There are some very distinct similarities between the worlds of acting and professional sports. Obviously there are tons of differences between the two, but both involve performance, concentration, practice and, of course, some natural talent to tie all three attributes together.
With that said, it is not surprising that some athletes transition to careers on the screen after their careers on the field/court/ice are over. Many go into broadcasting, but every now and again, an athlete develops a fondness for acting. Obviously, plenty of big name producers will get an athlete to fill a role to put consumers in seats, and sometimes that ends up very poorly. For examples of “poorly” look up any time Shaquille O’Neal or Hulk Hogan got in front of a camera.
But coming back to the point, most professional athletes have confidence and charisma oozing out of themselves. One doesn’t rise to the top of any world, sports included, by not being self-assured and secure enough to perform in front of an audience. Here is our list of twenty athletes who are (were, in some cases) great actors.
20. LeBron James
Our list starts off with one of the most prominent stars in the NBA right now, LeBron James. The Cavaliers forward recently played a supporting role in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, which featured comedienne Amy Schumer and former SNL genius, Bill Hader. Critics have praised his acting, as he played a modified version of himself. Apatow himself said that James was a gifted actor and his co-stars commented that while they were funny, he was funny, a solid performer and a great ball player.
I will be the first to point out that King James was on my list of poor athlete acting performances several months ago. At the time, he had been on Entourage and Saturday Night Live, and had acted poorly in both. He has redeemed himself, I apologized to him and we’re cool again.
19. Taylor Kitsch
Now before anyone says “Hey Chris, you horrible person, he’s an actor, of course he can act!,” he was a hockey player first and played Junior A (high level, similar to Tier I in the United States) in the British Columbia Hockey league. His career was ended by a knee injury and he subsequently took up modeling and acting. If you’re not familiar with his acting, he played Tim on Friday Night Lights and was Lt. Mike Murphy in Lone Survivor. Murphy is of course the guy who scales a mountain under heavy gunfire to call in support for himself and his fellow Navy SEALs and is fatally wounded in the process.
Fine, he never went pro, but he played at a high level, so I’d say he’s qualified for this list. Meet me in the comments section on Facebook if you’re enraged and I’ll humor you.
18. Chuck Connors
While our first entry is one of the biggest stars in the world right now, Chuck Connors is deceased and played professional sports back in the 1940s and 50s. Connors played professional basketball in the 40s, was drafted by the Chicago Bears of the NFL, and also played a couple of seasons of professional baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs. Ultimately, his greatest renown came from his television and movie career, which included over 20 successful films and of course, the five year ABC show The Rifleman.
17. Stacy Keibler
Our list’s number seventeen is one of WWE’s most beautiful Divas of all time, with a gorgeous face and gorgeous assets, including absurdly long legs. “The Weapon of Mass Seduction” has earned some fame from modelling and has also been featured in over a dozen television shows, including How I Met Your Mother, in which she almost resisted Barney Stinson’s charms.
16. Chuck Norris
Before the wave of facts (that are now a decade old) and even before Walker: Texas Ranger, Chuck Norris built up a martial arts background that would become the basis for his later success. He practiced martial arts for years before and during his military career. He earned multiple black belts and also founded his own school. He achieved some success in tournaments throughout the 1960s.
He started out his acting career playing small parts but gradually grew into a leading star, playing both bad guys and heroes. While Walker: Texas Ranger is his probably the most known of his work, he acted in plenty of solid films before that, including the Missing in Action films and, of course, Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon.
15. Burt Reynolds
Many don’t know this, but Burt Reynolds was originally a football player. He tore up high school football in Florida and attended Florida State on a scholarship. Unfortunately, he sustained a couple of injuries in his collegiate career and was unable to continue in football.
He took to drama late in his time at Florida State and (for those of you who missed it) went on to become one of the most notable actors of the century.
14. Jim Brown
For those who are just casual fans of gridiron football, Jim Brown played fullback for the Cleveland Browns from 1957 until 1965. In that time, he rushed for over 12,000 yards, caught for over 2,000 and scored 126 touchdowns. That’s fourteen per year. Brown is considered to be one of the three greatest football players of all time.
His acting career started in 1964, but really took off in ’66 when he played Robert Jefferson in The Dirty Dozen. He has acted in over thirty films over the last forty years, including terrible movies such as Mars Attacks and Small Soldiers, and great movies such as 100 Rifles and Any Given Sunday. His most recent role was in the 2014 football movie Draft Day.
13. Jason Lee
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, Jason Lee was a professional skateboarder. He never earned the legendary reputation of guys like Tony Hawk, but remains involved with the sport, having contributed to Hawk’s charitable organization that builds skate parks in low income communities.
In the early 90s, Lee started getting low-key acting jobs and would go on to act in several Kevin Smith movies and as the title character in the NBC comedy My Name is Earl.
12. Merlin Olsen
If you look up a short list of the greatest defensive tackles in the history of the gridiron and it doesn’t include Merlin Olsen, then the list is no damn good. He was selected to 14 Pro Bowls between 1962 and 1975, and was a nine time All-Pro.
After retiring from football, he found success as a broadcaster and also acted. His most notable television roles were on Little House on the Prairie and as the title character of the show Father Murphy.
11. Ronda Rousey
Yes, that’s right, other than being the (debatable?) best female fighter in the world and being a total fox, Ronda Rousey is a great actress. She has hinted that after she wipes the floor with Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos and rival Miesha Tate once more, she may retire from fighting and start acting full time. As of now. she has had great parts in The Expendables 3, Entourage and Furious 7. She has also said that her autobiography will be made into a movie, in which she will star.
