff, was a top cinematographer in his own right, so the film is beautiful to look at.) Jim’s smooth, amiable persona contrasts nicely with the more animated Taylor. Then there’s Yvette Mimieux tossed in as a displaced planter’s daughter. I love my pretty blondes stuck in the jungle or in other precarious situations.

1968 was a big year for Jim because apart from the above film, he also appeared in Ice Station Zebra, an arctic submarine warfare drama that starred Rock Hudson as the Captain. (Whom else did you think should be put in charge of the seamen?) This austere, at times very false-looking, film was notorious for being Howard Hughes’ favorite! He would watch it obsessively during his years as a recluse.

Brown’s role is smallish and features little dialogue, but he was given decent billing and was featured on the movie’s poster. He was getting his feet wet in likeable supporting roles, but had yet to carry a film on his own.

That same year, he finally starred in The Split, a heist film which focuses on the recruitment of a set of gentlemen who plan to rob The Los Angeles Coliseum of half a million dollars and then split the money. Only something goes wrong and the split doesn’t occur, forcing the men to turn against one another.

Here, Jim’s antagonized former partners (played by such notables as Ernest Borgnine, Jack Klugman, Warren Oates and Donald Sutherland - as always, click the pics for a larger look) take out their frustration on him in a scene that looks strangely erotic despite the participants and the obvious pain involved.

As his leading lady in the film, Brown was given Miss Diahann Carroll and the couple enjoyed that old cliché of getting to, literally, roll in dough. Her role, though, is little more than a plot contrivance or pleasant decoration. The more outrageous turn comes from a bouffant and very tough (!) Julie Harris as the ringleader of the whole thing.
Next Jim played against Gene Hackman (who had portrayed a small role in The Split and whose career was still getting underway) in the prison drama Riot. The title gives away the plot of the movie, I’m afraid. He followed this up with Kenner, all about a man who goes to Bombay, India to track a man he’s after, but becomes involved with a young boy who’s searching for his father.

By now, Jim was receiving top-billing in his films, though many people will be surprised to know that at one point he was popular enough to receive that distinction over both Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch! The film was 100 Rifles and he played a lawman sent to retrieve the title weapons who are also sought after by Reynolds and Welch, who play Mexicans in the movie!

Welch really was half-Bolivian and Reynolds one-quarter Cherokee, but in those days, all it really took to play another ethnicity was a good tan and maybe a “theek” accent such as Raquel adopts here. (Incidentally, Burt and Raquie did not hit it off on this film at all and when they were paired again later in Fuzz, their scenes had to be done apart from one another!)

Here Jim Brown was part of one of the earliest interracial love scenes in a major motion picture and that aspect was not shielded whatsoever in the advertising for the film. He and Welch posed for provocative still photos as part of the push. However, when the time came to film the big scene, Welch suddenly insisted that a towel be placed between her and Brown while in bed and this insulting action didn’t sit well with him at all, for obvious reasons. Welch also reneged on a proposed nude scene involving an outdoor shower, a distraction to enemy soldiers, and wore a shirt over herself, thus adding to the list of people she was alienating on this picture.

Brown was a tough man in real life, occasionally becoming involved in brawls, often because some drunken idiot felt the need to challenge him publicly. However, on film, no matter the fact that his characters were also extremely skillful, adept and strong, he somehow projected a tenderness and accessibility that endeared him to viewers. In …tick… tick… tick…, he played a small town sheriff encountering extreme hatred and prejudice against him and other local blacks. Costarring was George Kennedy who, as demonstrated here, was once almost slender.

The taboo of interracial onscreen romance having been broken, if still not widely accepted, Brown next played the spouse of none other than Jacqueline Bisset in The Grasshopper, a story about a Las Vegas showgirl who hops from man to man. She was at the absolute peak of her looks during this now-rather obscure film.

Remaining busy in the film business, his third film of 1970 was El Condor, a “spaghetti western” that co-starred Lee Van Cleef. Brown often found that he was able to move into movies from the popular western genre with just a line or two to explain his color (or sometimes not) and succeeded in them the way he did in practically everything else.

The early 70s was a period in which movements such as Black Power and Black is Beautiful were coming about along with many other social changes. Prior to this, minorities had limited visibility in mainstream films, but now this sector was being catered to, albeit in a way that many people found exploitive, hence the genre Blaxploitation. This style of film, frequently featuring a butt-kicking black hero or heroine (Pam Grier was a favorite on that front) up against powerful mobs, typically headed by a racist white leader, became a hot ticket through the better part of the decade.

