40 Athletes Turned Actors

In their own ways, professional athletes can acquire just as much fame and fortune as actors and musicians. Once athletes’ careers end however, they often miss the fans and applause, which is why some transition off the court and onto a movie set. Not every athlete has success in TV and movies, yet some become so popular on camera that we often forget their athletic beginnings.

From basketball and football stars to pro wrestlers and martial artists, here are 40 people who went from performing on the field to acting on the big screen.

Terry Crews

Crews’ first love was never really football or acting; he found art. Crews’ Talent for drawing led him to earn an art scholarship before he did so for a football scholarship at Western Michigan University – where he spent four years playing defense for them as a Defensive End. When the Los Angeles Rams drafted him in 1991, they brought him back out west where he eventually started pursuing his passion for acting. Now, Crews stars on Brooklyn Nine-Nine which still allows him to paint and sketch when time permits it.

Jason Lee

One of the most well-known celebrities from My Name is Earl, Lee was a seasoned pro skateboarder and extreme sports entrepreneur before trying out an acting career in the 1990s. His success was quick – it didn’t take long before he became one of Kevin Smith’s leading men in 1995’s Mallrats.

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan is arguably the best professional basketball player of all time. However, his acting career was limited to just one movie- Space Jam, which he did with Warner Brother’s legacy animated characters. Nike recently marked the film’s 30th anniversary by releasing a limited edition Michael Jordan sneaker- what else?

Chuck Connors

Not only did Chuck Connors make a name for himself on the big screen, but he also managed to play for three professional sports teams. After being discharged from the army in 1946, Connors had a small stint with the NBA playing for the Boston Celtics before deciding to leave basketball altogether and try his hand at baseball instead of football. When Connors first joined the Brooklyn Dodgers – as a member of their team – it seemed like it would be smooth sailing towards victory, but after less than ten games with them, Connors decided to move on to another team before finally settling down with the Chicago Cubs who eventually picked him up despite his lack of experience. But despite all this experience and dedication – both within and outside of the sports arena – nothing could compare to what happened when Chuck was cast as Lucas McCain in The Rifleman.

Chuck Norris

When you think of Chuck Norris, you might automatically think about the American martial artist who rose to fame through his own style called Chuck Norris Karate. But before he became known for his films and television appearances, Norris was also a champion karate fighter with his own title. Although he had pursued an acting career during this time period, it wasn’t until after starring in Bruce Lee’s film Return of the Dragon that he gained recognition – even if it was as one of his antagonists.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

When UCLA became a three-time national champion, its most successful player Jabbar went on to win many NBA Championships before becoming an actor himself. After appearing in films such as Game of Death alongside martial arts master Bruce Lee – popular culture dubbed him the Giant – and Airplane where he portrayed himself in his trademark deadpan humor, his life took another turn when he became a renowned authority on jazz music and wrote for various publications.

Kurt Russell

Russell played in the minor leagues, but he still wanted to pursue his acting career. He became a cult film star after working with famed director John Carpenter. Quentin Tarantino decided to cast him for The Hateful Eight because of this.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

The Rock has always been a troubled kid. It all began when he watched his father, who went by the name Rocky Johnson, leave him at home every day to wrestle on the road. Their family became even more dysfunctional when Rocky accepted an offer from Red Road Productions to play himself in one episode of That ’70s Show. Nowadays, The Rock stars in HBO’s hit comedy Ballers.

Jason Statham

He has been playing the role of tough guys since he first started acting in Hollywood, but there is something about his past that doesn’t seem to fit this image. Statham was a diver for twelve years before he became famous for his deep voice and brutal personality on screen.

John Cena

Cena has been involved in sports for most of his life, from football to wrestling. He became famous when he starred as John Triton in a WWE Studios film called The Marine. Today, he continues to wrestle for the WWE and sell cereal instead of acting.

Joe Namath

Broadway Joe, was a flashy and handsome quarterback for the New York Jets. After retirement from football, he moved on to minor roles on television; often playing himself. His laid-back personality and iconic status led him to host multiple talk shows – one of which still airs today! An NFL Hall of Famer, Broadway Joe now offers commentary about pro football.

