The pitcher who became a legendary Hollywood stuntman

The amazing life of Jophery Brown

April 16th, 2023
Art by Tom Forget, all photos via Lois Brown

There Jophery Brown was, on the mound for his big league debut with the Chicago Cubs. A place little kids dream of being from the first time they learn about the game of baseball.

The righty was part of a relief corps for starter Joe Niekro against the Pirates at Forbes Field on Sept. 21, 1968. He ended up pitching two innings, giving up a run on two hits (Maury Wills singled and scored on a Donn Clendenon hit). Brown also intentionally walked Roberto Clemente and finished his outing by catching a hard Dock Ellis line drive back to the rubber.

The Cubs lost, 5-1, but -- after an already fairly successful Minor League stint -- that game seemed like it could've been the start of a budding Major League career for Brown.

Instead, the 23-year-old never stepped on a big league field again.

Brown, who only really played baseball because his dad loved it, was being pulled in a totally new direction. A torn rotator cuff and some advice from a loved one helped him make his ultimate decision and lead him to a life that, well, a totally different set of kids might dream about.

"His brother, who was the first Black stuntman in Hollywood, told him to come out to [L.A.]," Lois Brown, Jophery's widow, told me in a phone call. "So he did and, I mean, he was in over 400 TV shows and movies."

Jophery, left, with wife Lois and actor Morgan Freeman

As you might imagine, finding work as a Black stuntperson was difficult in the late 1960s. But Brown had some help from his older brother Calvin.

Calvin Brown was the pioneering Black stuntman in Hollywood, who doubled for everybody from Bill Cosby to Denzel Washington. Calvin, and eventually Jophery, were instrumental in opening the doors for Black people in the stunt world -- eliminating Hollywood's racist practice of "painting down," or using white people in blackface as doubles.

"We all followed Calvin Brown," Willie Harris, former president of the Black Stuntmen's Association, said.

With his brother's guidance and a chip on his shoulder, Jophery took jobs anywhere and everywhere he could.

"In the 70s, he would do two, three shows per day over at Universal," Lois said. "They'd do a couple hours there, move to another set. He worked a lot."

Brown did stunts in the 1973 James Bond film "Live and Let Die," spelled Sidney Poitier in 1974's "Uptown Saturday Night," and then had his big breakout: He used his baseball experience to coordinate stunts, and act, in "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings," a film Lois said was one of his favorites.

"Yes, he stunt-coordinated that," Lois said. "It's so funny. I love that movie. And, of course, he's one of the players."

Alongside James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor, Brown played third baseman Emory "Champ" Chambers on a barnstorming team of Negro Leaguers who take the Midwest by storm.

As his work and experience increased, so did casting directors calling for his expertise in the 1980s and 90s. Brown coordinated stunts in "Scarface," "Action Jackson" and "House Party 3." He stunted in "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon." He did comedies and tragedies.

In 1997's thriller "The Relic," Brown portrayed a very unfortunate security guard.

"He was decapitated, and you see his head roll," Lois recalled, laughing. "His body, with the head off, looked exactly like him. You know, whatever plastic they put on your face to make the mold. They did it of the whole body and, I mean, his chest hairs were there."

Three years before, Keanu Reeves' "Speed" captivated audiences around the world. One of the more memorable moments was when the bus flies over a gap in the L.A. freeway. It's routinely named as one of the most spectacular movie stunts ever.

Guess who was driving that bus?

"That was him," Lois said. "He was sitting in the middle of the bus in a seat and he forgot to put his mouthguard in. He almost bit his tongue off. But, well, he survived."

"It's hard to explain," Brown said of the experience at the time. "Everything goes completely silent when you're in the air."

How about the iconic opening death scene to Jurassic Park -- one of the most successful movie franchises of all-time? Jophery Brown was the first dinosaur's first victim, of course. His character even went by his given name.

"He gets eaten after they say, 'Jophery, raise the gate,'" Lois said. "Spielberg loved his name. [Jophery] loved Spielberg. He loved working for him."

In fact, Cinemorgue notes Brown as dying six different times in movies -- everything from the velociraptor mauling to being punched off a ledge by Deborah Richter in "Cyborg" to getting shot by Sean Connery in "The Presidio."

Brown continued working into his 50s, stunting for Morgan Freeman in Along Came a Spider (2001), The Sum of All Fears (2002) and Dreamcatcher (2003). Lois says, like when he was on a baseball or basketball team, he loved the togetherness of being on a set or hanging out with fellow stunt people.

"He loved the camaraderie, and doing all the gags," she said. "Work was different every day."

Brown also continued pushing for more equality and diversity in Hollywood along the way, pleading that people of color in power need to speak out and hire other people of color for their projects.

In 2008, Brown was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture for "Wanted." One of his great accomplishments was winning a World Stunt Award for Best Work with a Vehicle: That came during his expert navigating of a big rig in an epic car chase scene from Bad Boys II.

"Oh yeah, he was one of the best wheelmen, flying cars, ever," Lois said.

You'd have to think Brown would've gotten pretty banged up doing these high-intensity stunts over a period of 30-plus years. He did, but like any good stuntman, he kept right on going.

"He never went to the hospital," Lois said. "They almost took him once and the ambulance got lost. Jophery got out of the back and walked back to his hotel. That's just the kind of guy he was."

Finally, in 2010, four years before his untimely death due to cancer treatment complications, Brown received the ultimate honor: He was awarded the Taurus Lifetime Achievement Award.

"Pretty much the Oscars for stunt people," Lois said.

Lois and Jophery enjoying some together time

But, what about baseball?

Brown stayed in touch with former teammate Ernie Banks (whose son actually became a pretty good stuntman in his own right), but he never really regretted not giving pitching another shot. And why would he? He was recognized for breaking major barriers in his craft. His life literally became a movie -- hundreds of award-winning, memorable movies -- that will live on forever.

That sunny afternoon at Forbes Field in 1968 proved to be just a small footnote in a life that became so much more.

"He was the best Black stuntman around," Lois told me. "That's my opinion and that's a lot of people's opinion."