Dothan native Johnny Mack Brown (1904-1974) gained fame in two very different arenas: college football and Hollywood Westerns. A gifted athlete, he first achieved notoriety as an All-American running back for the University of Alabama for his efforts in a stunning upset of the heavily favored University of Washington Huskies in the 1926 Rose Bowl. The subsequent media attention brought the notice of Hollywood legendary director and producer King Vidor, and Brown went on to a successful career as an actor in film and television. Each May, Dothan's Landmark Park hosts the Johnny Mack Brown Western Festival, a celebration of Brown's films and the Western genre. It features screenings, lectures, live entertaiment, arts and crafts, and food.
Brown was born on September 1, 1904, in Dothan to Ed and Mattie Brown, shopkeepers who had seven other children. Brown was a star football player at his high school, and his athletic abilities earned him both the nickname "the Dothan Antelope" and a football scholarship to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa—one of five Brown brothers recruited. He played first under popular coach Xen Scott, but his potential reached its fullest under Coach Wallace Wade. Brown led the team to the 1926 Division 1-A championships and earned a spot on the Wheaties cereal box. In addition to his athletic endeavors, Brown participated in drama club events and courted and married his college sweetheart, Cornelia Foster, the daughter of a prominent judge, with whom he would have four children.
Although the precise sequence and timing of the events leading up to his shift to Hollywood remain disputed, Brown won a Hollywood screen test and by 1927 began appearing in his first films. He started out in light comedies, including Slide, Kelly, Slide!, Mockery, and After Midnight, as well as in romantic roles with actresses such as Marion Davies in The Fair Co-Ed and Our Dancing Daughter with Joan Crawford. In the mid-1930s, Brown began appearing in Westerns and settled into the cowboy role nicely. Not least because of his appearance in the title role of Billy the Kid—a role for which he was widely praised—he was awarded long-term contracts with a number of studios, including Supreme, Republic, and Universal. In 1940, he began a decade-long run as a cast member in the radio show Under Western Skies. Three years later, he became a contract player for Monogram Pictures, which would serve as his professional home until 1952 and with whom he would make 66 films. He most often played a likeable, no-nonsense hero who was not shy about using his fists or his guns. Brown was also featured as the hero of a comic-book series in both British and American imprints from 1950 through 1959.
He achieved financial success in his career, and the family resided in a large, Tudor-style Beverly Hills home with a swimming pool and a skeet-shooting range. Brown continued athletic hobbies, playing polo with stars such as Leslie Howard and Spencer Tracy; swimming with Duke Kahanamoku and Johnny Weissmuller; and duck-hunting with Clark Gable and Charlie Starrett, the "Durango Kid."
By the end of the 1940s, plot-driven westerns had largely replaced the older "action" films. The Browns rented their home to various movie-industry figures and then sold it to a friend. They moved into the less costly Park La Brea Apartments, and Johnny Mack took work as a celebrity host at a posh restaurant called The Tale of the Cock. New rewards and honors came his way after his movie career ended, however. He accepted an invitation to return home to Dothan for the 1950 Peanut Festival, and in 1957 he was inducted into the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame. Most important to him, however, was his induction, along with Paul "Bear" Bryant, Ralph "Shug" Jordan, Joe Louis, and Don Hutson, as a charter member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1969. Always proud of his Alabama roots, Brown gave a short speech in which he humorously noted that in a lifetime of shootouts, he had been vanquished on the screen only three times, thereby posting a record 297 marks in the win column. He went on to state that the induction was his greatest honor. Brown accepted his associations with the past and took on several secondary roles in film, backing up newer Western action stars such as Rory Calhoun and Rod Cameron. He made several guest appearances on television series, including Perry Mason and Official Detective and played a sheriff in two episodes of Wells Fargo. He otherwise largely remained out of the public eye.
Johnny Mack Brown enjoyed a long and happy career, in addition to family happiness and prosperity, as Hollywood cowboy movie hero, and is counted among the greats of the genre, along with Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Lash Larue. He died of heart failure on November 14, 1974, and was buried in Forest Lawn Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Beidler, Phillip D. "The Story of Johnny Mack Brown." Alabama Heritage 38 (Fall 1995): 14-25.