Friday, February 26, 2010

In General, Lee

What a multi-faceted career today’s subject has had. Born in New York City in 1927 (yes, ladies and gentlemen, she’s 82 years of age!), Lyova Rosenthal would grow up to become the wondrously intense, beguiling and edgy Miss Lee Grant!

Taking her stage name from the US Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S Grant, I guess it could have been worse. She could have dubbed herself Roberta Ulysses. Grant actually started her stage career at the tender age of 4 when she portrayed a child princess in a Metropolitan Opera production. Continuing to perfect her skills throughout her school years, she eventually won a scholarship to Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse, a place that also helped shape the acting talents of Robert Duvall, Steve McQueen, Joanne Woodward, Suzanne Pleshette and many others.

Grant had an early success in 1949 with the Broadway drama Detective Story, portraying a shoplifter who is held at the police station where myriad criminals and victims are intermingling, frightening her terribly. She won The Critic’s Circle Award for her performance and when the play was filmed in 1951, she, along with several other members of the cast, was brought on board to reprise the part. Capping off this great career start was an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Detective Story!

Despite this accolade, Grant was not yet a film commodity, nor did she reside in California. She kept busy back on the stage and in live television dramas broadcast from New York City. Before she could even hope to establish herself as an actress of the cinema, the McCarthy Witch Hunts, in which Communists were sought out in the film colony and anyone suspected of being one was blacklisted from working in the medium, began. Grant’s husband fell (as many folks did, whether it was justified or not) under suspicion and because she would not comply with the interrogators or name names, she was prevented from working in Hollywood movies. She claims to have a permanent mental block when it comes to remembering peoples’ names as a result of this tormenting experience.

She did land a job, thanks to friend Cornel Wilde, in the movie Storm Fear in 1955, but otherwise, except for some TV and Broadway work, she lost out on a decade of promising employment as a big screen actress. In ’59, she appeared in Middle of the Night, an adaptation of a Paddy Chayefsky play, that starred Fredric March and Kim Novak. However, her primary work was in television until 1963.

’63 brought the film of The Balcony, a controversial and much-examined Jean Genet play. The star of the film was Shelley Winters, who played a sexually ambiguous brothel madam and Grant played one of her gals. Peter Falk also starred and Leonard Nimoy made an appearance, giving the picture quite an eclectic cast.

Minor film work, along with various TV appearances, continued until 1965 when Grant was added to the cast of the hit prime time soap opera Peyton Place. For her work as Stella Chernak, she took home an Emmy Award.

1967 was quite a year for Lee Grant. First, she popped up in the Dick Van Dyke/Debbie Reynolds comedy Divorce American Style. Then she had a featured role in the striking Oscar-winner for Best Picture, In the Heat of the Night. In this film, she played the wife of a man who is slain in a small Georgia town and whose murder no one seems to be in a great hurry to solve.

Southern, sloth-like sheriff Rod Steiger is joined on the case by sharp-dressed, slick, city detective Sidney Poitier, stirring up significant racial tension in the process. Grant has a remarkable scene of despair when she is informed of her husband’s death. It’s not one of those hysterical, over-the-top moments, but rather a grippingly solemn pronouncement that the room is warm.

She also fights hard to keep Poitier engaged with the case when practically everyone else wants him removed. It was a role that called for fragility blended with intense determination and she was nominated for a Golden Globe as a result, losing to Carol Channing, of all people, for Thoroughly Modern Millie, and not receiving an Oscar nod at all.

As if to counterbalance the extreme quality of Heat, she also had a key supporting role in the camp screamfest Valley of the Dolls, as Miriam, the fretful sister of a male singer with a degenerative disorder. The same introspective passion she brought to her quality projects was evident here as well, but when the script and subject matter was this rotten, it could result in unintentional humor. It was a situation that would happen to Grant on more than one occasion.

