It is November of 2016.
I am in Los Angeles hanging with my friend Ty Davis and his wife Rose. We all three are attending the annual Thanksgiving group gathering to celebrate the holiday at the home of Cedric the Entertainer.
Aside from the Thanksgiving holiday dinner, I am also in LA to launch the first leg of my new documentary to tell the story about those behind Muhammad Ali’s return to the boxing ring in 1970 entitled, “Ali’s Comeback.”
Early research brought several unusual individuals to my attention relating to this seminal event that lived in or near Los Angles. Jerry Quarry, Jr, son of Ali’s October 1970 opponent and his mother Kathleen, Robert Kassel; the neophyte boxing promoter who put up the $600,000 letter of credit to pay for the fight, Margaret B. Ware; personal assistant to the late Sammy Davis, Jr who attended the fight, Howard Bingham, Ali’s long time friend and photographer, Stan Sanders, close friend to Howard Bingham, Kareem Abdul Jabar, and Jim Brown the coordinator of the 1967 Cleveland Conference where several top pro sportsmen professed their loyalty and support of Muhammad Ali’s stance against joining military during the Vietnam War.
I am a director in LA without a crew. But with the phenomenal help of my producer, Brittany Wyatt, and Henry Woods (“Mr. Resourceful”), who later becomes executive producer to Ali’s Comeback, they harness this special opportunity to make several phone calls. They are able to lock in interviews with Robert Kassel, Jerry and Kathleen Quarry, Stan Sanders, and Margaret B. Ware. Margaret later stepped in with Howard Binghuam, but learned he was in hospice. Kareem simply bowed out. Henry, assiduously worked on Jim Brown through his wife, Monique. But she would only give us a definitive “maybe.”
I commandeered my friends Ty and Anne Loreano to provide transportation and camera support in cruising down to Palms Desert to interview Robert Kassel, and to swing around to several other LA locations to acquire the other interviews. It is several days later and we still have nothing from Monique on interviewing Jim Brown.
It is now 8:30am on Sunday morning. The phone rings. It is Henry. “Art, just got off the phone with Monique. If you can over to Jim’s home by 10:00 she says he will give you that interview.”
I jump out of bed, take the fastest shower ever, then Ty and I make a bee line straight to Jim Brown’s place. Monique greets us at the gates, guides us to the lower level into a spacious room with huge bay windows. Upon entering there is an imposing action oil painting of Jim during his pro football days. The power and strength of this painting made me think of Superman flying against the forces of nature. Instead of an “S” emblazoned across his chest there was the bold number “32.”
Monique made I clear, “You get 30 minutes.” Ty and I wasted no time setting up the two cameras. We set up the lights and did a preliminary sound check. Then waited… and waited… but no Jim.
Going over my interview script with Ty, I see his eyes suddenly get big and he freezes as if someone struck a gun in his back. I looking back over my shoulder, and strolling in with a walking cane in hand is this giant of a man. I now know what Biblical David must have felt like when he first got a glimpse of Goliath. This huge, broad shouldered, Godiva chocolate man dressed in a brown casual shirt and piercing eyes approaches. He extends his hand saying, “Hi, I’m Jim Brown” (Like I needed him to say that!). I extend my hand Only to see it disappear inside his. I then turn to Ty, who still looks mesmerized, and say, “This is my camera man, Ty Davis.” When Ty shakes Jim’s hand I am praying that he doesn’t explode there on the spot.
I guide Mr. Brown to a high chair we found in the room. Then adjust the lights to model his face. I grab the lav mic and said, Mr. Brown, I need you to tuck this up under you shirt and bring it out at the top.” I clip the mic to Jim. Then say, “Can you please give me a count down backwards from ten. From the time he said “10,” I saw the audio meters jump as if they were awestruck by Jim too. By the time he got to “Nine” I chimed in and said, “Thank you. Got it.”
The interview went extremely well. He spoke of his early career as a sportsman, his time as a movie star, and his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. We discussed the Cleveland Conference of 1967 orchestrated by him and several other top African American athletes of that day to support Muhammad Ali’s stance against joining the military on religious grounds. He spoke affectionately when discussing his relationship with Muhammad Ali. “We were like brothers, but I was the older one.” Jim chimed.
Monique had returned but saw that Jim was engaged in recalling important memories. So did not interrupt. Nearly an hour later we wrapped. While packing Jim says to me, “Young man, you asked some good questions.” He asked had I also interviewed Bill Russell? I said, “No.” He then offered to put me in touch. I had already extended my return flight to cover a few additional interviews. I was leaving the next day, so declined. But, in hindsight, should have taken Bill Russell’s’ information anyway.
Everything packed back into Ty’s BMW, we’re cruising down the winding Hollywood Hills back to his house, and a song of Oscar Brown, Jr comes to mind: “I’ve always live by this golden rule: Whatever happened don’t blow your cool. Your have to nerves of steel, and never show folks how you honestly feel.” And just like the character in his song, I lost it screaming, “I just interviewed the great Jim Brown!”
I told him where to sit in his own home.
I told him what to do with the mic.
I told him where to look.
I looked him in the eyes and asked questions that engaged him for nearly an hour.
Hearing of his passing yesterday opened the floodgates to all those wonderful memories of my hour with Jim Brown.
Life is truly not measured by the amount of breaths we take. It is about those moments that take our breath away.
In fond memory of the great Jim Brown, I share his segment from our film, Ali’s Comeback: https://vimeo.com/manage/videos/828655793
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