I recently saw a documentary about stand-up comic and actor Richard Pryor and I was surprised to hear the name Jim Brown pop up as a sometime business partner of Pryor. Not THE Jim Brown, I asked myself, whose brilliant but somehow overlooked career stretches from Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen to Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks?  Yes indeedy. Ignorant me didn’t know that former American football star Jim Brown was a leading black activist and businessman, dedicated to raising his people up economically, or that he had worked for Pryor’s production company until the inevitable “creative differences”. He was also a woman beater, but hey…. nobody’s perfect.

The Pryor film led me to another documentary, Spike Lee’s Jim Brown: All American, which more or less tells it like it is, but skirts lightly over the issues of domestic violence and Brown’s falling out with Pryor. Now I’m not an American football fan – apart from anything else, they hardly seem to use their feet, except to run, and they don’t do much of that – so let’s concentrate on the film work. For an ex-football player, Brown can actually act. He has an extraordinary presence and – as is made clear in Spike Lee’s film – he represents the first black star to fully express his sexuality onscreen, Belafonte and Poitier being effectively emasculated in their early roles. In 100 Rifles Brown even gets to kiss Raquel Welch on screen (and how!) – heady inter-racial stuff for the 1960s. But I love Jim Brown for  the trio of splendid action movies – The Dirty Dozen, The Split and (best of all) Riot – which he made in the late 60s.

In The Dirty Dozen, Brown plays Robert Jefferson, one of twelve convicts sent to France to assassinate a bunch of German officers assembled at a castle shortly before D-Day. Everyone bangs on about how good the very silly Where Eagles Dare is, but The Dirty Dozen is a zillion times better, and I‘ve done the math. Among the compulsory bunch of psychopaths (Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, a superb John Cassavetes) doing nasty stuff to Nazis (hooray!) Brown brings a reassuring calm and decency which makes it all the more upsetting when he eventually dies (heroically, of course). The Dirty Dozen was a clever transposition of The Magnificent Seven to the war movie and inspired countless imitations, including the original, Italian version of Inglorious Basterds (not very good) and the Tarantino “remake” which is – dare I say it – possibly even better than The Dirty Dozen, although infinitely more ludicrous, like Where Eagles Dare meets Cinema Paradiso.

Brown was then cast as a marine captain in Ice Station Zebra (1968) alongside Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine, a move as daring in its way as the Raquel Welch kiss in 100 Rifles. As a result, he landed his first lead role in The Split (1969), where he was reunited with both Borgnine and Donald Sutherland.  While in many ways a run-of-the-mill robbery-gone-wrong picture, albeit the first one to be rated R, The Split has a lot to recommend it: a punch-up of bone-crunching, Pink Panther-like proportions; an early car chase which clearly influenced Tarantino’s grindhouse tribute Death Proof; a thoroughly bitchy and sadistic villainess in Julie Harris; supporting roles for the great Warren Oates and the marginally less great Gene Hackman, and, above all, the remarkable achievement of having a cool, confident, sexy black man get away with the crime and enjoy his first inter-racial kiss, with Harris.

Riot (1969) is even better, and could easily have been directed by Robert Aldrich, but in fact it’s the under-rated Buzz Kulik, who filmed in a working prison (Yuma Territorial) with the warden playing himself, alongside several prisoners. This gives some of the scenes an almost documentary-like feel, especially after the prisoners have rioted (there’s a clue in the title) and are partying in their cells with home-made hooch and drag queens.  Brown acts opposite Gene Hackman again, in a daring and carefully delineated escape, and once again (spoiler alert!) the black man gets away, while the luckless Hack man has his throat cut by a vengeful inmate. Incidentally, trivia fans, Riot was produced by William Castle, who also produced Rosemary’s Baby, reluctantly, since he had wanted to direct it but wasn’t allowed to – maybe the film’s backers had seen his earlier films The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler and Let’s Kill Uncle, and disagreed with John Waters that “William Castle was God”. There’s no trailer for Riot on YouTube so you’ll just have to watch the whole movie instead. Worth every second, I’m telling ya!

After the aforementioned 100 Rifles and another Western, El Condor, came the Blaxploitation years: Slaughter and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, Black Gun, The Slams, I Escaped From Devil’s Island (a Papillon cash-in) Three The Hard Way and the spaghetti western Take A Hard Ride. Can’t say I’ve seen any of them, but a black Western? A black Papillon? What’s not to like? Blaxploitation gets a bad press among the film snobs but lately – with the overdue empowerment of black Hollywood – they’re getting their dues, and rightly so. Brown also appeared in the extraordinary Fingers (1978), directed by James Toback, with whom Brown shared a certain – ahem – enthusiasm for the ladees.

This leads us to the dark side of Jimbo’s character. He’s been accused of domestic abuse enough times to suspect there’s no smoke without fire.  In 1965, he was arrested for assault and battery against an 18-year-old, Brenda Ayres but later acquitted. Three years later, he was charged with intent to commit murder after Eva Bohn-Chin was found lying beneath the balcony of his second-floor apartment. Bohn-Chin refused to cooperate with the prosecutor’s office but in the Lee documentary she as good as says Brown threw her over the balcony. In 1985, Brown was charged with raping a 33-year-old woman but the charges were dismissed. Subsequent events – assaulting his girlfriend Debra Clark in 1986;  smashing his wife’s car up with a shovel in 1999 – suggest that he has certain “anger management issues”.  He was put on probation, given compulsory counselling, and ordered to do community service. When he ignored this order, he was sentenced to six months in jail and released mid-way through his term. So not someone you’d want stepping out with your daughter, or even your servant. On the other hand, he is responsible for the Amer-I-Can Program, teaching life-management skills to gang members in inner cities and prisons. He was buddies with Sam Cooke, Muhammad Ali and Malcom X – quite a quartet. More to the point, his body of film work makes him the equal or better of other strong-but-silent types like Arnold Schwarzenegger, with whom he shares the willingness to mock himself (witness his delightful performance dressed as an Egyptian in Mars Attacks). More power to Jim Brown’s elbow, I say. But then I’m not a woman.