Joseph Evans Brown was born on July 28, 1891 in Holgate, Ohio, near Toledo.
In 1902, when only 10 years old, Brown joined a troupe of circus performers known as the Five Marvelous Ashtons. With them, her toured the US, performing at circuses and as part of the vaudeville circuit. Slowly, he added comedy to his performance realizing that he had strong comedic chops and that the audience loved it.
Brown’s athletics went beyond the circus tent. Like his dad, Brown was a huge baseball fan. Because he was also an athlete, he had the opportunity to play in the semi-pros while in his teens. Though we haven’t been able to find specific stats on Brown’s 3-year career, we did learn that he was good enough to be offered a contract with the New York Yankees. Brown decided that he’d rather play a baseball player on the screen (which he did several times) and that he needed to pursue his first love, performing. So, he headed back to the circus and the stage.
In the early 1920s his talent led him to the Broadway stage, where he appeared in a musical comedy called “Jim Jam Jems” alongside future silent film star Harry Langdon.
As usually happened in the early days of the film industry, Brown’s popularity onstage gained the attention of Hollywood producers. In 1928, he started making films and signed a contract with Warner Brothers. With his gentle persona and elastic, goofy grin, he quickly became an audience favorite, especially with children. By 1931 he was such a popular star that his name was billed above the title of any film in which he appeared. He was one of the top money making actors in both 1933 and 1936.
It isn’t an unusual story when fame leads to bad decisions. That was the case in Brown’s career. In the late 1930s, he was lured away from Warner Brothers by David L. Loew, the brother of Loew’s Theatre founder Marcus Loew. Unfortunately, David Loew’s films were cheaply made with little consideration of production values. Brown’s career suffered and he transitioned to making “B” movies.
In the late 30s, however, Brown’s attention moved to the plight of European Jews and the possibility of impending war. In 1939, he testified before the House Immigration Committee in support of allowing 20,000 German Jewish refugee children to come to the US. He later adopted two little girls who arrived, in part, because of his plea.
Once America entered the war, both of his sons joined up. The elder son died in a helicopter crash while training with the Army Air Corps near Palm Springs.
The loss of his son drove Brown to do all he could for the troops. With his twinkling eyes and wide grin, he traveled at his own expense to visit and entertain soldiers. When in Los Angeles, he was a nightly fixture at the Hollywood Canteen. While in The Philippines, he commandeered a military jeep so he could be driven around to meet as many soldiers as possible.He performed in all weather, under any condition and was happy to do his entire show for a single dying soldier if asked. Whenever he returned to the States, he brought large sacks of mail, making sure they were delivered to the Post Office Department.
Because of his dedicated service during WWII, he was one of only two civilians to be awarded the Bronze Star for heroism and meritorious achievement. (The other was a civilian construction worker named Malcolm Johnson who, at the age of 19, stood alongside the Marines as they defended Wake Island in late December 1941. Johnson was captured and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.)
In 1947, Brown returned to performing when he joined the road company of Mary Chase’s wonderful play “Harvey.” In 1948 he received a special Tony for his performance as Harvey’s best friend Elwood P. Dowd. The original Broadway production of “Harvey” was directed by Antoinette Perry, for whom the Tony Awards were named.
In 1953 his love of baseball became an important part of his life for a second time when he became the first president of PONY Baseball and Softball. He continued in the post until 1964, traveling thousands of miles to talk about the PONY League in hopes of inspiring communities to start programs for local kids.
Baseball became part of his life even more deeply when, from 1955-1976, he served as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, helping to lead them to World Series championships in 1960 and 1971.
Baseball didn’t eliminate his acting career, however, In fact, during the ‘50s and ‘60s Brown made cameo appearances in several movie classics, including “Around the World in 80 Days” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Perhaps his most famous performance was in Billy Wilder’s wonderful “Some Like it Hot” in 1959 in which he delivered the film’s last line, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Sadly, in the late 1960s, Brown developed heart issues and, in 1968, he had a serious heart attack. On July 6, 1973, he died from arteriosclerosis at his home in Brentwood, CA, just weeks before his 82nd birthday.
Perhaps Osgood was right when he said, “Nobody’s perfect,” but Joe E. Brown was pretty darned close.