The greatest running back in the history of American football, Jim Brown, who has died aged 87, was one of the finest all-round athletes of his era, excelling in both football and lacrosse. He quit pro football at the peak of his career to pursue an acting career, and became an iconoclastic civil rights activist. But the ferocity that made him a fine player and imposing figure of black pride also expressed itself in repeated accusations of violence against women.
When Brown entered the National Football League in 1957, runners were either big fullbacks or smaller, more shifty halfbacks. At 6ft 2in and 16st 6lb, Brown was both; big as a fullback, but with the speed, balance and skill to set up his blockers and the power to run through tacklers. His battles with the New York Giants linebacker Sam Huff, basically the same size, helped build the NFL’s violent image. Asked how he tackled Brown, Huff said “you grab on and pray for help”.
In his nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, Brown won the league’s rushing title eight times, was first-team all-pro eight times, and was chosen as the league’s most valuable player (MVP) three times. He retired as the league’s career rushing leader, and his average of more than 100 yards rushing per game, and five yards per carry, still stand out.
In 1964 he began acting, in the western Rio Conchos. In the summer of 1966, filming The Dirty Dozen in Britain, shooting overran and collided with the start of his team’s training camp. When the Browns’ owner Art Modell announced that he would fine Brown $100 for each day he missed, a small but face-saving amount, Brown quit. He went on to appear in nine more films in the next three years, including Ice Station Zebra (1968) and 100 Rifles (1969), in which his love scene with Raquel Welch broke Hollywood’s long-standing norms against black/white sexual contact.
In 1964 Brown watched Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) beat Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight crown. After the fight, he met up with Clay, the singer Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X, an event dramatised in Regina King’s 2020 film One Night In Miami.
Three years later Brown called a summit in Cleveland, at which sports stars including the basketball players Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) backed Ali in his stand against being drafted into the Vietnam war. It took place at the headquarters of Brown’s Black Economic Union, started to encourage self-improvement in the black community. He thought of civil rights in terms of “green power” (driven by money), explaining that in 1963 he felt Martin Luther King was “a great man … but I for one will not march down the street and kneel and pray for my rights. That is just not my shit.”
This self-reliance was part of his upbringing. Brown was born on St Simons Island, Georgia, a tightly knit community founded by freed slaves. His father, Swinton “Sweet Sue” Brown, was a boxer who abandoned the family, and young James was raised by his great-grandmother Nora, whom he called Mama, and by his grandmother and his aunt, while his mother, Theresa (nee Powell), moved north to find domestic work in Long Island, New York.
Aged eight, Jim joined her, becoming a star athlete at Manhasset high school, but because “she was more involved with her boyfriends than me”, he moved in with his girlfriend’s family, and found sports coaches who provided role models.
More than 40 colleges wanted him to play football, even though he had set a Long Island record in basketball by averaging 38 points per game, but it was a local lawyer, Ken Molloy, a former lacrosse star at Syracuse University, who steered him there. What Brown did not know was that his “scholarship” was actually funded by Molloy and other local supporters, because the Syracuse football coach Ben Schwartzwalder did not want “another coloured person on my team – they are too much trouble”.
Brown eventually earned a scholarship, but battled Schwartzwalder for respect and playing time until his talent became too obvious to ignore. Meanwhile, he found support from the lacrosse coach Roy Simmons, and his ability to clamp the lacrosse stick’s net against his chest, holding the ball tight where it could not be checked away, forced a change in the game’s rules. He starred on the basketball team, and competed in athletics while playing lacrosse, often running between matches. Despite only limited practice, in 1955 Brown finished fifth in the US national decathlon championships.
The Cleveland Browns took Brown with the sixth pick of the NFL draft in 1957. In his ninth game he ran for 237 yards, a league record. The next year he broke the single season rushing mark, scored 17 touchdowns and won his first MVP award. He broke that single-season mark five years later.
Brown’s film career turned to blaxploitation, and he often teamed up with former NFL stars such as Fred “the Hammer” Williamson and Bernie Casey. When that market dried up, he moved to television, then revisited blaxploitation in knowing homages including I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) and Original Gangstas (1996). He played a boxer helping save Earth in Mars Attacks! (1996) and a coach in Oliver Stone’s football drama Any Given Sunday (1999). He did broadcast commentary on football, boxing and ultimate fighting. He also founded Amer-I-Can, an organisation that tackles gang violence by dealing directly with the gangs themselves.
In the 1978 film Fingers, directed by James Toback (who in 1971 had written Jim, a creepy memoir of living with Brown while writing a feature for Esquire magazine), Harvey Keitel loves Tisa Farrow, who is involved with a nightclub owner, Dreems, played by Brown, who stages a three-way with her and Tanya Roberts, while Keitel watches. Then, indifferently, he cracks their heads together. This seemed a stark comment on Brown’s own relations with women.
A series of accusations of rape and assault against him were resolved in acquittal or with the victim failing to press charges. These included the 1968 case when an argument between Brown and his girlfriend Eva Bohn-Chin, which started when she discovered his affair with the feminist activist and writer Gloria Steinem, ended with Bohn-Chin falling off a balcony. Johnnie Cochran, later OJ Simpson’s lawyer, got a 1985 rape suit against him dismissed.
Brown’s only convictions came in 1978, when he was jailed for a day and fined $500 for choking a male friend in an argument over the placing of a golf ball during a match; and in 1999 when, during a row with his second wife, Monique, he smashed the windows of her car. He was found guilty of criminal damage to the car, fined and sentenced to counselling and community service.
He wrote two autobiographies and was the subject of a TV documentary by Spike Lee, Jim Brown: All-American (2002), and many books, including Dave Zirin’s warts-and-all Last Man Standing (2018) and Mike Freeman’s pre-#MeToo Jim Brown: The Fierce Life of An American Hero (2006). The sportswriter Howard Bryant pointed out that “while Jim Brown is heroic, he is no hero.”
Brown is survived by Monique (nee Gunthrop), whom he married in 1997, their son, Aris, and daughter, Morgan, and by two sons, James Jr and Kevin, and a daughter, Kim, from his first marriage, to Sue Jones, who divorced him in 1968.