All the while she was making these movies, she continued to appear as a guest on hit TV shows such as The Big Valley and Ironside. In 1968, she played Telly Savalas’ wife in the Gina Lollobrigida comedy Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (which also starred Shelley Winters.) This tale, about an Italian woman who had relations with three different soldiers in a ten day span during WWII, resulting in a daughter, would later serve as inspiration for the smash ABBA stage musical (and later film) Mamma Mia!

Next, Grant took a supporting role in The Big Bounce, an adaptation of a novel by Elmore Leonard, that starred two of her old Peyton Place costars, Ryan O’Neal and Leigh Taylor-Young (who were married at the time.) The film was remade in 2004 with Owen Wilson. She followed this up with a small role as astronaut Richard Crenna’s concerned wife Marooned.

Now established as a go-to girl for colorful supporting parts, she played Beau Bridges’ mother in The Landlord, another film that examined late 60s/early 70s race relations, though this time she was far less noble, enacting the role of a wealthy slumlord. This role earned her a second Oscar nomination. She also had a small part in Kirk Douglas’s There Was a Crooked Man, including a bed scene in which he was all business, to her mild dismay.

TV continued to provide her with meaty leading roles of a wide variety. In Night Slaves, she played the wife of James Franciscus and the couple is stuck in a town full of unusual-acting residents. She won another Emmy for The Neon Ceiling, about a woman embarking on a spiritual quest with her daughter when she realizes how unfulfilling her life is. Then, in Ransom for a Dead Man, she got to take on Peter Falk’s Columbo in one of the earliest entries in that venerable series.

When Neil Simon turned his play Plaza Suite into a movie starring Walter Matthau, Grant was cast as one of three female costars. Originally meant for two actors to do a tour de force in playing three roles apiece in three acts, the movie version did so only with Matthau and the results were middling. She did, at least, get to work in the most purely comic of the three vignettes as a harried mother of the bride.

Her role in the film Portnoy’s Complaint (a once-scandalous novel) was hacked down tremendously. She had filmed her character in a variety of ages and stages, but only her scenes as an old woman were left in the final cut. She continued to seek out interesting television roles until 1975 when she would be given Hollywood’s highest accolade.

Warren Beatty was working with Robert Towne on Shampoo, a movie concerning a highly successful, philandering hairdresser with many clients, several of whom get more than their hair done. The film’s landscape was crowded with actresses including Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn (and Carrie Fisher, in an early role!), but it was Grant who wrangled an Oscar win for her part as a sexually ravenous woman.
Hot on the heels of Shampoo, Grant went to work as the lead in a sitcom called Fay. The show featured a strong-minded, liberal character with a mother with whom she engaged in loving combat. Written by Susan Harris and produced by Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas, it was cancelled after only eight episodes. Most notable, though, is the fact that the show was 5th in the ratings at the time! The series got so much negative mail that NBC felt compelled to pull it, despite its popularity! As just one sign of how prim TV was in 1975, the network actually bleeped the term “stretch marks.” This infuriated Grant who went on The Tonight Show and voiced her opinions quite clearly. If the names of the creators seem at all familiar, they should. They went on to create the vaguely similar The Golden Girls a decade later and offered Grant the lead in that. She (foolishly) declined, not wanting to play a grandmother (but, perhaps, also not wanting to head down the same road again as even that show occasionally faced censorship issues.)

We now enter my own personal favorite phase of Grant’s considerable career. In 1976, a truly astonishing cast was compiled for Voyage of the Damned, a gut-churning account of a German cruise liner filled with Jews that is sent to America ostensibly as a sign of goodwill, but actually as a political game, the Germans knowing full well that the US will not allow the passengers to disembark.

Based on a true (and shameful) story, the cast included Max Von Sydow, Faye Dunaway, Orson Welles, Malcolm McDowell, James Mason, Julie Harris and others. Dunaway (who everyone knows is practically my favorite actress) has a remarkable scene with Grant (who is easily in my top ten list of faves.) When it becomes apparent that the ship is going to return to Nazi Germany and result in death for many, if not all, of its inhabitants, dread sets in and some people can’t take it. Dunaway comes upon a distraught Grant who is snipping off her hair in an act of self-punishment. It’s an amazing moment and secured Grant yet another Oscar nomination.

