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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Jim Brown on "The Express" and sex in the movies: Part Two

October 10, 2008 |  3:05 pm

How much has sports shaped society? It's a tantalizing question that is often difficult to answer. How much did Jackie Robinson's breaking the color barrier in baseball spark other forms of social change in America? In 1950s and early 1960s football, how much did seeing Jim Brown and Ernie Davis lead Syracuse to a string of victories, often over all-white teams, open the eyes of their opponents, coaches and fans?

Consider this: In 1970, USC running back Sam (Bam) Cunningham led USC to a dramatic victory over a top-ranked, all-white Alabama football team, coached by the legendary Bear Bryant. Years afterwards, having noted how quickly Bryant began recruiting African American football players, one of his assistant coaches said, "Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years." Many people viewed that remark as an insult to King's epic struggle to change America. But many sports fans, especially those of us who grew up in the South, suspect that what happened on the football field had a profound impact. In Alabama, where football was king, Bear Bryant was a far more revered and influential figure than any politician -- once he endorsed integration, it was impossible to stem the tide any longer. 

So what does Jim Brown think about the question -- how much does sports shape society? "It made a big difference," he told me the other day. "It broke down a lot of barriers. It changed the climate because it highlighted things. People told me that I couldn't use a whites-only restroom, but there I was, dominating the play on the sporting field. It wasn't a big step before anyone could go into the voting booth and express their views there too."

Davis2_2 At Syracuse, Brown played for Ben Schwartzwalder, the same coach that helped mold Ernie Davis into a great player, but who, when it came to social issues, didn't want to rock the boat. As is portrayed in "The Express," Schwartzwalder warned his players not to date white women or pick fights with any opposing white players who leveled them with cheap shots on the football field. In a key scene in the film, when Syracuse is playing in West Virginia in front of a hostile white crowd, Schwartzwalder takes Davis out of the game whenever the ball is on the goal line, not wanting to incite the crowd by allowing a black man to score a touchdown.

Yet Brown, who suffered similar indignities when he played for Schwartzwalder, helped him recruit Davis, who in turned help the coach recruit Floyd Little, his next great black running back. Why? What did Brown, a proud man who never shied away from a fight, see in his coach that made him help him?

"There was something in Ben that was OK," he says, sipping his margarita. "Ben had a hard-nosed way about him -- he'd been a Marine. But he was almost naive when it came to anything racial. I never thought he was a racist. He was just unaware of what black people were going through. He didn't look at us and see people who wanted their freedom. I told Ernie that he'd have to go through some things, some things he wouldn't always like, but it would be worth it, because whatever you said about Ben, he was fair."

"Express" director Gary Fleder, who's sitting with us, interjects: "I think Ben's relationship with Ernie was a learning experience. I think it changed Ben, to some extent." Brown instantly adds: "Notice, he says, 'To some extent.' "

Brown stops to think. "I think the movie presents Ben accurately. You have to remember -- the times dictated things that even Ben didn't want to go along with. But playing football at Syracuse, seeing the good and the bad, gave Ernie a real look at reality. Me too. Nobody stopped my career. I was an All-American and I graduated. And Ernie helped put Eastern football on the map and won the Heisman Trophy. So I think there are victories of all kinds there."

It wasn't easy for Fleder to find an actor who could play Brown in the movie. "I needed someone who had the intelligence and the intensity, but also the sense of humor," he says. "Most of the actors who auditioned would go for the intensity, but couldn't find the humor. One day Jim and I were driving around and he said, 'Look at this great kid I worked with on "Soul Food." He might be the right one.' "

The actor, Darren Dewitt Henson, was a perfect fit. But having spent a lot of time with Brown, he was intensely worried about accurately capturing Brown's trademark indomitability. "The first few weeks of filming were hard because he worshipped Jim so much," Fleder recalls. "It really got into his head -- he was so worried about what Jim would think about the performance. Finally I told him, 'You gotta surrender. Let it go and be yourself.' And he loosened up and he was really good. It was still Jim Brown, but it was Darren capturing him."

Brown knows all about the ups and down of acting. At the height of his career, having recently won a championship with the Cleveland Browns, he took a role in Robert Aldrich's "The Dirty Dozen," a role that made him an action star. He was still shooting the movie when the Browns started training camp. Team owner Art Modell gave him an ultimatum -- come back or quit. Brown quit. For a time, in the late 60s and early 70s, he was a star, doing everything from the John Sturges drama "Ice Station Zebra" to action fare like "Slaughter" and "Black Gunn."

But the film that earned him the most notoriety was the 1969 Western "100 Rifles," which took full advantage of the steamy scenes between the black action star and Welch, who had emerged as a leading Hollywood sex symbol. Brown says the script was written for a white man, but no one could get the picture financed until he stepped in. "I was bankable back then and obviously, once I got involved -- this big black guy -- everything changed."

Brown has no illusions about everyone's motivations. After all, in the 1960s, the few black men on screen -- notably Sidney Poitier -- were extremely chaste figures. "They thought by breaking a sexual taboo that they could make some money," he says. "It was the first time you saw a black man really making love to a white woman. We really played it up. We took a lot of pictures and it went all around the world. You have to remember -- back then all Sidney got was a peck on the cheek."

Brown has no illusions about his image, then or now. "I wasn't the good guy," he says. "I was accused of throwing a woman off a balcony, people thought of me as a womanizer, as a violent guy." Brown has always been prickly, especially when it came to sports, where he had a well-earned reputation as a perfectionist. When Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris was about to break one of Brown's rushing records, Brown -- who didn't like Harris' elusive running style -- threatened to come back out of retirement and take the record back, saying if Harris could creep and crawl and run out of bounds to avoid a hit, even a geezer like Brown could do the same.

He still loves telling the story. "Hey, I got to know Franco later on and he turned out to be a really nice guy," he says. Then he raises an eyebrow, quipping "But you have to admit -- he was too big to run out of bounds, right?"

Brown doesn't make quips about Ernie Davis. "I'm glad this movie is out there," he says. "He was the kind of person who doesn't come along very often, especially in this country. He had to struggle against a lot of discrimination and hatred and he never made any excuses, he never complained. You know, everybody liked him. They didn't always like me."

Why not? Brown leans on his cane, thinking about an answer. "I had to challenge people, always get in their face and exert pressure. Ernie was strong, but he was more diplomatic than me. He was soft-spoken. It was his deeds that spoke loud."   

Photo credit: Ernie Davis/ AP Photo.