10. Fred Dryer
Dryer was a defensive end for the New York Giants and L.A. Rams from 1969 to 1981. He was a two time All-Pro and had a single Pro Bowl appearance. The greatest accomplishment of his NFL career was getting two safeties in one game, when the Rams trounced the Green Bay Packers back in 1973.
After his time in football, he took up acting. His biggest roles were television shows Hunter and Land’s End, and since the 1990s he has mainly done voice acting work.
9. Mark Harmon
His role as Leroy Gibbs on NCIS has made him one of the most well-known faces on television. The role started in 2003. Before that Harmon had small parts here and there in film and on television. In 1986, he was of course People magazine’s sexiest man alive.
Before all of that, Mark Harmon was the quarterback for UCLA. While there the team went 17-5 with him receiving snaps and he also performed well in the classroom. After graduating with honors, he started acting, rather than pursue a football career.
8. Vinnie Jones
Vinnie Jones was one of the meanest people to ever play soccer. He routinely assaulted opposing players as well as his own teammates and was a leading member of Wimbledon’s “crazy gang,” known as the most violent team in the history of the game. He played mid-fielder for sixteen years and found his first acting job in 1998, playing brutal enforcer “Big Chris” in Guy Ritchie’s masterpiece Lock, Stock and Two Smokin’ Barrels.
Since then it has been more of the same: Vinnie Jones plays slightly tweaked versions of himself on the soccer pitch. Gone in 60 Seconds, X-Men, The Condemned and The Midnight Meat Train all feature Jones and each character is more gruesome and awful than the last. In short, he’s been typecast as a bad guy and completely owns the role.
7. Carl Weathers
Growing up in New Orleans, Carl Weathers was involved with sports throughout his childhood and played for San Diego State in the late 1960s. He played linebacker professionally for the Oakland Raiders in 1970 and 1971, followed by three seasons with the B.C. (British Columbia) Lions of the Canadian Football League until 1974.
On the big screen, he is far well known however, for playing various tough guys, most notably Apollo Creed in three of the Rocky movies, Dillon in Predator and Chubbs in Happy Gilmore.
6. Ed Marinaro
Ed Marinaro was one of those players who was an absolute gem in college but just couldn’t quite hack it in the NFL. He attended Cornell and set records of all kinds, and was the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1971, losing to Pat Sullivan. In three years, his yardage totaled 4,715 yards with a 5.1 yard per carry average and 50 touchdowns. In the NFL he spent four seasons with the Vikings, and a season each with the Seahawks and Jets. His totals, six touchdowns and 1,319 yards were less impressive than his college years.
Most of his acting work was on television and he was a regular on Laverne and Shirley, as well as Hill Street Blues. More recently he played a football coach on the series Blue Mountain High.
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
The Milwaukee Bucks/L.A. Lakers center is widely considered to be among (if not at the top) of the top five ever to play basketball. His resume boasts over 28,000 points, 19 All-Star appearances, six league MVPs and six championships (eight if you include his time as a coach with the Lakers).
Early in his career he started acting, getting a role in Game of Death, a Bruce Lee flick from the 1970s. His first major role was as co-pilot Roger Murdoch in the classic comedy Airplane. With regard to smaller acting gigs and cameos, there are too many to name, but they range from comedy talk shows such as the Colbert Report to Scrubs.
4. Terry Bradshaw
For the American football-illiterate out there, Terry Bradshaw is one of the most iconic players in the history of the NFL. Bradshaw was the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, during the 1970s when they had a disgustingly talented defense, featuring the defensive line known as The Steel Curtain. Bradshaw led the team to four Super Bowls and was the first quarterback to win that many. He is also one of just three quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls. The others are Joe Montana and Tom Brady.
He took up acting around the end of his career and has been accepting sporadic work ever since. His most recent major movie work was in Failure to Launch and he has had numerous appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Earlier on in his acting days he did tons of cameos in films such as Hooper and The Cannonball Run.
3. Jason Statham
Long before his time as one of the film industry’s favorite tough guys, Jason Statham was a practitioner of the martial arts. Before that however, all the way back in the late 1980s and early 90s, he was a diver for the English national team. He competed at the Commonwealth Games in 1990.
Since then, he’s carved out a great reputation as a gritty, low-voiced, accented scrapper, having starred in The Transporter movies, The Expendables series and several others; all high-paced action thrillers. Oh, and don’t forget the Crank movies. Never forget the crank movies.
2. Bob Uecker
Born in 1934 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Bob Uecker played five years of professional baseball with four different teams. Playing catcher he was considered a safe bet in the field, but not much with the bat in his hands. He once said that the best way to catch a knuckle-ball was to wait for it to stop rolling and then pick it up.
He retired in 1967 and by that time his charm and wit had become apparent. In 1971, he was hired to broadcast on the radio for the Milwaukee Brewers. On television and in movies he has generally played characters related to the sports world. He was a sportscaster in Mr. Belvedere and in the Major League series.
1. Dwayne Johnson
He went from winning a National Championship with the Miami Hurricanes to being the most electrifying man in sports entertainment, to a major film star, and The Rock remains one of the most beloved athlete-turned-actor in the business. He played briefly in the Canadian Football League before taking up wrestling.
I don’t have to explain anything about his acting career, as people simply love the guy and most of the movies are enjoyable and his performances, usually as some sort of awesome firearm or 4X4 piece of lumber wielding antagonist with a heart of gold (see Walking Tall for more info on The Rock wailing on guys with a 4X4 post), are solid. He’s been in the last few Fast and Furious movies and has done a couple of comedies and a feel-good masterpiece in The Gridiron Gang. Dwayne Johnson has made an amazing career for himself and, between athleticism and acting, is a man who deserves all the praise he gets. On top of the talent, more than one person has said he is a great human being.
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