Top 15 Athletes Who Became Successful Actors

Most of us won’t retire until we reach old age, but this is not the case for professional athletes. Due to the nature of their profession, athletes are forced to hang up their boots usually in their 3

Most of us won’t retire until we reach old age, but this is not the case for professional athletes. Due to the nature of their profession, athletes are forced to hang up their boots usually in their 30’s, with a few making it to 40+ where their body will begin to say no but the heart still says yes. When athletes retire there are many different paths that they could take. They could either sit on their millions if they were successful or smart with their money, or they could pursue other options. Many go into coaching or become analysts and reporters, but there are also many that eye the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.

Ordinarily, when an athlete makes an attempt at acting it can be rather painful and embarrassing, but sometimes athletes look as comfortable on set as they do out on the field of play. Some athletes will try their hand at acting in one film (usually playing themselves) and often whilst they are still performing, like Michael Jordan in Space Jam, and then quickly realize that acting is no walk in the park and stick to what they know best. There are also athletes that have persevered and worked hard to become respectable actors, and this is to be admired as transitioning between athlete and actor is certainly no easy feat.

It is the aspirations of millions of people to become a professional athlete or an actor, and the majority of us never get to experience either. In a few cases there are individuals who not only get to experience both, but become respected in both lines of work and become huge names in the entertainment business.

Here are 15 athletes who became successful actors.

15 Howie Long

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Howie Long played in the NFL from 1981-93 as defensive end for the Oakland/L.A. Raiders, and in this time he became a Super Bowl champion, co-Defensive Player of the Year, Defensive Lineman of the Year and he would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000. Long is an important figure in Raiders history, and he has remained in the game as a broadcaster.

He has also successfully experimented away from the football field, having a successful acting career. Like most athletes, he has mainly appeared in action films but he has also made cameo appearances on TV shows and in commercials. His first role was in 1996’s Broken Arrow where he appeared alongside John Travolta, and two years later he would land the leading role in Firestorm. He has also appeared in Dollar for the Dead and 3000 Miles to Graceland. The stock sound effect the “Howie Scream” is also named after the defensive end after its use in Broken Arrow.

14 Bubba Smith


Bubba Smith had a highly successful college football career and would go on to become the 1st pick and play nine years in the NFL. In this time he won the Super Bowl and was named to two Pro Bowls, as well as becoming an All-Pro. Sitting on this success upon retirement was not enough for Smith, who decided to try his hand at acting. After a few minor roles he finally landed a key role, playing Moses Hightower in Police Academy and the subsequent sequels. This helped him earn fame away from the football field, and he would go on to perform in a range of other films as well as advertisements and TV programs.

Smith sadly passed away in 2011, but he firmly made his mark on both the athletic world as well as in Hollywood, and he was a hugely talented man.

13 Shaquille O’Neal


Not only is Shaq one of the biggest players to have played in the NBA, but he is also one of the biggest personalities. This meant that it was inevitable that he would try his hand at acting at some point, and he has appeared in dozens of films and will often play himself. He may not be the most skilled actor, but he has the important ability to make people laugh and has therefore been heavily used in comedies. Shaq has played roles in Curb Your Enthusiasm, My Wife & Kids, Blue Chips, The Parkers, Scary Movie 4, Grown Ups 2 and he has also done some voice acting for The Smurfs 2 and The Lego Movie.

Shaq is an enormous media personality, in more ways than one, and this goes back to his playing days where he had the ability to entertain fans both with his dominant play and fun loving personality. In addition to basketball and acting, Shaq is also a semi successful rap artist.

12 Terry Bradshaw


Former NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw is the only NFL player that has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, making him an extraordinary talent who excelled as an athlete and actor. His talents do not stop here either, as Bradshaw also has a number of albums under his belt too. The Hall of Famer is a four-time Super Bowl Champion, twice a Super Bowl MVP, MVP and Quarterback of the Year, but Bradshaw was not content with resting on his laurels. His film appearances include Hooper, The Cannonball Run, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and Failure to Launch.

11 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


On the hardwood, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the all-time greats with six rings, six MVP awards and is the all-time leading scorer with a staggering 38,387 points. As he spent the majority of his career in Los Angeles with the Lakers, it was also the perfect place for Abdul-Jabbar to test out his acting skills. As it turned out, he was pretty good at this too. He was the co-pilot in the hugely popular satirical film Airplane! and he has also gone on to perform in many different sitcoms and films where he quite often will play himself. A selection of his acting work includes Fletch, Troop Beverley Hills, Everybody Loves Raymond, Diff’rent Strokes, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Scrubs and 21 Jump Street.

10 Lawrence Taylor


Hall of Famer L.T is unquestionably one of the all-time greats and enjoyed a legendary career with the Giants. In his playing days, Taylor became a two-time Super Bowl champion, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, MVP and firmly established himself as perhaps the greatest defensive player to play the game. He had an enormous impact on the NFL, but following his retirement he wanted to undertake a new adventure.

Taylor decided on acting, and what better way to start than a football film. His first performance was in a movie right up his alley, the popular Any Given Sunday, and he would go on to play roles in The Waterboy, Shaft, Mercy Streets and In Hell. In addition, L.T appeared as himself in The Sopranos, and he has done some voice acting in videogames Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Blitz: The League.

9 Bob Uecker


Bob Uecker played catcher for the Milwaukee Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves, becoming a World Series Champion in 1964 with the Cardinals. Uecker would go on to provide commentary after retiring, and thanks to his sense of humour he also was able to launch a career as an actor and media personality which he is now more famous for.