Brown found a niche here, first with 1972’s Slaughter, about a former Green Beret whose family is murdered by a crime lord, causing him to seek revenge. He is eventually coerced into heading to Mexico to extinguish the villains. Stella Stevens co-starred as the girlfriend of the chief mobster who in time falls for Brown and the pair filmed some hot love scenes. (No towel required by Miss Stevens!) Click on the poster for a bigger, better view of the artwork. Take note that, in this period, sometimes Jimbo's chest is shaved and other times not. A sequel, Slaughter’s Big Rip Off, came out the following year with none other than Ed McMahon as the villain!
Prior to that, however, Brown filmed Black Gunn (seen here with Brenda Sykes & Fruit of the Loom), yet another vengeance drama where he took on kingpin Martin Landau, departed from Mission: Impossible and not yet on the career upswing that later led to an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. These films require a certain mindset in order to be enjoyed as they are usually rough, raw, feature all sorts of tawdry situations and often contain heavy doses of the “N” word. Big time. Yet they are also often loaded down with funky clothes, funky music, entertainingly bad performances from supporting players and a general sense of justice that comes from seeing the lead actor or actress get theirs back on a deplorable bad guy (or gal, in some cases.)

Even in these sleazy types of movies, Brown retained a sort of dignity, probably because he was not only the hero of the stories, but because he held himself up with strength and honor. Plus, let’s face it, he was a take-no-prisoners, bad mutha who managed to wipe out scores of slimy criminals.

In I Escaped From Devil’s Island, he co-starred with Christopher George in an all-but-forgotten flick about four men who endure unbelievable torment in the famed prison before making a break for it. Ironically, within a year of making this film together, George and Brown would share another rare distinction. They would each take it ALL off for Playgirl magazine! George went first and was followed a few issues later by Brown.

All-but-unheard of today, the more freewheeling 70s brought a time when still viable actors and sportsmen would do such a thing. Some men, such as Peter Lupus, went full out in their spreads while Fabian Forte, Don Stroud and George Maharis gave more discreet, yet still very telling, glimpses in theirs. Jim struck various poses throughout his home, in chairs, against the piano, emerging from the pool, in a doorway, all with nothing on but a mustache.

Fred Williamson, who had carved out his own hot career in Blaxploitation, and Jim Kelly, a black martial artist who had made a splash in Bruce Lee’s film Enter the Dragon, teamed up with Brown for the popular Three the Hard Way. The trio banded together to stop white supremacist Jay Robinson from poisoning the water supply (poison that would only kill black people!) in three major cities. The men would team up again in Take a Hard Ride (this time in the old west) and in One Down, Two to Go, a belated entry in the genre that was released in 1982.

As the 70s drew to a close, Brown would begin to work less and less, taking a supporting part in the Harvey Keitel gangster flick Fingers before appearing in guest roles on television. For a dozen years, Brown had only done one TV role and that was on the highly respected anthology series Police Story. However, as the 80s began, he worked on series such as CHiPs, Knight Rider, T.J. Hooker and The A-Team. In 1987, he had a part as a death game competitor in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Running Man and it seemed to reignite his big screen career.

Though few of his films at this juncture could count as important or prestigious ones, he gamely spoofed all those Blaxploitation flicks in the Keenan Ivory Wayans take-off I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and later had a role in Tim Burton’s star-filled Mars Attacks. He also gave voice to one of the Small Soldiers and showed up in the football-themed Any Given Sunday.


Jim Brown has had a tumultuous life at times (there was a scandal involving his allegedly tossing a woman off a balcony in which many conflicting accounts came from all sides!) and he has rarely backed away from a challenge. When one of his old football records was in danger of being broken in 1983 by a player he didn’t approve of (due to technique), he threatened to come back and play again to prevent it! He has, on the other hand, done a significant amount of social work in troubled neighborhoods, striving to turn young men’s lives around who are headed down a dead end street. For a time, he was a much counted upon figure in ironing out ugly situations between gangs. He continues to act from time to time as well. I find that when I discover a Jim Brown film, I always end up liking and rooting for him. If you haven’t watched anything of his from the 60s or 70s, give him a try and see if you don’t have a similar reaction.

1 comment:

butcher1932 said...

Jim Brown is just one of those impossibly handsome men. He looks like he was chiseled from a block of mahogany.