Away from the ballfield and the cameras, Brown was arrested in 1965 for assault and battery involving an 18-year-old named Brenda Ayres. Though he was cleared of the charges, Ayres later sued Brown for the paternity of her child. At the time, Brown was married to Sue Jones, with whom he had three children, including twins. In 1968, Brown allegedly threw model Eva Bohn-Chin from the second floor balcony of his apartment. The charges were dismissed due to Bohn-Chin’s lack of cooperation with the prosecutor, but the reputation stuck. In 1973, Brown, 37, proposed to an 18-year-old college student. They ended their engagement the next year. In various incidents in the 1970s and 1980s, Brown was charged with assault against both men and women, and, in 1985, rape (later dismissed). Despite his being cleared of most of these alleged offenses on paper or via technicalities, it became more difficult to distinguish between Brown’s screen and public persona. Throughout, he insisted on his innocence.
In the November 11, 1968 edition of New York magazine, Gloria Steinem wrote that Jim Brown, whom she called in her title, “The Black John Wayne,” was “… John Wayne, or maybe John Wayne with just a hint of Malcolm X thrown in.” By 1967, Brown had hosted a small cadre of Black athletes in The Cleveland Summit, a summer 1967 meeting where the men gathered to hear Muhammad Ali out on his resistance to enlist and serve in the U.S. military during the war in Vietnam. In 1968, Brown earned his first lead role, in “The Split,” a caper movie about robbing the Los Angeles Coliseum. Diahann Carroll co-starred as Brown’s ex. Brown co-starred in 1968’s “Ice Station Zebra,” an Arctic-set thriller starring Ernest Borgnine and Rock Hudson. Brown portrayed “Captain Leslie Anders,” a no-nonsense authority figure who, as in “Rio Conchos” and “The Dirty Dozen,” is killed.
In 1969, he starred in both “Riot” (a prison movie), and with Welch in the sexy “100 Rifles” (another Western). Directors wisely did not try to present Brown as the dignified archetype Poitier had been. The “interracial” love affair with Welch’s character was controversial for the times, in part for its violent overtones (the film’s poster art plays up Brown and Welch’s physiques).
After a couple of lackluster film releases in 1970, Brown helped usher in Blaxploitation in 1972’s “Slaughter,” and “Black Gunn,” both lead roles. By then, film fans had been treated to 1971’s “Shaft,” featuring a gun-wielding, hard-fisted, hard-loving Black private detective. The proliferation of such fare helped Brown find his wheelhouse; the tongue-in-cheek undertone of these stick-it-to-the-man vehicles allowed free rein in limited budget productions where his limited range of expression and nuance was not a factor. When studios moved away from the Black action marketplace and filmgoers outgrew the genre’s stereotypes and predictability, Brown’s film fortunes faded. In the 1980s, he devoted his efforts to squashing gang beef via his Southern California-based Amer-I-Can foundation. The young “club” members, many of whom had grown up witness to Brown’s unforgiving roles, respected the actor and former athlete for both respecting them, and taking the time to understand their lives.