For reflections on Grants’ work in Airport ’77, please click on the appropriate posting from the list at the right. Suffice it to say that her dazzlingly shrewish, mesmerizingly brazen work in that film changed my life for all time. Some people dream of one day playing Hamlet or Willy Loman. I fantasize about being allowed to portray the drunken, grasping bitch Karen Wallace of Airport ’77!

Next up was the horror flick Damian: Omen II, a sequel to the blockbuster The Omen, which, this time, had the anti-Christ aged to about 13. Having been orphaned in the first movie, the boy now lives with his uncle William Holden and Holden’s wife Grant. Several notable stars appear in the movie from Robert Foxworth to Lew Ayres to Miss Sylvia Sidney, who portrays a crusty, skeptical and confrontational old aunt. Am I the only one who finds this lobby card exceptionally amusing??

Anyway, Holden and Grant seem to find any excuse to disbelieve the suggestion that anything is unusual about Damian even though the body count seems to increase by the day! One memorable scene takes a page from Hitchcock’s The Birds and has a crow attacking a woman violently. Once again, Grant’s intensity serves her well by the film’s climax. No one, and I mean no one, could possibly scream the name “Daammmiaaaaan!!!” the way she did.

Irwin Allen somehow shanghaied her into a dull, useless part in his all-star bust The Swarm, after which she, again, turned back to TV and smaller films that could offer acting challenges (one of them being The Mafu Cage, the story of two strange sisters living with their dead father’s gorilla!) In 1981, she got to play the cougar-ish older woman who romances the divinely sexy Gregory Harrison in the TV movie For Ladies Only. Silly or not, his Zorro-inspired stripper persona pleasantly burned the retinas of many a viewer.

Then, in 1982, she filmed the third part of her Underworld Trifecta, the threesome of roles that earned her a place of honor here. She played the opinionated women’s movement speaker Deborah Ballin in the Canadian horror flick Visiting Hours.

A confident, forward-thinking character, a proponent of non-violence, she inadvertently sets off a deranged and emotionally abused man (Michael Ironside) who decides he must kill her. When his first attempt doesn’t do the trick, he follows her to the hospital where she’s being treated, hence the title. There are quite a few jolts along the way and it’s great to see Grant getting to emote her little heart out in panic and fear, even if it is in such a low-budget piece of junk like this.

Her boyfriend in the film is played by none other than William Shatner, though there’s little chance for him or his hair to steal much of the ham spotlight from Miss Grant. She does, however, allow Miss Linda Purl to have quite a chunk of screen time as a caring nurse who also manages to tick off the loon.

Though Grant would continue to work in many TV projects (some of which included being Frances Farmer’s disturbed mother in Will There Really Be a Morning?, portraying Marilyn Klinghofer in the true story The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro and assaying the part of Roy Cohn’s mother in Citizen Cohn) and the odd film (such as Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life, It’s My Party, which reunited her with Gregory Harrison and Mullholland Dr.), eventually her acting assignments became less and less frequent.

Beginning in the mid-70s and continuing though 2005, she directed many short films, documentaries and an occasional feature. She also took the helm for 43 installments of the Lifetime TV biography series Intimate Portrait. Long-divorced from (the now-deceased) Arnold Manoff, their daughter Dinah became an actress as well and appeared in Grease, on the TV show Empty Nest (started by the same folks as The Golden Girls) and in many other things. Grant is now married (since 1962) to producer Joseph Feury and it’s quite hard to believe that she is now in her early 80s!

Since she turned to more behind the camera work, I’ve missed seeing her in things, but I know when I come upon something with her in it, especially during the 70s, she’s going to find a way to keep it interesting.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Rock Slides...

As has been detailed in many other posts on this site, the 70s was the heyday of the disaster movie, with airplanes and cruise ships the targets of calamity and with every conceivable form of dangerous natural phenomena the subject of a feature film. There was Earthquake, Tidal Wave (a Japanese film augmented with some English inserts!), Hurricane, Meteor and today’s entry: Avalanche.

