jim brown

Jim Brown in 1967’s ‘The Dirty Dozen’

*It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when some of our biggest sports stars doubled as our biggest movie stars.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the great Jim Brown and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson were as compelling on the big screen as they were on the football field. Brown, of course, may have been the greatest football player who ever lived, an astonishing mix of speed and power (check out his jaw-dropping statistics, if you need proof). Williamson was the Ray Lewis of his era, a fearsome linebacker nicknamed “The Hammer” for the vicious karate-style blows he would send to the heads of opponents – probably not something he could get away with today, but, well, that was a different era.

Neither of them could claim to be on the level of Olivier or DeNiro, but these two sports stars did provide for a fun crossover presence on the big screen – one that is sadly missing from entertainment today. Brown retired at the amazingly young age of 29 (imagine what his statistics would have been if he’d kept playing) in order to pursue his film career. He starred in one of the greatest war-action movies of all time, 1967’s The Dirty Dozen and went on to carve out a nice niche for himself in pictures like Ice Station Zebra, I’m Gonna Get You Sucka and Any Given Sunday. Williamson, at least, waited until his football career was well and over to move into pictures, starring in the great M*A*S*H* and a series of blaxploitation movies. He even had a renaissance in the 90’s and 00’s as a new generation of directors like Quentin Tarantino and Todd Phillips threw him back into action (From Dusk ‘Til Dawn) and comedy (Starsky and Hutch) pictures.
Hey, even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got into the act. Remember his hilarious cameo in Airplane (“The hell I don’t!”) or his surprisingly awesome martial-arts showdown with Bruce Lee in Game of Death?

It’s unfortunate that the modern era has stripped away some of the mystery and charisma that once made athletes such viable crossover stars. Could you really see Dwight Howard starring in a martial arts flick? Or Adrian Peterson mowing down bad guys in an action flick? Maybe the one-two punch of Shaq in Kazaam and MJ in Space Jam were enough to kill the athletes-in-movies movement forever.

Oh well. At least we’ll still have The Hammer, currently making another comeback in a politically-themed movie called Last Ounce of Courage. It may not be as earth-shattering as his 1970s work, but it certainly is nice to see this hero of the gridiron chewing up the scenery one more time.