For the most part, star athletes have a long, crappy history of trying to act. Every single one of them thinks they can do it, yet when the cameras come on, there they are, standing there with a wooden expression on their face, like Forrest Gump on Jeopardy! But occasionally – very occasionally – a star athlete manages to cross over to the acting world without totally embarrassing himself, and it is to these bastions of mediocrity that this list is dedicated. Sure, none of them were all that great, but at least they managed to make it through without shitting themselves.
A couple of quick rules before we start – none of these performances can be considered cameos or performances where the athletes are just playing themselves (so no Bret Favre in There’s Something About Mary), and everyone on this list should be known primarily as an athlete first and an actor second. I mean, sure, Carl Weathers played pro-football before he played Apollo Creed but his identity isn’t wrapped up in being an athlete like the identities of the dudes on this list are. Okay, now that we all know the deal, here are the nine best acting performances by star athletes.
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Yeah, yeah, I know, not much of a stretch for ol’ Tommy, at the time an up and coming pro boxer, but as you’ll see, that’s kind of a common theme when it comes to athletes trying to act. The only way most of them won’t embarrass themselves is if they play something they’re already intimately familiar with. In Tommy Morrison’s case, this was a pro boxer in Rocky V aka the Rocky flick that everyone likes to forget ever happened. But that’s not really Tommy’s fault. Perhaps it’s just that when surrounded by powerhouse actors like Sage Stallone (too soon?) his performance doesn’t look so bad, but really the problem with the movie was its terrible and depressing plot. As a young boxer with loads of potential who later turns into an arrogant jackass, Tommy Morrison was actually pretty decent, which is certainly better and worlds different than his real-life path of young boxer with loads of potential who later turns into an arrogant jackass and AIDS victim. Look, these are slim pickings here, okay?
As Detective Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies, football legend O.J. Simpson showed a knack for physical comedy. It’s a damn near iconic role, an integral part of the movies’ formula, and today O.J. Simpson is beloved and remembered most for his interplay with Leslie Nielsen, and… wait, what’s that? He did what? Oh. Oh, I see. Still, before he won the Oscar for Leading Man in a Double Murder in 1995 for the stirring drama The State of California v. Simpson, O.J. Simpson uttered the line “Heroin, Frank… heroin” with heartbreaking pathos, like Sir Laurence Olivier in Hamlet, reminding us all that even sociopathic double-murderers can succeed in the world of low-rent slapstick comedy. Truly, he’s an inspiration to evil monsters everywhere.
When people talk about basketball Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and acting, they always talk about his role as a pilot in Airplane and yeah, yeah, it’s great blah, blah blah but the one I always think of is his role as Hakim in The Game of Death if only because it’s so fucking weird. The sight of the seven foot plus Kareem fighting tiny Bruce Lee is a spectacle that everyone needs to see. It looks like Bruce is fighting a Praying Mantis from Mars instead of another human being. Meanwhile, Bruce is in the tracksuit that inspired Kill Bill and Kareem is in his underwear. It’s freaky as hell and in its own way oddly cool. A lot of that is thanks to Kareem. It’s not just that he was a tall dude, it’s that he’s always had this sort of standoffish, otherworldly aura about him, which is honestly what makes the scene itself so eerie and weird. What makes the whole thing even weirder is that the movie was released five years after Lee’s death, and both his and Kareem’s performances are listed as “archival footage” like the producers just happened to find a random clip of Bruce Lee randomly fighting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for some reason. Add the whole thing up and you have a performance that is unquestionably strange but also pretty damn cool.
As Jesus Shuttlesworth in He Got Game, Ray Allen, despite never having acted before, not only didn’t embarrass himself, he actually managed to stand across from Denzel Washington without being completely obliterated. It’s not like it was an award winning performance or anything but since half the movie focused on him, it’s amazing considering his complete lack of acting experience that the movie didn’t fall apart. But it didn’t and at least some of that has to be credited to Allen. I’m not sure which he values more, his NBA Title with the Celtics or his sex scenes, a threesome with two pornstars (Just look at that smile!) and a stirring scene (well, something stirred anyway) with Rosario Dawson, but it’s safe to say he’s lived a full, rich life.
An All-Pro NFL defensive end, Bubba Smith didn’t do much in the Police Academy movies besides stand there and look big and mean but he did it damn well, didn’t he? As Hightower, Bubba Smith was just as important to those movies as Steve Guttenberg (God, I feel like an idiot just writing that. What a ridiculous world we live in.) In fact, he was so good as Hightower that whenever I see him somewhere that’s the first thing I think of. Sure, part of that is because he was a famous athlete before I was even born and so the first place I saw him was in the Police Academy movies, but still, as far as I’m concerned, the man is Hightower forever. Wait, he just died of a drug overdose? Hightower, no! I’m… I’m inconsolable. Oh well, I guess I can stop dreaming of Police Academy 17: Please, We Need Money.
I listed both Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch because let’s face it, they’re basically the same role. Vinnie Jones plays a total badass in both movies who manages to also be pretty much the coolest dude on the planet. Basically, he plays Vinnie Jones. And while the soccer star/hooligan might be reviled by many for his years as a renowned dirt-bag on the pitch – I don’t want to be lynched for using the wrong terminology by the soccer, I mean football, storm troopers – you can’t deny that he’s also got a unique presence, the sort of presence that was perfectly harnessed by Guy Ritchie back when he actually made shit people cared about. Jones has parlayed those two killer performances into a relatively ridiculous movie career, usually playing variations on the same gangster theme, but never forget that it was all made possible because he kicked ass as Big Chris and Bullet Tooth Tony.
No one’s cooler than Jim Brown, perhaps the best running back in NFL history. Look no further than his presence in several awesome Blaxploitation movies of the ‘70s. I mean, this was a dude who could hang side by side with Shaft. Still, for my money, Jim Brown was never better than he was in The Dirty Dozen. The whole cast is Hall-of-Fame worthy and yet, Jim Brown, who up until then was still thought of as “just” a football player, manages to hang with them every step of the way. The performance was so good that it launched an acting career that has lasted over forty years, a career so unique that he’s not thought of as Jim Brown, Football Star or as Jim Brown, Movie Star but simply as Jim Brown, professional badass. And a big chunk of that started with The Dirty Dozen.
The dude played Mongo in Blazing Saddles. Mongo! He punched out a horse. If I have to explain to you why he deserves to be so high on this list then we have nothing else to talk about. He punched out a horse!
Sure, some would say that professional wrestlers aren’t quite the same as professional athletes but what the hell, as the great Mills Lane would say, I’ll allow it. And sure, some would say that Andre’s performance in The Princess Bride was hilariously bad considering you can’t understand a word of what he’s saying but those people are assholes. As Fezzik the, uh, giant – I know, what a stretch – Andre was just as memorable as anyone else in that absurdly memorable movie. I mean, he managed to hold his own with Inigo Montoya, Vizzini, Westley, Prince Humperdinck and all the rest. By the way, now that I look at those names, it really wasn’t that much different from the world of pro wrestling, was it? Still, all bullshit aside, anyone not moved at least a little bit by the epic bromance between Fezzik and Inigo Montoya can kindly go straight to hell. I mean, who else was going to play that role? No one, that’s who and that’s why Andre is number one on this list.