The Athletic Actors: A Look at Some of The Most Famous Sportsmen Turned Actors…

This month’s Space Jam: A New Legacy, starring LeBron James and the Looney Tunes, was released in cinemas and on HBO Max on July 16. Hollywood has been casting professional sportsmen for far longer than that, all the way back to its Golden Age in the 1930s and ’40s. The live-action/animated hybrid is a sequel to the 1996 Michael Jordan film.

A surprising number of these athlete actors have broken through these barriers to become legitimate movie stars, even though some of them only provide one-note appearances. These 10 artists, ranging from the synchronized swimmer moves of Esther Williams to the megawatt charisma of Dwayne Johnson, have successfully transitioned from stage to cinema.

Ronda Rousey

Sports: Wrestling, mixed martial arts, judo

Her acting profession: At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Rousey, the only female fighter to have won both a UFC and a WWE championship, won a bronze medal in judo. With roles as CIA agent Sam Snow in Mile 22 (2018), bodyguard Kara in Furious 7 (2015), and a combat teacher in the 2019 Charlie’s Angels revival, her blossoming acting career heavily relies on her reputation as a very tough cookie.
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Do you notice a trend emerging here?

Her finest performance was as Luna in The Expendables 3, a tough nightclub bouncer (2014)

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Shaquille O’Neal

Sportsmen turned actors: some of the most famous. Photos

Sport: Basketball

His acting profession: While Michael Jordan, 58, earned $250.2 million worldwide for the 1996 film Space Jam, we think the 7-foot-1 center is a better actor. Whether he’s portraying a collegiate basketball hero in Blue Chips from 1994 or a 5,000-year-old genie in Kazaam, O’Neal is constantly having fun (1996). He made history as one of the first Black actors to play a superhero in the DC Comics movie Steel (1997), despite the fact that both critics and audiences panned the movie.

His greatest performance was as himself in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm from Season 2 when Larry David (74), inadvertently trips him at a Lakers game.

Sonja Henie

Sportsmen turned actors: some of the most famous. Photos

Sport: Figure skating

Her acting profession: Darryl F. Zanuck, the chairman of the company, signed the Norwegian figure skater to a film deal with Twentieth Century Fox in 1936 after she had won 10 world championships and three Olympic gold medals. By doing what she did best—skating in movies like One in a Million (1936), Thin Ice (1937), Happy Landing (1938), Second Fiddle (1939), and others—she swiftly rose to become one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses. She even received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Her finest performance was as Karen Benson in the 1941 Oscar-nominated musical Sun Valley Serenade, which also starred Dorothy Dandridge, Glenn Miller, and Milton Berle.

Johnny Weissmuller

Sportsmen turned actors: some of the most famous. Photos

Sport: Swimming, water polo

His acting career: The renowned swimmer won a total of five gold medals in swimming in the Olympic Games between 1924 and 1928, along with a bronze in water polo for good measure. In the pre-Code musical comedy Glorifying the American Girl from 1929, Weissmuller made his acting debut as a nonverbal Adonis wearing just a fig leaf. In his most famous role as Tarzan (1932–48), he would swap in the leaves for a loincloth. Next, he would play the comic strip adventurer Jungle Jim in 16 movies (1948–55) and 26 television episodes (1955-56).

His finest performance was as Tarzan in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), but his most well-known work almost didn’t happen because of a BVD advertising deal, which forbade executives from having him photographed outside of their underwear.

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John Cena

Sportsmen turned actors: some of the most famous. Photos

Sport: Wrestling

His acting career: The WWE wrestler has converted his immense appeal in the ring into a remarkably varied acting career, much like Dwayne Johnson before him. He has certainly mastered the roles that are required of actors, appearing in movies like the Transformers sequel Bumblebee (2018) and F9 (2021), but he also received praise for his performance as Amy Schumer’s fitness-obsessed boyfriend in the romantic comedy Trainwreck (2015). Even your grandchildren might be able to identify him: He provided the voice of Yoshi the polar bear in the 2020 film Dolittle and Ferdinand’s renowned flower-loving bull (2017).

Mitchell Mannes, an unconventionally overprotective suburban dad in the raucous but endearing 2018 comedy Blockers, is his greatest performance (2018)

Terry Crews

Sportsmen turned actors: some of the most famous. Photos

Sport: Football

His acting career: The defensive end and linebacker, 52, had a relatively mediocre NFL career after being picked by the L.A. Rams in 1991. Throughout his five-year, five-team career, he played 32 games. Crews did significantly better in Hollywood thanks to breakthrough performances in Friday After Next (2002) and the 2005 adaptation of The Longest Yard. As Chris Rock’s fictitious father in the highly acclaimed sitcom Everyone Hates Chris (2005–09), then as a new stepdad in the comedy Are We There Yet? (2010–13), and lastly as an NYPD lieutenant on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, he has also established himself as a sitcom staple (2013-).

Terry Jeffords, the kind-hearted, gigantic, yogurt-loving officer on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, was his finest character.

Jim Brown

Sportsmen turned actors: some of the most famous. Photos

Sport: Football

His acting profession: The 87-year-old former Cleveland Browns running back, who is frequently considered one of the game’s all-time greats, also had an outstanding debut in Hollywood. He was a natural in every genre he tried his hand at, including spaghetti western (1975’s Take a Hard Ride), neo-noir (1968’s The Split), espionage (1968’s Ice Station Zebra), and blaxploitation (1972’s Slaughter).
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He and Raquel Welch (80) costarred in the first-ever interracial love scene in the 1969 Western 100 Rifles.

His biggest performance was as Robert Jefferson in The Dirty Dozen, a prisoner transported to France to kill Nazi commanders (1967)

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Esther Williams

Sportsmen turned actors: some of the most famous. Photos

Sport: Swimming

Her acting career: In 1941, Louis B. Mayer added the competitive swimmer to the MGM roster in order to add a female athlete to the lineup following the success of Sonja Henie’s acting career. The studio soon began producing a number of “aqua musicals,” many of which featured intricate synchronized swimming routines. Examples include Bathing Beauty (1944), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), and Easy to Love (1953), in which she performed her own water-skiing stunts and swam in a pool shaped like the state of Florida (while pregnant). She infamously shared the pool with Tom and Jerry in Dangerous When Wet (1953).

The aquatic ballet dancer Eve Barrett played her finest part in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter, which also saw Ricardo Montalban and the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” make their film premiere.