He played George Owens, a key character, in the popular 80’s sitcom Mr Belvedere, and he has also appeared in Fatal Instinct, The Major League trilogy, O.C and Stiggs, Who’s the Boss? LateLine and an episode of Futurama. Uecker is also famous for a series of Miller Lite commercials, as well as appearing over 100 times on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

8 Jim Brown


Jim Brown is widely considered to be one of the greatest football players of all time, as well as one of the best athletes in the history of the USA. Despite a historic, record setting career in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns, he retired at just 30 years old to launch a career in the film industry.

Brown would go on to have a long and successful career in the movie industry, but also an important one with him being credited as the first “black action star” and also appearing in one of the first films to have an interracial love scene. His football and acting career slightly overlapped, and this irritated his coach which ultimately led to Brown’s retirement. A few of Brown’s most notable films include Rio Conchos, the critically acclaimed The Dirty Dozen, Ice Station Zebra, El Condor, Slaughter, The Running Man, Mars Attacks!, and a role similar to himself in Any Given Sunday. In addition to these films, Brown has also appeared in popular TV shows CHiPS and Night Rider.

7 Alex Karras


Alex Karras was a man with many skills, and over the years he earned fame as a football player, wrestler and actor. Karras first rose to fame as a DT for the Detroit Lions and was famous for only missing one game in 12 seasons. He was originally going to become a wrestler before joining the NFL, and he would get a chance to live out this dream when he was suspended for a season for betting on NFL games. After retiring from football, Karras turned to acting. He appeared in Porky’s, Victor Victoria, Against All Odds, F.M and even appeared on M*A*S*H, but his most notable role is in the popular Western parody Blazing Saddles, where he plays the role of Mongo.

6 Vinnie Jones


It may seem like an eternity ago, but there was a time where Hollywood ‘hard man’ Vinnie Jones was the hard man in the English Football League, most notably as part of the Wimbledon F.C “Crazy Gang”. It is here where he first earned his reputation and was at the centre of many controversies, and upon retiring Jones was able to harness this reputation to launch a successful acting career. He is always typecast, but there is a good reason for this as he fits the role so well. Jones’s most notable film appearances include Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Mean Machine, Gone in 60 Seconds, Snatch, She’s the Man,, Euro Trip and The Midnight Meat Train.

5 Fred Williamson


Fred “The Hammer” Williamson first succeeded on the gridiron as a defensive back in both the NFL and AFL, and he became famous for his hard tackles and self promotion, as he would often state that he would deliver hammer blows to opposing players. It seemed that he was perfect for Hollywood, and as it turned out this was true as he has been in a staggering amount of movies and TV shows. This includes M*A*S*H, Black Caesar, Starsky & Hutch, Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn where he co-starred with George Clooney and Tarantino, The Godfather of Harlem and dozens more.

Williamson became famous through the “blaxploitation” genre in the early 1970s, and is now instantly recognizable in Hollywood. In addition to football and acting, Williamson is also black belt in Kenpo, Tae-Kwon-Do and Shotokan Karate, all of which comes in handy in his action roles.

4 Carl Weathers


Although he is better known for his work as an actor, Carl Weathers was also a successful football player who had a brief stint in the NFL and Canadian Football League (CFL). He played under John Madden with the Raiders, but he retired from football early on and instead pursued acting. In 1976, Weathers landed a huge role which is where most people now know him from. Weathers played the role of Apollo Creed in Rocky, one of the all-time great sports films and one which has influenced countless other films over the years. Weathers reprised this role in another three films in the franchise, and he would also go on to land roles in Happy Gilmore, Predator, Little Nicky and on popular TV series Arrested Development.

3 Dwayne Johnson


You can’t help but smile anytime you see Dwayne Johnson, or “The Rock” as he is better known, on television. He has gone from one of the most entertaining and impressive wrestlers of all time through to a firmly established Hollywood action superstar.

Like many athletes, Johnson is typecast due to his fame and body shape, but he has proven himself to be a skilled actor in his performances. Johnson wasn't only a wrestler, he was also a national champion at the University of Miami, and was an All-American at defensive end. After going undrafted in the NFL, he had a brief stint with the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL.

His smooth transition to acting could be due to playing a character in the WWE, but whatever the reason, you can’t deny his strong presence in Hollywood these days and he is also a very hard worker with many films under his belt. The People’s Champion has had a remarkable career both in and out of the ring, and he shows no signs of slowing down just yet.

A few of Johnson’s most famous films include The Scorpion King, Walking Tall, Race to Witch Mountain, Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6, Hercules and Furious 7.

2 Chuck Norris


Chuck Norris is best known as an actor, but this would not be the case had it not been for his stellar Martial Arts career. Norris won many titles over his career, with 1969 being a particularly dominant year where he took home Karate’s Triple Crown after winning the most tournaments that year. He has since been inducted into the Martial Arts History Museum’s Hall of Fame and been presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Karate Union Hall of Fame.

He would become a global star once he turned to acting, particularly for his role in Way of the Dragon where he plays the nemesis of fellow martial artist Bruce Lee. Norris would go on to find success in films such as Breaker! Breaker! The Octagon, Firewalker and the television series Walker, Texas Ranger.

1 Arnold Schwarzenegger


Once Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated the body building world, it was his goal to next crack Hollywood. His first attempt at this was with the laughable Hercules in New York, where his acting could be described as painful and his accent so thick that upon release his voice was overdubbed, plus there was also a scene where he wrestles with a man in a very cheap bear suit. Things would improve years later for Arnie however, and he would go on to become an action film icon.

He has appeared in dozens of films and still relied on his enormous frame, but a few of his classics include Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator films, Commando, Predator, Total Recall and Kindergarten Cop. He would of course go on to become the Governor of California, adding another string to his bow and helping him to become one of the most likeable and recognizable celebrities in the business.

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Top 15 Athletes Who Became Successful Actors