Many athletes have tried their hand at acting. A chosen few have succeeded, while most have faltered. It seems that once the camera’s rolling, the titans of sport can let the pressure get to them and put in some truly wooden performances. While Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson may light up the screen with a seemingly bottomless supply of charisma, the likes of Hulk Hogan have attempted to launch misjudged acting careers in films such as Mr. Nanny. Some persevere, like former soccer star Vinnie Jones, who found his niche as a henchman for hire.
However, there are a handful of sporting champions who have met glory on both the field and screen. These mighty few have managed to transcend sport and put in winning performances in some absolute classics. We’ve cut the obvious contenders – the Schwarzeneggers and Stathams of this world – from our line-up to bring you an elite group of athletes who have also enjoyed acting triumph.
Here are 12 Athletes You Didn't Know Were Actors
12 Ronda Rousey
The former UFC Women's Bantamweight Champion and last ever Strikeforce Women's Bantamweight Champ was a formidable opponent in the ring. During her fight career, Rousey has amassed 12 victories and one solitary defeat. For many, Rousey’s loss to Holly Holm was as unexpected as it was shocking. While Rousey’s move to acting may be similarly unexpected, it’s gotten off to an explosive start.
First up, Rousey joined Sly Stallone’s crew, taking on a maniacal Mel Gibson in The Expendables 3. Rousey more than held her own in the star-studded line up, even if the film itself was delivered a knockout blow at the box office, taking a paltry $39 million in the US. Rousey had more luck in her next film when she went up against Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and The Rock in Furious 7. Rodriguez may have regretted instructing the UFC superstar to hold nothing back during the filming of their showdown, as Rousey landed her with ‘two golf ball-sized’ lumps on her head. Ouch!
Next up for Rousey is Roadhouse, a reboot of the Patrick Swayze classic.
11 Gina Carano
Gina Carano was present at the start of women’s mixed martial arts (MMA) in 2006, beating Leiticia Pestova in the first ever sanctioned women’s MMA bout. When she eventually made the transition to UFC, Carano was already an accomplished Muay Thai kickboxer. By the time Carano retired from UFC in 2011 she had won seven of her eight bouts, with three coming by way of knockout.
Dedicated fans of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 might remember Carano as Natasha in the game’s live-action cut scenes. Well, everyone has to start somewhere, but Carano’s breakout role is undoubtedly the lead in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, where she plays a Jason Bourne-type figure on the run from shadowy government agents led by Ewan McGregor. Carano’s star continues to rise following her show-stopping performance as near-silent baddie Angel Dust in Deadpool.
Next up, Carano will be playing post-apocalyptic bounty hunter Atticus Gage in Scorched Earth.
10 Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson
Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson had only just begun his UFC career when he defeated Chuck Liddell in 1 minute and 53 seconds to claim the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship in 2007. His entry into acting was just as explosive when he landed the role of B.A. Baracus in The A-Team.
Admittedly, Jackson had already muscled in on a couple of minor parts, having appeared in horror film The Midnight Meat Train (with A-Team co-star Bradley Cooper) and an episode of sitcom King of Queens. Mere mortals might have sweated at stepping into boots as big as Mr. T’s, and Jackson’s casting did raise a few eyebrows. Yet the UFC star put his own stamp on the iconic part. Subsequent roles haven’t had quite the same exposure as the A-Team, yet Jackson continues to juggle acting with his UFC commitments. But it’s the octagon that is Jackson’s home and, with a contract dispute settled, he’ll soon be on the rampage once more.
9 George St-Pierre
Two time UFC Welterweight Champion George St-Pierre (or GSP, as he's sometimes known) is frequently cited as the greatest mixed martial arts fighter of all-time. Incredibly, the last time GSP held the title it was for a record-setting 2204 days. The only reason GSP’s winning streak came to an end was because he left the sport to pursue ‘other projects.’
One of these projects was acting. Remember Blanc in Captain America: The Winter Soldier? He’s the one Cap takes down on the high seas at the start of the film, and boy did he put the First Avenger through his paces.
