Jim Brown, the NFL Hall of Famer and Civil Rights activist who turned to acting and appeared in films and TV shows ranging from The Dirty Dozen and I Spy to Draft Day, Mars Attacks! and The A-Team, died Thursday night in Los Angeles. His wife, Monique Brown, said in an Instagram post that he died peacefully, but she did not provide a cause.
Brown is considered among the greatest football players of all time. Drafted sixth overall in 1957 by the Cleveland Browns out of Syracuse University, his bruising running style redefined the running back position. As a rookie, he ran for 237 yards in a game against the Los Angeles Rams — a record that would stand until the 1970s.
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Among his myriad NFL records and milestones, he was the first to top 100 career rushing touchdowns and set single-season and career rushing marks — all amid 12- or 14-game seasons. A three-time MVP, he also was Rookie of the Year, an eight-time All-Pro and eight-time rushing leader, retiring with a slew of records. His Browns won the NFL championship in 1964, three years before the first Super Bowl.
The team, with which he spent his entire nine-year NFL career, tweeted a tribute this morning:
"His commitment to making a positive impact for all of humanity off the field is what he should also be known for… Jim broke down barriers just as he broke tackles." pic.twitter.com/sasNHGaKJj
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) May 19, 2023
Brown still was playing football when he made his big-screen debut in the 1964 Richard Boone-led western Rio Conchos. After his NFL retirement, he appeared in an episode of the Bill Cosby-Robert Culp action series I Spy in 1967, and he had a key role that same in the star-packed World War II action-adventure pic The Dirty Dozen.
Directed by Robert Aldrich, it followed the story of a rebellious U.S. Army Major (Lee Marvin) who is assigned a dozen convicted murderers to train and lead them into a mass assassination mission of German officers. Its ensemble cast also includes Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, George Kennedy, Telly Savalas, Trini Lopez and Donald Sutherland.
That role – in which he died heroically after wiping out numerous Nazis — was followed by, among others, Ice Station Zebra in 1968. Other film roles would include Slaughter, Keenan Ivory Wayans’ I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Oliver stone’s Any Given Sunday. On TV, he had roles on such popular series as CHiPs, Knight Rider, T.J. Hooker, The A-Team and Arli$$, among many others.
Brown was the first Black man to do an interracial love scene in a major Hollywood movie — with Raquel Welch in the 1969 western 100 Rifles. It also starring another running back-turned-actor, Burt Reynolds.
Brown continued to make movies and guest on TV shows all the way into the 2010s, most recently in the 2014 Draft Day, which starred Kevin Costner as the Cleveland Browns’ general manager. Among his more famous roles was as retired boxing champ Byron Williams, who channeled an Egyptian pharaoh as he battled little green aliens in Tim Burton’s campy 1996 romp Mars Attacks!
Spike Lee’s 2002 documentary Jim Brown: All-American, was a retrospective of Brown’s career in football, showbiz and social activism.
Born on February 17, 1936, in St. Simons Island, GA, Brown was a main character in Regina King’s 2020 directorial debut film One Night in Miami, which is set on February 25, 1964 — the night a brash young Cassius Clay shocked the world by knocking out seemingly invincible Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion. In the film, while crowds of people swarm Miami Beach to celebrate the match, Clay – unable to stay on the island because of Jim Crow-era segregation laws – spends the evening at the Hampton House Motel in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood celebrating with three of his closest friends: Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Brown (played by Aldis Hodge). All of them were beginning to assert themselves in the Civil Rights movement.
In 1967, Brown organized the Cleveland Summit response to Muhammad Ali’s decision to defy the Vietnam War draft on religious grounds. Eleven of America’s top athletes — including Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — as well as Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes met with Ali, who had changed his name by then, to discuss his stance. The group met for hours, with Ali defending and explaining his decision, eventually winning over even the skeptics among them.
Afterward, all 11 athletes held a press conference and expressed their unified support for Ali. The Cleveland Summit has been called “a significant turning point for the role of the athlete in society” and “one of the most important civil rights acts in sports history” as well as a predecessor of the sports-centric protest movements such as the one spurred by Colin Kaepernick.
Brown also was a friend of Richard Pryor, whose legendary 1979 stand-up album Wanted: Live in Concert had a nearly five-minute bit about him. Among the classic lines are one about a time Brown bit off part of a defender’s finger. Pryor said: “Referee asked, ‘Why’d you do that?’ Jim said, ‘All outside this mask belongs to him; all inside belongs to me.” More great lines: “Some people have a death wish and like to f*ck with him. And that’s all it can be is a death wish. [Guy] says, ‘I can’t find a building to jump off of, let’s go up to Jim Brown’s house and f*ck with him.” Later, Pryor added that Brown “knew nothing about the backdown. You can’t just say to Jim, ‘If you don’t get outta the way, I’m gonna kick your ass.’ ‘Cause Jim will say, ‘Well, that’s an ass-whoopin’ I gotta take.”
Pryor also talked about Brown in 1982’s Live on the Sunset Strip, the comic’s first album after a near-fatal drug-fueled incident. Discussing a time Brown came to his house while Pryor was smoking crack, he said: “What you gonna do? You gonna get well, or you gonna end out friendship. What you gonna do?” Pryor said that Brown kept repeating the line but and almost got him to the hospital but had to leave — “and the pipe said, “Hey Rich, Jim’s gone…”
Brown’s name-naming, no-holds-barred autobiography, Out of Bounds, was published in 1989. It hit on such topics as racism in the NFL, his cocaine sprees, affairs and much more.
Tom Tapp contributed to this report.
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