NFL legend, film actor and activist Jim Brown has died aged 87 ©Getty Images

Jim Brown, who made his name as one of the greatest players in National Football League (NFL) history before making it again as film actor, and again as a civil rights activist, has died aged 87.

A spokeswoman for Brown’s family said he died peacefully in his Los Angeles home on Thursday night with his wife, Monique, by his side.

"To the world, he was an activist, actor, and football star," Monique Brown wrote on Instagram.

“To our family, he was a loving husband, father, and grandfather.

"Our hearts are broken."

Brown was considered the greatest running back in the history of the sport at the time of his surprise retirement in July 1966 and remains one of the greatest rushers to ever play in the NFL.

Among the films he appeared in were 100 Rifles, Mars Attacks! Spike Lee’s He Got Game, Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, and I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, which parodied the blaxploitation genre.

In 1965 Brown founded the Negro Industrial and Economic Union, an organisation later known as the Black Economic Union, to guide black entrepreneurs and seek equality.

On June 4, 1967, Brown participated in the Cleveland Summit, one of the most important moments in sports and civil rights history that was also attended by by other prominent black athletes, including Browns players John Wooten and Bobby Mitchell, and National Basketball Association stars Billy Russell of the Boston Celtics, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then with the UCLA Bruins and later with the Los Angeles Lakers.

They gathered inside the Black Economic Union's offices in Cleveland to interview boxer Muhammad Ali about his stand against being inducted into the U.S. Military during the Vietnam War, eventually deciding to support him.

The meeting and their decision stood as a powerful symbol of black athletes standing together to support another black athlete's cause, and a picture of them standing together in the same room beside Ali and Brown became a defining photo of the civil rights movement.

"For me, that picture signifies the increasing willingness of Black Americans to come out of their comfort zone and confront the powers-at-be on issues that were important to us," Abdul-Jabbar said on Brown's A Football Life.

In 1988, Brown also founded Amer-I-Can, an organisation that helps gang members and at-risk youths.

 Brown advised Cleveland coach Blanton Collier of his retirement while the team was in training camp and he was on the set of The Dirty Dozen in England, a film that won an Academy Award.

By that point he had established himself as an awesome and irresistible running back with the Browns, for whom he played in 118 straight matches over nine seasons.

Brown is the Browns' all-time rushing leader with 12,312 rushing yards and 106 touchdowns across his nine-year career, which spanned from 1957-1965.

He led the NFL in rushing eight times and was voted Most Valuable Player three times.

Brown was an NFL champion with the Browns in 1964 and helped lead them to the NFL Championship game three times, in 1957, 1964 and 1965.

He was also voted to the Pro Bowl every year of his career and was a first-team All-Pro selection in eight seasons.

A statue of Brown was erected outside Cleveland Browns Stadium in 2016.

In February this year the NFL announced it had renamed its league rushing title as "The Jim Brown Award".

In 1967 Jim Brown was a key figure in the Cleveland Summit when he and other leading black athletes publicly backed the decision by world boxing champion Muhammad Ali to resist being called up to fight in Vietnam ©Getty Images
In 1967 Jim Brown was a key figure in the Cleveland Summit when he and other leading black athletes publicly backed the decision by world boxing champion Muhammad Ali to resist being called up to fight in Vietnam ©Getty Images

Brown starred in over 50 movies and television shows, and was the subject of Spike Lee’s HBO documentary Jim Brown: All-American.

In June 1999, Brown’s wife called 911, saying Brown had smashed her car with a shovel and threatened to kill her.

During the trial, Monique Brown recanted.

Brown was acquitted of a charge of domestic threats but convicted of misdemeanour vandalism.

A Los Angeles judge sentenced Brown to six months in jail when he refused to attend domestic violence counselling.

Following Brown's death, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell offered his condolences on behalf of the League.

“Jim Brown was a gifted athlete - one of the most dominant players to ever step on any athletic field - but also a cultural figure who helped promote change.

“During his nine-year NFL career, which coincided with the civil rights movement here at home, he became a forerunner and role model for athletes being involved in social initiatives outside their sport.”

Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey reflected: "Jim told me, ‘Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts.’

"He lived by that philosophy and I always followed that advice."