He was certainly handsome enough to be an actor, and he had a physique that looked like it was chiseled from marble. He boxed the great Muhammad Ali three times and even beat him the first time around, breaking Ali’s jaw in the process. Their trilogy was so closely scored and hotly contested that there are some who still insist that Muhammad lost all of them. But many will certainly forget that he became a movie star too, at the peak of his boxing career, and starred in two exploitation classics of the 1970’s. I’m talking about Ken Norton, of course, who left us way too soon(around a week ago)at the age of 70.
“Mandingo” was released in May of 1975 and its sequel “Drum” a little over a year later. Both starred Mr. Norton, but as differently named characters—the reason for which becomes instantly clear upon watching “Mandingo” in its entirety. Critical opinion is divisive concerning the quality of “Mandingo”, with renowned critics such as Leonard Maltin and the late Roger Ebert giving the film their lowest possible rating. But Dave Kehr spoke very highly of it in the New York Times in 2008, upon writing a feature on Richard Fleischer(the film’s director). “Mandingo” also starred the great James Mason and British sexpot Susan George. The box office hit has also received kudos from Quentin Tarantino, and one doesn’t have to stretch the imagination too far as seeing “Mandingo” as inspiration for a prominent plotline in Quentin’s recent “Django Unchained”. The sequel “Drum” had the marvelous Warren Oates and blaxploitation queen Pam Grier(later the star of Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” in 1997)joining Ken, and it sought to capitalize upon the success of its predecessor by prominently headlining Norton after a rushed and tumultuous production. Unfortunately, unlike “Mandingo”, it does not appear to be available on DVD.
Why does Ken Norton receive a special feature on my blog, some of you may fairly ask. Well, the heavyweight titlists Ali, Foreman, Frazier and Norton—they were the giants of my youth. I’ve been a boxing fan for decades, and all of these men also dabbled in acting throughout and beyond their fistic careers. Yes, they usually played some type of fighter in their role, which is certainly the case with Norton in “Mandingo” and “Drum”. Beyond these two films, Mr. Norton would intermittently be seen on the big screen in small roles—or you may have even caught him appearing on popular 1980’s television programs like “The A-Team” and “Knight Rider”. But there was a quick twofer of motion picture infamy from the mid-1970’s where Ken Norton could actually be called a movie star. Don’t believe me? Seek out “Mandingo” on DVD. Plus, I believe “Drum” is available on youtube. I’m not necessarily saying they are good—but they are, without a doubt, unforgettable. Farewell, Ken Norton—and thanks for the memories.