James E. Brown was born in Desdemona, Texas to Floyd Estle Brown and Cordie Mae Bowen Brown on March 22, 1920. In 1920, the Brown family was living in Desdemona during Eastland County’s early oil boom. They had previously lived in Waco but had followed the oil business to Eastland County for a short time before returning to Waco when James was just three months old. James was the second of four siblings and though he was the only sibling not to be born there, he considered Waco to be his home town. He graduated from Waco High School in 1936 where he helped the school tennis team win a championship that year. Brown attended Schreiner Institute in Kerrville for one year before enrolling at Baylor University on a tennis scholarship. Along the way, he played football briefly until injuries (broken eardrum and cracked kneecap) led him to concentrate on tennis. Brown’s family remained in Waco and for a number of years lived in Brook Oaks and North Waco, in the general vicinity of Cameron Park. At the time of his father F. E. Brown’s death, the elder Brown was said to have lived in Waco for fifty years. He and Cordie Mae had divorced at one point, but they are both buried at Oakwood Cemetery.
An article in the Waco Tribune-Herald of March 7, 1943 recounted a bit more of James’ Texas history as it described a new film called “Air Force” in which Brown was appearing. In the film, Brown played the role of a World War II fighter pilot who makes fun of the slower bomber crews until he interacts with them in action over the Pacific Ocean. He later becomes a bomber pilot himself.
The Herald-Tribune article said that James “Lefty” Brown had been playing tennis for Baylor in the annual Pacific Southwest Tennis tournament in Los Angeles back in 1941. He was eliminated in the fourth round of the men’s singles of the tournament but came away from the West Coast trip with a contract from Paramount Studios. “Air Force” was filmed with the cooperation of the United States Army Air Corps and the assistance of Lt. Gen. H. H. “Hap” Arnold. It received good reviews as it promoted the war effort. The film had a cast of well known actors including Gig Young, Arthur Kennedy, Harry Carey and John Garfield and was Brown’s fourth appearance with the studio, the second in which he was credited. He went on to appear in three to four dozen more films. In the 1950s, he began to appear in early television series including “My Little Margie” as he continued to be cast in feature films. In 1954, he appeared in the first of 166 episodes of “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” as Lt. “Rip” Masters. This became probably his most well known role. The series ran from 1954 to 1959 and also spawned a spin off film in 1958’s “The Challenge of Rin Tin Tin.”
Rin Tin Tin was the name given to an actual German Shepherd dog found by American soldier Lee Duncan during World War I in France. Duncan had rescued the dog as a puppy on a battlefield and brought him back to the United States. The German Shepherd was trained by Duncan and appeared in some twenty-seven films. The original Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, but had succeeded in helping to popularize the breed. Another canine, Rin Tin Tin IV, also owned by Duncan and possibly related to Duncan’s original animal, was initially cast in the series. Duncan’s German Shepherd was said not to have performed as well, and another dog from a different trainer is believed to have filmed almost all of the episodes.
The television series depicted activities in a western fort called Fort Apache. In it the dog and a young boy were both orphaned after the rest of the family was killed. The plots of almost every episode revolved around the characters played by the German Shepherd (which the studio renamed Rin Tin Tin II), James Brown and a child actor named Lee Aaker.
Brown continued his long career after the series ended, appearing in films and television roles including his appearance as a police officer named Harry McSween, a friend of the major character J. R. Ewing, in about three dozen episodes of the long-running television series “Dallas.” It was Brown’s last continuing television role, although he made guest appearances on other programs.
Brown also had a successful career in business making exercise/body building equipment and represented the international cosmetics firm Faberge in several capacities including lastly being head of customer relations. The actor succumbed to lung cancer in 1992 in Woodland Hills, California.
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