As an athlete, to my mind, Jim Brown had only one comparable: Wilt Chamberlain. While they may have played two very different sports (Brown, football and Chamberlain, basketball), they shared the same trait of dominance. Whether it was on the field with Brown or on the Court with Wilt, everyone who opposed them or watched from the stands knew what was coming, and there wasn’t a damn thing that anyone could do about it.
Watching old footage of Brown running the football for the Cleveland Browns (who may not have been named after him, but if they had, it wouldn’t have been a stretch) is like viewing a man against boys. He was bigger, stronger, and faster than anyone else in the NFL, and it wasn’t particularly close. While Chamberlain dabbled in acting (see Conan the Destroyer, or, maybe don’t) after his playing career ended, Brown jumped into the acting game feet first. Brown was still at the pinnacle of his sport in 1965 when at 29-years-old, he shocked the football world and retired while still at this peak to enter film..
While Brown was gifted with great physicality, he wasn’t a natural thespian by any stretch. To say his acting skills were modest when he got in this new game is probably to traffic in understatement. That being said, he did have a handful of notable roles, including The Dirty Dozen, 100 Rifles (where his interracial love scene with the half-white/half Bolivian Raquel Welch caused a significant stir), The Grasshopper (where his character married the very British Jacqueline Bisset), and had some success in the blaxploitation genre with two Slaughter films, and Three the Hard Way.
The first film that I think showed what Brown was capable of was James Toback’s Fingers, starring Harvey Keitel in 1978. Brown’s role as “Dreems” may not be large, but it takes great advantage of his physical stature and menacing countenance. Look, I’m sure that Jim Brown smiled a time or two in his life, but I never saw any evidence of it.
Unfortunately, Fingers didn’t lead to more roles of substance for Brown. If you remember Brown at all on film in the ‘80s, it was likely for wearing a really hideous catsuit like uniform in Schwarzenegger’s The Running Man, or the blaxploitation spoof, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Brown kept acting well into the aughts, but it would take two fellow iconoclasts (Spike Lee and Oliver Stone) to build upon the potential Brown showed in Fingers. In Lee’s He Got Game, Brown played “Spivey,” a parole officer overseeing Denzel Washington’s incarcerated father who tries to get his gifted high school basketball playing son (Ray Allen) to sign for a particular university because it would please the governor. Going toe to toe with Denzel is no easy piece, but Brown acquitted himself quite well, leaning into his brusque, unsentimental nature.
Just as good was Brown’s work in Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday. Sure, it’s a film about football, but Brown’s performance is about much more than that familiarity might suggest. Brown plays the fictional football team’s defensive coordinator, Monte “Montezuma” Monroe, and I’ll be damned if his 63-year-old body didn’t look like it could take all the young guns around him (Jamie Foxx, Lawrence Taylor, and LL Cool J, just to name a few) to the cleaners. There was a no nonsense quality about Brown in real life that translated effectively to the screen. I wish more directors would have seen it sooner, because Brown would have made one hell of a great heavy in any number of films.
Speaking to “real life,” Brown himself was a very complicated man. He was a great athlete, a relatively successful actor, a Civil Rights pioneer, and a man who consistently had very difficult relationships with women that often included charges of domestic violence. Of course, that last part is unconscionable, and I don’t know how you square the good with the bad when it comes to Jim Brown, but there can be no denying that he was a titanic cultural figure whose accomplishments go well beyond the ordinary.
I remember the great sports journalist Dick Schaap saying upon Wilt’s passing that, “Wilt Chamberlain was not supposed to die.” It’s hard not to have the same thoughts about Jim Brown. Few men who have ever lived have seemed more formidable.
Jim Brown died yesterday. He was 87 years old.