Jim Brown, NFL Legend Turned Hollywood Action Hero, Dies at 87

Jim Brown, the incomparable Cleveland Browns fullback who quit the NFL at the peak of his prowess to become a Hollywood action hero in such films as The Dirty Dozen, Ice Station Zebra and 100 Rifles, has died. He was 87.

A staunch advocate for civil rights, Brown died in his Los Angeles home Thursday night with wife Monique by his side, a family spokesperson told the Associated Press.

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A synthesis of speed, strength, balance, determination and intelligence — a blend of skills never seen before or since in one player — the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Brown played nine seasons (1957-65) in the NFL, all with the Browns. He captured eight league rushing titles and three Most Valuable Player awards and never missed a game because of injury.

In a statement, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell praised Brown’s skills on the field and called him 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.”

After his final season — in which he led the NFL in rushing with 1,544 yards, scored 21 touchdowns and won the MVP trophy — Brown was cast in his second movie in The Dirty Dozen (1967), directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Lee Marvin.

He portrayed Robert Jefferson, one of 12 military felons sent on a suicide mission during World War II to assassinate German officers before the D-Day invasion. The college-educated Jefferson had been sentenced to death for killing a racist white soldier who had assaulted him.

When asked about his co-star’s acting abilities, Marvin replied, “Well, Brown’s a better actor than Sir Laurence Olivier would be as a member of the Cleveland Browns.”

When production on the film ran long, Browns owner Art Modell told his star that he would be fined $100 a day for being late to training camp. Brown, who had a year left on his contract, then chose to retire as the league’s all-time leading rusher, making the announcement from the Dirty Dozen set in London while dressed in Army fatigues.

He was just 30 years old.

“My original intent was to try and participate in the 1966 NFL season, but due to circumstances, this is impossible,” he said.

Brown later signed with MGM and portrayed hard-nosed Marine Capt. Leslie Anders opposite Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine in the hit action adventure 1968 film Ice Station Zebra. And in the Western 100 Rifles (1969), he broke taboos when he shared a smoldering love scene with a white actress (Raquel Welch).

The brawny Brown also played a mercenary in the Congo-set Dark of the Sun (1968), engineered a heist at the Los Angeles Coliseum in the middle of a Rams game in The Split (1968) and portrayed a Black sheriff in the South in … tick… tick… tick… (1970). He sought revenge against the Mob as a former Green Beret in Slaughter (1972) and a 1973 sequel and as a nightclub owner in Black Gunn (1972).

Along the way, Brown opened doors for other Black actors, and his career in Hollywood lasted five decades, more than three dozen films and scores of TV appearances. (He was portrayed by Aldis Hodge in the Regina King-directed 2020 feature One Night in Miami.)

“I had a great appreciation for Harry Belafonte and Sidney [Poitier] and Sammy Davis [Jr.] They were all great in their own way,” he said in A Football Life documentary from NFL Films that premiered in November 2016. “But I was a physical actor, I was a hero … We needed that as African-Americans.”

Later, Brown worked in such films as Three the Hard Way (1974), Fingers (1978), The Running Man (1987), I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), Mars Attacks! (1996), Original Gangstas (1996), He Got Game (1998), Small Soldiers (1998), Any Given Sunday (1999) and Draft Day (2014).

He also served as a talent manager for groups including Earth, Wind & Fire.

James Nathanial Brown was born on Feb. 17, 1936, on segregated St. Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia. His father was a prize fighter and his mother a housewife. At age 7, he moved to live with his divorced mom on New York’s Long Island and attended Manhasset High School, where he starred in five sports and earned 13 letters.

Brown received athletic scholarship offers from 42 schools and chose Syracuse University. There, he was a sensation on the football field, and he also excelled on the track, basketball and lacrosse teams (he was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1984, 13 years after he made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame).

Brown scored six touchdowns and kicked seven extra points in his final regular-season game at Syracuse and was named a unanimous All-America. He finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and was selected sixth overall in the NFL Draft by the Browns.

In his ninth game as a pro, Brown snapped the NFL record when he rushed for 237 yards against the Rams en route to being named Rookie of the Year. In 1964, he propelled the Browns to the NFL championship, Cleveland’s last in a major sport until LeBron James and the Cavaliers took the NBA crown in 2016.

Brown made his acting debut before the 1964 NFL season as a calvary soldier in the Western Rio Conchos. “Believe me, the action that thrills you on both the gridiron and screen calls for hard work and precision timing,” he said in a promotional piece for the 1964 Fox movie. “Here Richard Boone and I blow up a wagonload of gunpowder destined for the Apache indians.”

“Have you ever been to any Negro theater with a movie going, with a Negro in it? Well, you can just feel the tension of that audience, pulling for this guy to do something good, something that will give them a little pride,” Brown told Alex Haley in a 1968 Playboy interview. “That’s why I feel so good that Negroes are finally starting to play roles that other Negroes, watching, will feel proud of, and respond to, and identify with, and feel real about, instead of being crushed by some Uncle Tom on the screen making a fool of himself.”

Brown said that one of his reasons for leaving the NFL was a desire “to have a hand in the struggle that is taking place in our country.” He organized the National Negro Industrial and Economic Union, and on June 4, 1967, participated in a news conference in Cleveland to support boxer Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the service. In a now-famous photo, he’s seen along with Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) of UCLA and other NFL standouts like Bobby Mitchell and Willie Davis.

“I was dealing with race since I was born,” Brown said in the Football Life documentary. “In my inner self, my strength was unbending when it came to accepting that b.s., racial discrimination. I was never going to let anybody make me feel like I was not top-shelf. That was a battle that raged, and I could use a lot of that on the field.”

Brown had some run-ins with the law and was accused of violence against women several times. In his 1989 memoir, Out of Bounds, he admitted to slapping women but wrote “I don’t think any man should slap anyone” and that he “should have been more in control of myself, stronger, more adult.”

In 1988, Brown founded the Amer-I-Can program, working with gang members to empower them “to take charge of their lives and achieve their full potential.” He drew up the organization’s handbook, which he said combined the self-determination of Malcolm X, the capitalism of Ronald Reagan and the recovery plan of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.

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