Next up on the acting slate for GSP is Kickboxer: Vengeance, the sequel to Jean-Claude Van Damme ‘80s classic, Kickboxer. Vengeance is shaping up to be an Expendables for the fight game, with fellow ex-UFC fighter Gina Carano and former WWE wrestler David Bautista also taking to the mat. Will acting become St-Pierre's full-time career? Unlikely. Recently, his agent revealed that the fighter is close to returning to UFC after settling a dispute over sponsorship.
8 Serena Williams
Serena Williams the tennis player needs no introduction, but Serena Williams the actor? Well, that’s a different story. Yet over the last decade Williams has made the jump from center court into the world of acting several times. Highlights include appearances on ER, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Drop Dead Diva. Williams even has a movie credit in her trophy cabinet, although admittedly that was playing herself in Adam Sandler misfire Pixels. We're going to call that last one a rare double fault.
While Williams has stated that her busy tennis schedule prevents her from taking big parts, the tennis star has come up with an “ace” solution. Here’s what she told the UK’s Independent newspaper, when she was first considering acting back in 2002:
“I'd like the movie to be all about me, so maybe I can get hurt in the beginning of the movie and I can just stay in a coma until the end."
7 ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper
“I'm here to kick ass and chew bubblegum. And I’m all out of bubblegum,” drawls ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper’s John Nada in John Carpenter’s subversive ‘80s classic They Live. Incredibly, this line came from Piper’s notebook of potential lines to taunt opponents with during his day job as a WWF professional wrestler. Carpenter, a big wrestling fan himself, cast Piper after meeting him at WrestleMania III. Following They Live, Piper (born Roderick Toombs) would continue to both act and wrestle. But he was never able to top the success of They Live, which went straight to the top of the US box office when it was released in 1988.
Tragically, Piper passed away in 2015 from a heart attack. Yet his performance undoubtedly led the way for other wrestlers to make the move into Hollywood. While The Rock may have had the most successful transition from wrestler to actor, it was Piper who got there first.
6 Shaquille O'Neal
Drafted in 1992 to the Orlando Magic, Shaquille O’Neal was one of the most successful players ever to pick up a basketball. A dominant center, standing over 7ft tall, O’Neal was part of the Los Angeles Lakers lineup that won three consecutive championships between 2000-2002, with a fourth championship coming O’Neal’s way in 2006 as part of the Miami Heat.
So far, O’Neal’s acting career has been less of a slam dunk, with early starring roles in Kazaam and Steel failing to connect with both audiences and critics. Yet O’Neal clearly has a fan in Adam Sandler, who cast him in Grown Ups 2, Jack and Jill and Blended. As well as several TV and movie appearances playing himself, including The Lego Movie and the wonderfully excruciating comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, O’Neal has also worked behind the camera, directing an episode of kids’ comedy Cousin Skeeter.
5 Andre the Giant
While ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper was negotiating the lead in They Live, at WrestleMania III, Andre the Giant was facing off against Hulk Hogan in the event’s headline match. The stakes couldn’t have been higher, as Andre pitted his 15-year unbeaten streak against Hogan’s status as reigning champ. Hogan may have defeated Andre that time, but their long-running feud would come to define professional wrestling for years to come.
Yet the French-born André René Roussimoff was about to make another memorable appearance that same year, this time on the silver screen. Ask a child of the ’80s to name their favorite films growing up and The Princess Bride is sure to feature. Press that same person for their favorite character and there’s a good chance they will choose Fezzik, the gentle yet dim-witted giant played by Andre.
The Princess Bride is one of the few pure acting credits on Andre’s acting resume, aside from an episode of the early ‘90s Zorro series and a couple of minor TV roles. Sadly, Andre passed away from a heart attack just a few days after attending his father’s funeral in Paris.
4 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an NBA legend. By the time he retired in 1989, no other player had scored more points or made more blocks. A six-time NBA champion, Abdul-Jabbar was an institution on the court throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Abdul-Jabbar’s acting career might not be able to match up to his one on the court, but it isn’t without its own legendary moments. His first role came opposite Bruce Lee in Game of Death. The film was shot in 1972 but didn’t come out until 1978 as the kung fu legend died before filming could be completed.