Roger Corman, a low-budget producer who reveled in making horror movies, knock-offs and drive-in style fare that he knew would wind up financially successful, if not critically so, decided to jump on the bandwagon with his own entry. To direct, he enlisted Corey Allen, a former actor (the cute baddie who went over the cliff in a drag race with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause) turned TV director.

He then put together the decidedly oddball pairing of Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow as the leads, a divorced couple. A long way from Giant and Rosemary's Baby, these two were apparently in some sort of career trauma or else were paid handsomely to appear in this dud. In the glory days of Hollywood, leading ladies playing opposite diminutive Alan Ladd had to stand in a ditch to even out their height or make him taller. Here, the massive Rock towers above Mia, giving them a disproportionate appearance together, but no effort was made to mask it.

As is frequently the case in the movie biz, Mia was two decades younger than Rock. However, to play his mother, they cast Jeanette Nolan, a woman who was only fourteen years his senior. It’s okay, though, because she looks even older, thanks to the ghastly way she’s photographed here and, to seal the deal, she’s rigged up with a white fright wig that looks like someone scalped the title character from the 1977 TV-movie Snowbeast and slapped it on her head.

Hudson plays the owner of a ski resort that is hosting a winter sport competition. (Heinous clothes and décor abound everywhere!) He invites Farrow to the grand opening in the hopes of rekindling their extinguished love. Despite his pining for the waiflike Farrow, he has a voluptuous secretary who brings him his morning orange juice in the nude! (This, incidentally, is the only 1970s era disaster film to include nudity.) The once beautiful Hudson, whose office in the film includes a steaming hot tub, has, thanks to many years of cigs, booze and late-night parties, decayed significantly by this time and doesn’t even bother to try to hold his stomach in when wallowing around shirtless in the (jarringly dirty-looking) water. He affects two styles in this film: blankly wooden or over-the-top, barking orders and yelling vigorously.

Farrow, upon whom I remarked in the post on Hurricane (which she would film after this), is not someone who should ever be filmed wet. It doesn’t suit her. She appears here with her almost translucent, alabaster skeleton swathed in a garishly patterned swimsuit, topped off with a white, snug swim cap. Plopping into the resort’s swimming pool, she flagellates around like a protoplasmic toad, striking poses that even a doll with four broken limbs could not accomplish. There, she flirts with hunky, but aging, contractor Robert Forster who looks at this sight and remarks that “the view looks pretty good from here.” (!!)

Forster keeps warning Hudson that the chalet he’s building on top of a mountain is becoming a danger because the tree removal is taking away the restraint system that holds the snow caps in place. Hudson wants to hear none of it, though, of course. He wants to be King of the Hill, with Mia as his queen, but she’s already locked eyes (and more) with Forster.

During the opening night gala (to which she dresses up in a pair of jeans, boots, a navy blue sweater and a plaid shirt!), Forster and Farrow boogie down to the pitiful music being played as a plethora of extras fidget nervously all around them, some of them attempting to act as if they’re dancing (and, snapping!) while others, like the chap shown here, can’t help stealing a glance at the stars and contorting himself awkwardly while dressed in one of the decade’s most putrescent shirts ever. Also staying at the resort is ace skier Rick Moses, a blonde hunk who has brought along his current bedmate Cathy Paine, a woman who, incidentally, is married to another man. She clearly has a reputation as a nutcase because people start staring at her and warning her to “go easy” before anything much has happened. However, when she and Moses have a falling out, she goes deranged, pulls a knife on him and starts overacting fiendishly. Finally, Moses has had enough and tosses the glass of milk he’s been drinking in her face and she reacts to it as if it’s nitroglycerine. Paine had just played one of the Manson girls (Leslie Van Houten) in the TV movie Helter Skelter not long before, so perhaps the craziness hadn’t completely worn off. Moses’ character is quite obviously patterned after famed skier Spider Sabich, who was shot (accidentally or on purpose, depending on who you believe) by his lover, singer Claudine Longet, purportedly right as he was considering breaking off their romance.
When, 2/3 of the way through the film’s running time, the title event finally comes, the effects range from utterly preposterous to not that bad. On the preposterous side, cascading piles of snow are blue-screened onto shots of the hotel and even onto a spinning skater who somehow has no clue that the ground is rumbling violently or that the entire audience of her program has either gotten up and run screaming or has been trampled or crushed to death as the white death covers the bleachers and eventually her! She doesn’t know what hit her. Literally!

