Jim Brown's movie career celebrated as a touchdown

December 24, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

THE MOST memorable trip pro football Hall of Famer Jim Brown made to Baltimore is one local sports fans likely recall with mixed feelings -- it was a Sunday in November 1959 when the Cleveland Browns running back scored five touchdowns against the Baltimore Colts and led his team to a 38-31 victory.

Brown will be in Baltimore again Friday night, at the invitation of Michael Johnson, owner of the Heritage Cineplex on Taylor Avenue in Towson. Brown will help kick off a Kwanzaa celebration and pick up a lifetime achievement award, not for football, but for his film career.

"Every year I try to give out a lifetime achievement award," Johnson said this week. "We wanted to get someone from the '60s or '70s era."

Some might question the selection of Brown, whose acting is not exactly a favorite of movie critics. Of course, not being a favorite of movie critics would be an excellent reason for choosing Brown, but that's not why Johnson did it.

"He literally changed the profile of the black male in Hollywood," Johnson said. "Not to take anything away from Sidney [Poitier] or Harry [Belafonte]. But many of their roles were kind of soft."

We can safely surmise that Poitier and Belafonte wouldn't agree with Johnson's assessment. But they'd be hard-pressed to deny that Brown did bring a certain presence to tough-guy, macho action/adventure movies that few, if any, black actors had done before, say, The Dirty Dozen, the 1967 war film brimming with testosterone that co-starred Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland and Brown. You may imagine Poitier and Belafonte more than holding their own with all that acting talent, but can you imagine either bringing the edge that Brown gave in his role as Robert T. Jefferson? It was that edginess, Johnson said, that caught the attention of other actors even before The Dirty Dozen.

"A lot of people think The Dirty Dozen is Brown's first movie," Johnson said. But Johnson claimed actor Lee Van Cleef, famous for playing bad-guy roles in westerns, wanted to work with Brown after seeing him in his first film, the 1964 oater Rio Conchos. Several Westerns are on Brown's filmography on the Internet Movie Database Web site, among them 100 Rifles, El Condor and Take a Hard Ride. Brown and Van Cleef co-starred in the last two movies.

Film fans nostalgic for the 1970s "blaxploitation" era may remember Brown from the movies Black Gunn, Slaughter and Slaughter's Big Rip-Off. But Johnson doesn't view the "blaxploitation" films as being completely negative and said Brown parodied those films later in his career.

"Brown and Fred Williamson [another pro football player turned actor] started to laugh at those [blaxploitation] roles in films like Original Gangstas and I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka," Johnson said. "But they saw the importance of those roles."

Others didn't. The very term blaxploitation was coined by a gaggle of black activists who, objecting to black movie-goers voting with their dollars about what they wanted to see, sought to impose their view of what black folks should see. They appointed themselves black America's image police, criticized the work of Brown, Williamson and Pam Grier and ran the live action/animated film Coonskin -- since renamed Streetfight and darn near impossible to get on video -- out of theaters before it was barely in. The irony of this regarding Brown is that many of the movies in his 40-film resume don't even fit into the "blaxploitation" genre.

The Split, a crime caper released in 1968, had Brown co-starring with Diahann Carroll, Borgnine, Gene Hackman, Jack Klugman, Warren Oates, James Whitmore and Sutherland. Brown teamed with Kennedy again in 1970's ...tick...tick ...tick..., a drama about racial tensions in a Southern town that co-starred Fredric March.

Johnson said a "classic Jim Brown film" will be available for viewing Friday night, most likely 100 Rifles, which co-stars Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds. But Johnson couldn't go wrong with The Split or ...tick...tick ...tick... either.

It'll cost you 12 bucks to get into the award ceremony, which will also feature the film and a chance to meet and greet Brown afterward. (And who would want to pass on a chance to meet the guy who, in response to Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Warren Sapp's whining about his "slavemasters" in the National Football League, said "What you have is a know-nothing, do-nothing generation talking about the slavemaster"?) The proceeds will benefit Brown's anti-gang Amer-I-Can program and Johnson's Black Film Preservation Project.

"He's an actor, an activist, an All-Pro and a Hall-of-Famer," Johnson said of Brown. Those who appreciate Jim Brown the actor as much as Jim Brown the running back might want to drop by the Heritage on Friday night.

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