However, Abdul-Jabbar had better luck when he agreed to appear in the classic spoof Airplane as Roger Murdoch. Abdul-Jabbar’s part in the “We have clearance, Clarence” skit will be quoted for a good few years to come. While Airplane’s creators, the Zucker brothers, intended to offer the basketball legend $30,000 to appear in Airplane, Abdul-Jabbar’s agent had other ideas and asked for $35,000. The reason? Abdul-Jabbar wanted to buy a rug, and that rug cost $35,000. Must have been some rug.
3 O.J. Simpson
O.J. Simpson is now more famous – or perhaps infamous – for being tried and acquitted for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in 1994.
Nicknamed "The Juice," Simpson originally made his name as one of the all-time great NFL football players. In his 11 season career, Simpson became the first back to rush over 2000 yards, won four rushing titles and made five all-pro selections. When he retired in 1979 he held the then record for most touchdowns in a season (23 in 1975), most yards rushing (2003 in 1973) and most 200 or more yard rushes, on top of a slew of other records.
But also in Simpson’s locker are appearances in the paranoid ‘70s classic Capricorn One, the influential TV mini-series Roots and disaster epic The Towering Inferno. Undoubtedly his most notable acting role is that of bumbling Officer Nordberg in The Naked Gun films, alongside Leslie Nielson.
Given that he’s currently serving a 33-year prison sentence for robbing Las Vegas’ Palace Station hotel-casino at gunpoint, it’s unlikely we’ll see Simpson in an acting role for some time.
2 Caitlyn Jenner – formerly Bruce Jenner
Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner) is now known more for reality TV show Keeping Up with the Kardashians and the media scrutiny that followed her coming out as a transgender woman, but once she was known as one of America’s great Olympiads.
In the 1976 summer games held in Montreal, Jenner won gold in the decathlon, setting a then-world record in the process. Catapulted to stardom, Jenner landed the role of Officer Steve McLeish in cops-on-motorcycles show CHiPs. This was followed with roles in some of the best ‘80s television shows: Murder She Wrote, Love Boat and The Fall Guy. Like Shaquille O’Neal, Jenner also showed up in Adam Sandler’s Jack & Jill alongside a gaggle of Hollywood stars (Al Pacino, why?). For some, though, Jenner’s most memorable television appearance will be the photo of her at the Olympics that stands in for Charlie Day’s CV in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
1 Ty Cobb
Ty Cobb is often described as the best all-round baseball player that ever lived. Playing with the Detroit Tigers for the majority of his career (1905-1926) Cobb hit a batting average of at least .32 for Detroit and retired holding 43 major league records. But Cobb’s game was also rounded out by his skills as an actor.
Vaughan Glaser was the man responsible for getting Cobb into acting. Back in 1911, Glaser, an old acquaintance of Cobb’s, persuaded the ballplayer to play Billy Bolton in a touring production of The College Widow. By all accounts Cobb acquitted himself well on stage and audiences would applaud him whenever he came on. However, this wasn’t so much for his acting ability but because he was baseball legend Ty Cobb, right there in front of them.
Cobb’s reasons to take up acting weren’t so much driven by ego, but hard economic reality. Back at the start of the twentieth century, baseball players weren’t paid the megabucks they are now. Often the players would take mundane jobs in the off season to generate extra cash. For his appearance in the play, Cobb was reportedly paid $10,000 – a princely sum back in the 1910s.
In 1916, Glaser, now a vice president at a film studio, persuaded Cobb to step in front of the camera. The movie was Somewhere in Georgia. Cobb didn’t stray too far from what he knew, portraying a bank clerk who hits the big-time playing baseball for the Detroit Tigers. Unfortunately, there are no known copies of Somewhere in Georgia in existence.
Any other athletes-turned-actors that should have made the cut? Let us know in the comments.
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