Other times, though, the effects aren’t too shabby. The dining room has piles of snow, ice and rock powerfully blasted into it. Paine’s bedroom wall comes apart as the debris pounds toward her. Workers in a kitchen are tossed around as the ceiling caves in. However, in a hilariously lame moment, if you believe that the chef depicted here falls to the floor without also dragging down this cauldron of soup, then you’re sadly mistaken.

Nolan and a man who’s been assigned to escort her through the festivities are trapped in an avalanche-created cavern with nothing but broken furniture and a piano. As the oxygen (something she’s never hesitated to use up in massive quantities since her first scene!) begins to dissipate, she decides to mark to occasion by plunking out a song on the snow-wounded instrument before collapsing onto the ground.

Meanwhile, a ruptured gas line is ignited by an exposed pilot light, blasting the surviving kitchen staff, including a mini-skirted waitress into every direction, but always (in keeping with the theme) into shelves of food or, in the gal’s case, down a long worktable of ingredients as if she’s a bowler who forgot to let go of the ball!

Then we come to the rescuers. Honestly, in this case, the rescue attempts are more lethal than the disaster itself! Moses is trapped under the snow and people are prodding the ground with metal rods, seemingly everywhere except the spot he is in. Then Barry Primus, Paine’s estranged husband who happens to also be there for the festivities, is stuck on a disabled ski lift. He helps a boy next to him to drop into a rescue canvas below, but then an electric shock send him off too soon. Nevertheless, the rescuers are right below him still, with the canvas ready. Look at this picture and tell me why, then, he lands with a thud on the ground instead! Nice…

Best of all, though, is the ambulance that Hudson puts his mother into. With Farrow along in the back for moral support, the ambulance drives by signs that say Speed Limit 10 MPH and Icy Roads as if they are in the final lap at Talladega! They round one bend so severely that Farrow is tossed from the vehicle completely as the ambulance careens off the road into a ravine and explodes as if it had been carrying a nuclear warhead on board. Then Farrow rolls over as well and is left dangling on a rickety piece of broken fencing.

Tacky in pretty much any way it can be, the movie is entertaining nevertheless because of the near constant level of unintentional comedy. Though the stars do embarrass themselves nicely, with the possible exception of Forster, the supporting players provide the better portion of giggles. Then there’s the finale in which Mia finds a stray bottle of champagne nestled in a pile of snow and pops a cork with Rock, who has so much to celebrate… Not!

Note how the poster for Mexican audiences differs slightly with exclamatory words along the top (to engender a feeling of excitement that really is not present much in the movie itself) and different headshots of the leads. Some of the stock avalanche footage from this flick would be used later in the film Meteor when little bits of asteroid landed in Switzerland. Jeanette Nolan would later appear on The Golden Girls, in another grey wig, as Betty White’s mother. This time she was a mere 11 years older than her onscreen child!

Available on DVD only in a now out-of-print version that is of questionable video quality, it’s hard to say how much better a decent copy of the movie would make the viewing experience, as it was fairly cheapo from the start. Better video quality may actually inadvertently expose even more the horrid blocks of plastic and Styrofoam that are being passed off as ice and snow!

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, then-married 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. (Years later, the two briefly dated, however!)

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 always 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 free-wheeling 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. During this phase, Brown was usually naked at home anyway, usually with a selection of willing ladies around each other corner!

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 which he vehemently denied doing) 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 semi-jokingly 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 and he has always been anti-smoking and anti-drugs. 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.