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Interview with Jim Brown

This guy Jim Brown is on the level. For a couple of years there have been stories about Brown doing this and Brown doing that, Brown breaking up places like Bogart used to do, Brown allegedly heaving girls off the balcony, and eventually you get the notion he's trouble.

But you spend some time with Jim Brown and you begin to suspect that a lot of his image may be the work of press agents who realize that publicity helps the box office. All that stuff out of Spain about Brown and Raquel Welch was inspired by press agents. How else do you imagine the word got around so fast? Who knows what really happened?

Brown tells you straight. It didn't have anything to do with the "torrid love scene" between Raquel and himself. It didn't have anything to do with black power. Both of those stories came from press agents - and you were hooked, right? A "torrid love scene" between handsome Jim Brown and Raquel Welch, the first sex symbol to be more symbol than sex. And then a feud? What was the untold story?

About what you'd expect. Raquel Welch is the creation of publicity. She's never displayed any acting ability but her career has continued to build because she, her husband and her agent are incredibly conscious of her image.

So on a Raquel Welch movie, as on the sets of many another manufactured sex symbol, everything evolves around the protection of the girl's image. The camera angles. The publicity photographs. The way a scene is to be played and the way the actress will be costumed for it. The movements. The dialog. The amount of skin exposed. It's all figured out with a slide rule.

After a week of this routine, Brown began to crack. So did everybody else on the set but you only heard about Brown, because that was where the publicity was. "When I'm on a picture," he said, "I have two bosses, the director and the producer. My co-star is not my boss. But she had all her people around; setting up shots, telling the rest of us when publicity photos would be permitted and when they wouldn't and all of that.

"I realized the only way to save myself was to just get out of that, to withdraw from any contact. I did my job. But I completely withdrew from all of the b.s. that was going on involving Raquel's image. It was either that, or the picture would have been hurt. What I don't see is why she doesn't relax. The real sex symbols are the ones who don't mind getting a little sweaty, Sophia Loren, say. But Raquel always has to look perfect..."

And that's all there was to it.

Brown was in Chicago last week for the world premiere of "The Split." He plays a tough guy named McClain, who leads a gang of four violent thieves in a $500,000 robbery. The robbery is easy, as the ads say, but the split is bloody. Diahann Carroll, who plays Brown's ex-wife, is machine-gunned. Then, at the end of the film, there's a moment that fascinated the premiere audience. Just as McClain is about to get away, Miss Carroll's voice calls him: "McClain." Just the name. He starts to turn around and the picture ends.

"That moment says a lot about McClain's relationship with women," Brown said. "There are a lot of men like him. They care for their woman, but they have to do their thing. They neglect their woman. That doesn't mean they don't love her. McClain got the money, but his woman was snuffed out. So when it ended up, he thought he heard her voice. The movie doesn't say crime doesn't pay; the cat gets his 20 per cent, all right. But he loses his woman."

Brown was sitting in his hotel suite dressed in denim pants and a denim jacket, a black T-shirt, beads, boots. He had just flown, in from Spain.

"The thing about McClain," he said, "is the same with a lot of men, myself definitely included. You have a woman, you make love, and it's beautiful, man, beautiful.

"But after it's over, she starts picking on you. Picking on you about this, picking on you about that. So you get out of there. You leave. And then you're both unhappy. So you go back, you make love, and then she starts in on you again..."

"A lot of people wonder about a man, if they don't know the whole story." He was serious now. "My wife and I are getting a divorce, but you'd never believe it listening to our conversation last night. My case is one of going, away, being away, first pro football and then the movies, and suddenly you realize the woman hasn't had much of a life, and you think, what can I give her now?"

It was interesting that Brown was in town for the world premiere of "The Split," because he was originally scheduled to be here last spring for the premiere of his last picture, "Dark of the Sun." He canceled his plans and didn't show.

"I couldn't," he said, "because, man, I just didn't like the movie. It's the only film I've done I really didn't like, If I'd come here to Chicago, and some guy had said, I don't like your flick at all, how could I disagree with him? If you put yourself on the line, you have to be able to believe what you say. But if you KNOW the movie's no good, man, and you have to say it is, that eats you up.

"It's too bad about 'Dark of the Sun.' It was really about Tshombe. When I read the script, I thought it was going to be a political movie, and I thought we might even have a hassle. But the director simplified it to brutality and bad taste."

Still, in all of his films Brown plays a tough guy with a capacity for violence. And he is usually either on the wrong side of the law, or morally neutral.

"People can identify with this kind of character," Brown said. "There's a trend toward anti-heroes now, and I think it goes back to guys like Bogart and Cagney. They seemed to have no compassion, and they were always alone.

"That's the kind of cat I can play. Now if I played, say, the super-super kind of guy, there wouldn't be too much I could draw on. But these characters that are sometimes good, sometimes bad, kind of trying to get through in one piece - I can draw on my own experience."

He began as one of "The Dirty Dozen," co-starred with Rod Taylor in "Dark of the Sun," and got top billing in "The Split." His next two films will be "Ice Station Zebra" with Rock Hudson, due this November, and "The 100 Rifles" with Raquel Welch. And on the basis of "The Split," it looks safe to say Brown is the next black superstar, after Sidney Poitier.

"What I want to do," he said, "is play roles as a black man, instead of playing black man's roles. You know? The guy in 'The Split,' for example, could be any color. And I don't make a big thing out of my race. If you try to preach, people give you a little sympathy and then they want to get out of the way. So you don't preach, you tell the story.

"I have a theory. An audience doesn't need to get wrapped up in blackness every time they see a Negro actor. And a movie doesn't have to be about race just because there's a Negro in it.

"If there's a bigot in the audience, he has to keep reminding himself, that's a black man, that's a Negro, because the story line has left him 'way behind, man." He laughed. "Away behind. Just tell the story, and before you know it, that cat will be identifying with you, and he won't even know how it happened."

Brown said the position of a black movie actor is still delicate, however. People read a lot of things into a scene that wouldn't be there otherwise. Like after 'The Dirty Dozen,' this nationalist said, man, when that white guy got shot, they pulled him out of there. But when you got shot, they left you there to die.

"See how far this guy was reaching? He forgot that by the time I got shot, there was no way to get me out. But people do that all the time. If I make love to a white woman in a scene, they'll say, what's wrong with a black woman? If I make love to a black woman, they say, what's the matter, they didn't want you to touch a white woman? That's the hassle you get into when you start thinking that way. There have been so few decent films involving Negroes that right away everybody expects every film to do everything. But when you make a flick, there are maybe two things you're trying to put into that flick. You can put the other things in another time."

To do that, Brown has set up his own production company and hopes to involve black directors, writers and production people in his films. His next will probably be "Lions 3, Christians 0," he said * Which side is he on? "The lions, I think."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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