BEYOND THE SLIDING GLASS DOORS and backyard pool lies the sort of view a movie star could love. Jim Brown moved into this Hollywood Hills retreat in 1968, after his nine-year reign as a pro football hero had ended and his film career was already underway. It was the era of sexual revolution, and Brown was first on the barricades. “I had a straight-up good time,” he says. “I love naked women in the pool. If there was a party at Hugh Hefner’s with a lot of women in negligees, I enjoyed the hell out of it.”
But those times didn’t last. Brown’s tough-guy reputation, both on the field and from films like The Dirty Dozen, spilled into his private life, and claims that he had roughed up some of his women hardened people’s perceptions of him.
These days the former fullback is more likely to be found around the ghettos of Los Angeles than in the grottos of Hefner’s Playboy Mansion. Three years ago Brown founded Amer-I-Can, a self-help program aimed at prison inmates and street gangs. Based on a curriculum created by Brown—and taught primarily by former gang members—the program has drawn wide praise. L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley has called it “the kernel of a major, major breakthrough,” and this year California is paying $295,000 to fund the classes. His program is also under consideration in Illinois, Ohio, Arizona and New York.
Brown’s five-week. 80-hour regimen takes street toughs and inmates through a 15-step program that deals with finding a job, family responsibility, resolving conflicts and other subjects that kids from the gangs often never learn. In all, about 800 gang members have completed the course and this year 2,500 inmates in 15 state prisons will participate.
Ironically, it is Brown’s very reputation as a tough ex-jock who has had his own brushes with the law that seems to give him the special clout he needs. “I’m not afraid of them,” he says of his students. “It’s no different with gangbangers [gang members] than it is with big linebackers.”
Prison and community leaders are encouraged by what Brown has accomplished; gang violence has actually declined in some areas where his program has been introduced, such as Las Vegas. “So far I’m very encouraged,” says Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones, who instituted the program nine weeks ago. In prison, says Wanda Briscoe-King, chief of education for the California Department of Corrections, “these men really relate to him.”
For Brown, Amer-I-Can has been no less a welcome change. By the late ’70s his film career had gone fiat and his promiscuous partying with as many as eight women a night had left him feeling empty. “It was like I died, man,” he says now. “Nothing going on. I was trying to find myself, basically vacillating.” What awakened him, says brown, was rap music, especially the powerful message of Public Enemy. “I said, ‘Damn, these young brothers have got some consciousness.’ I started hooking into this energy.”
Through a friend, Brown first got involved in a program called Vital Issues, which encouraged self-management skills and emotional self-control. He then founded Amer-I-Can and began teaching prisoners. On the streets, “the key was to be able to listen to the gangbangers, not lecture them and tell them to stop doing it,” he says. “There was no damn way for them to get self-esteem under the conditions where they lived.”
Self-esteem has never been a problem for Brown, who was born in St. Simons Island, Ga., and raised in Manhasset, N.Y., where his mother, Theresa, was a household maid. An Ail-American in both lacrosse and football at Syracuse University, he was drafted in 1957 by the Cleveland Browns and, as a pro, became one of the finest running backs ever. Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971, he led the league in rushing for eight of his nine years and still holds the record for career touchdowns (126).
He retired at age 30 because he wanted to “go out on top” and pursue a full-time movie career. Having made Rio Conchos (1964) while still in the NFL, he moved quickly into more action movies (The Dirty Dozen and Dark of the Sun ) and established himself as a black male sex symbol. But after several movie duds and a rash of bad publicity about his personal life, “I went from a major star to basically nothing,” he says. “I think Hollywood just got tired of a big ol’ black Negro kissin’ all their women.”
Brown’s most infamous real-life run-in with women occurred in 1968 when police claimed he tossed model Eva Bohn-Chin off a Los Angeles balcony, though formal charges were never filed in the case. Charges were filed but later-dismissed following a 1985 rape allegation by a tennis pro. In an earlier incident, Brown was acquitted in Cleveland of an assault charge made by an 18-year-old high school dropout. “I don’t always claim to be the person who’s done the right thing, but the media’s singled me out as the most brutal cat that ever lived,” he says. “I try to treat women with respect. The ones that know me like me and trust me.”
Married once, when he was 23, Brown had three children by Sue James, his wife of 12 years. Later he had three more kids out of wedlock. His life today is considerably quieter, to which he has no objections. He says he doesn’t drink or do drugs, and he lives alone (“Women are very funny; they like a lot of your time”). He has kept the same 3,700-square-foot three-story house he bought 23 years ago and even drives the same car, a ’69 Mercedes convertible.
These days, the guests at Brown’s hilltop aerie are more likely gang leaders from the streets than starlets from the studio. Although much of his work is done in prisons and ghettos, it is here that he often tries to leach—and to recruit newfound converts as teachers. On this particular night, nearly 70 people are sitting on folding chairs, squeezed around the L-shaped living room couch where he is holding forth. Dressed in jeans and a sweat vest that displays the massive arms of his still powerful 6’2″, 235-1b. body. Brown is conducting a “feeling session,” where all “those doggone frustrations and aspirations come pouring out.”
Keith Shedrick, 30, a gangbanger since age 8 and a member of the infamous L.A. street gang the Bloods, stands up and tells of the hatred between his gang and their rivals, the Crips. “Me and my homeboys have been to so many funerals that we’re funeraled out,” he concludes. “I just want it to stop.” Interjects William Earl Jones, 21, a Crip: “I want my kids to grow up with something positive. I don’t want them to have logo to school with a gun in their lunch pail.”
The meeting lasts for two hours, mixing Brown’s philosophy and comments from his guests. Later, Shedrick and Jones find themselves together in a hallway. Unexpectedly they shake hands and pull one another close. “This is what it’s all about,” says Shedrick, filled with emotion. “We don’t have to be enemies.”
TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles