The Best Athlete-Actors (Sorry, Kareem Doesn’t Count)
Athletes retire young. The smartest are perhaps never heard from again, or maybe they just go sit on Supreme Courts. Many, however, just love that limelight. The best of those have buckets of money, butt-loads of fame and powerful connections in Hollywood. Considering how many hundreds of folks fit this description and are attractive and marketable to boot (maybe even have some sort of actor-cred from commercials or SNL), Iâ€™m stunned to think that weâ€™ve only been graced with a relative few that make the seemingly inevitable career leap from field to screen. Iâ€™m further flummoxed by how many have really been pretty good at the whole acting thing. Iâ€™m going to go through some of my favorite athletes-turned-actors here and please, feel free to share your favorites in the comments.
Now, when I assert above that relatively few former athletes take the Hollywood route, Iâ€™m talking about percentages. There are still a ton of men and women from the sporting world who have made noise in Hollywood. Lots of noise. Iâ€™ve attempted to make the list more manageable by defining some parameters for myself.
–No boxers or martial artists. I would love to (and most likely eventually will, as a lover of the genre) delve into the Hollywood adventures of former competitive fighters. Even in the last year, one of my favorite (maybe NSFW: violent) athlete performances came from Gina Carano, who is poised to rule the world with next yearâ€™s installment of the best action movie franchise out there. Still, there are so many great actor-combatants from all over the world, Iâ€™ll just have to give this one itâ€™s own post at some point. (Especially since my favorite Wikipedia page of all belongs to an actor who was a two-time European karate champ.)
–No athletes who only play athletes or themselves. This is somewhat related to the previous point, since between the two points we finally preclude inclusion of this guy. Also, all those awful cameos in terrible basketball movies are now covered.
–Pros and Olympics only. Good-to-Great college/minor-league athletes who get Hollywood love are just everywhere. I mean, everywhere. Hell, this guy played offensive guard in one of the most famous football games in college history.
–Reality shows are an automatic disqualification.
–No pro wrestlers unless they started elsewhereâ€¦ (I have my reasons.)
–Even though Iâ€™ve seen this at least a dozen times, no motor sports. Fortunately, Nascar hasnâ€™t produced any good actors, so weâ€™re clear. No X-Games, either. Sorry, Jason Lee. You do rock, but you donâ€™t make the cut.
So, those are my main parameters, to help me narrow my post and limit it to less than 9,000 words (youâ€™re welcome). Iâ€™ll get to it: here are my favorites athlete-actors that remain (in barely discernable order by â€œwhere I felt like putting themâ€).
Carl Weathers: Played for Don Coryell in college and John Madden in the NFL. I said no athletes who just play athletes, but Iâ€™d have broken that rule if the only thing Carl had done in Hollywood was give us Apollo Creed (thank you, Mr. Weathers). Add to that performance his work as Jericho Jackson, Chubbs, â€˜Dreamerâ€™ Tatum, and Dillon in Predator? Heâ€™s my teenage selfâ€™s favorite actor. Bring in his flawless work as that manipulative jerk â€˜Carl Weathersâ€™ on â€˜Arrested Developmentâ€™ and I give up: Give him every award and another of whatever he drinks.
Esther Williams: She won two national championships as a teenage swimmer. I break my own rules about swimming and professional-status because Hollywood totally revamped itself to find work for her. Initially recruited to compete with Sonja Henie in gimmick musicals, Williams turned into a pretty good actor. Certainly unique in Hollywood history.
Ed Marinaro: Ivy League Halfback that still holds NCAA records for season and career carries/game. Vikings, Jets, Seahawks. Laverne & Shirley! Blue Mountain State. Okay, fine. But câ€™mon: Hill Street Blues. He was terrific in that ancestor and precursor to more recent shows like The Shield and The Wire.
Chuck Connors: Are you kidding me? This guy was Bo Jackson. Sort of. Played for Cubs (not well) and Celtics (3.5 ppg) and was drafted by the Bears, though he never played. Did a ton of westerns (best-remembered from the genre are probably The Rifleman and Support Your Local Gunfighter) and disaster movies through his long career. Terrific in movies like Old Yeller (and of course) Soylent Green and in the iconic mini-series Roots, Connors was among the best character actors of his â€œtypeâ€.
Fred Dryer: His work on Hunter and Cheers ensured that my elementary-school self just severely dug Dryerâ€™s work. DE for the Giants, he was traded to Patriots who traded him again on draft day to the LA Rams. NFL record 2 safeties in one game. Team-mate of Carl Weathers at San Diego State, so itâ€™s entirely probable that there are several people out there telling their children that Action Jackson hit them low while Hunter took the high road.
Woody Strode: Starter in UCLA backfield with Jackie Robinson, he played for LA Rams (signed in 1946; NFL had been without black players since 1933). He was a professional wrestler for decades, after that. Author of the most-re-read autobiography in my collection, he was known as a favorite actor and good friend to HoF director John Ford. He was also cast by HoF director Stanley Kubrick in Spartacus, where he participates in one of the great iconic fight scenes. Sergio Leone (yet another HoF director) cast Strode in what is arguably the best opening scene in film history. For my money, heâ€™s at his best in The Professionals, toe-to-toe with Lee Marvin, Ralph Bellamy, Robert Ryan, the afore-linked Jack Palance and the next person on this list:
Burt Lancaster: Though not a competitive athlete, he was nonetheless a professional circus acrobat for years before injury ended this career and after a stint in Italy during WWII, led to a shift into acting. It comes close to my â€œNo X-Gamesâ€ rule, but itâ€™s my list and this is Burt Freakinâ€™ Lancaster, people.
Jim Brown: Horrifying confessionâ€”I finished my first draft of this article and completely left out the man with the most-impressive combined presence in Hollywood and the sports world. How did I do that? Heâ€™s possibly the best player in NFL history (though there is now a new RB leader in career yds/carry), so you donâ€™t need me to go over his stats. Heâ€™s also pretty much the consensus best lacrosse player of all time. He left the NFL at the height of his powers and popularity, in a time when the money wouldn’t quite set you up for life. And hereâ€™s the thing: heâ€™s a good actor. An IMDB search for his work will lead you here first, which is pretty unfair. His first lead role still holds up at the top of an amazing cast. Heâ€™s probably best known for his work in The Dirty Dozen and aside from the scene where the producers just couldnâ€™t resist using him as a running back against the Nazis, heâ€™s terrific in it (if you havenâ€™t seen the film, this is a better summary than any I might offer). He holds his own with Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Charles Bronson, which is no mean feat. My favorite performance of his is probably in the clichÃ©-ridden 1970 movie …tick…tick…tick…, though Iâ€™m also partial to Ice Station Zebra and Three the Hard Way. Also: this, which brings us toâ€¦
Bernie Casey: A terrific career in Hollywood followed a pretty great NFL body-of-work as a receiver for the 49ers and Rams that included a Pro Bowl and 4 seasons in the top-10 in receptions. Heâ€™s done comedy with Landis, drama with Scorsese and a slew of beloved (even brilliant) cult classics and exploitation masterpieces over the last 40 years. I would venture to say he would be the most impressive athlete-to-actor story in Hollywood history if not forâ€¦
Paul Robeson: Powerhouse defensive monster for the Milwaukee Badgers and Akron Pros of the NFL. Okay, as you can tell from the above links, Mr. Robeson was not a historical force on the gridiron, but it is a big part of his mythos. For his time, he was one of the most famous people on the planet. After finishing as Rutgersâ€™ valedictorian and getting his Columbia Law degree while playing in the NFL, Robeson set the NYC theatre world on its head with his performance as The Emporer Jones. Iâ€™ve got an audio recording of his Othello where he became the first black actor in America to tackle the role on Broadway–with JosÃ© Ferrer and Uta Hagen (and itâ€™s amazing). He starred in still-famous productions on Broadway, in Londonâ€™s West End and in film. He was an international singing star. He took controversial and fearless stances on civil rights, fascism and economics. His fame allowed him meetings with Truman and Kenesaw Mountain Landis encouraging more equal treatment for people of color. During McCarthyism, he was part of the Blacklist, where Hollywood caved to pressure and stopped hiring anyone with suspected Communist sympathies (Robeson was especially vulnerable here, as he was on-record about his positive view of the USSR and had sent his son to school there, though by the time of HUAC his views had changed). Though we donâ€™t know what art and influence heâ€™d have given us in the â€˜50s and â€˜60s, his early-century work stands on its own. His voice, presence and wit place him among the best and most celebrated actors of the 20th century. So heâ€™s the no-brainer choice as the best on this list.
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