Bruce Lee

As a boy and young man, Bruce Lee was already acting in films. His disputes with local gangs led him to take up martial arts in order to defend himself from them. He moved to the US where he developed his own style of fighting, Jeet Kun Do. This martial art became known worldwide after television producers saw Lee demonstrate it at an audition for the TV series The Green Hornet. But by then it was too late- 34-year-old Bruce had died.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger had always wanted to be famous. In 1982, he achieved this goal when he won the lead role in the movie Conan the Barbarian. His first big break came when Arnold starred in James Cameron’s movie The Terminator and became one of Hollywood’s top actors during the 1980s. Arnold was known for taking risks with his movies, but not too much so as he eventually returned to play Conan on several occasions which made him even more well-known than before.

Ronda Rousey

At only 28 years old, Ronda Rousey has accomplished what many people can only dream of doing. As a result of her success in mixed martial arts, she has become one of the most sought-after stars for various commercial advertisements; but she dreams even bigger. One day she hopes to make it big by starring as one of the leading characters in Marvel Entertainment’s latest superhero movie Captain Marvel.

Shaquille O’Neal

Shaquille O’Neal is known for his acting and rapping skills. After retirement, he continued to act in movies while also making appearances on TV shows such as Fresh Off the Boat.

Mark Harmon

A son of an NFL legend and supermodel, Hugh has been starring on TV since the 1980s. He played doctors for years on St. Elsewhere and Chicago Hope, as well as an investigator on the long-running NCIS.

Lawrence Taylor

This Hall of Fame linebacker from the University of North Carolina and the New York Giants played football and lived his life with reckless abandon. Tragically, that lifestyle led to cocaine addiction and legal trouble. Taylor’s biggest movie was Any Given Sunday where he co-starred with Jamie Foxx and Al Pacino.

Gina Carano

Gina Carano started off in Women’s Mixed Martial Arts and quickly became known for both her strength and beauty. Later, she would go on to become an action movie actress for movies such as The Fast and the Furious series and Deadpool among others.

Kevin James

Who could’ve guessed that Kevin James would graduate from Ward Melville High School? And top the ranks of its varsity wrestling team? Not even his close friends who went on to fame in professional wrestling. Putting his high school success to good use in Hollywood, James has starred as an MMA-fighting teacher in Here Comes The Boom.

Johnny Weissmuller

Born in Austria-Hungary but claiming to be from Pennsylvania, Johnny Weissmuller was one of the fastest Olympic swimmers at the time. Despite never losing a match while being an amateur, after those glory days passed; he went on to pursue an international acting career. One of his most famous roles includes playing Tarzan in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) with much critical acclaim as well as five gold medals during his years as a competitive swimmer himself.

Hulk Hogan

The famous wrestler portrayed a villain in Rocky III and often starred as an alter ego version of himself on TV shows. He entered the Reality Show arena with Hogan Knows Best in 2005. His most recent claim to fame was getting fired from the WWE after someone released a recording where he used derogatory language towards people who had different skin colors than his own.

Buster Crabbe

With all the intensity of an actor in a melodrama, Buster Crabbe kicked down doors and made waves – literally. His dark curly hair framed his face, contrasting sharply with how bright he looked when backlit. He was wearing black jeans for his stunt performance later that day; when he went to cast, they had been blue jeans. And then there were those red shorts with white stars in every square inch of fabric; all too similar to Superman’s! You couldn’t help but laugh at this guy who seemed so unlikely for the wrestling ring given how goofy he looked on TV or in old Tarzan films where you could see how good-looking he really was. But hey, what did appearances matter? It wasn’t about looking for long once you saw him wrestle up close- oh yeah!

OJ Simpson

Simpson had a promising football career and gained fame as an actor in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1991, Simpson was charged with two counts of murder after being accused of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman during a domestic dispute. To this day, Simpson has maintained his innocence despite both families winning against him in civil court.

Stacy Keibler

Keibler had been a successful professional wrestler for the World Wrestling Federation. Leaving her career behind, she worked on many different TV series and even hosted some reality show seasons. But her most famous move actually came from when she dated George Clooney for three years or so before they broke up.

Burt Reynolds

Reynolds played football for Florida State University in the 1950s, but he was injured and couldn’t play anymore. After he won an award for his acting skills in college, he attended the New York Institute of Acting. Hollywood came calling soon after that; this allowed him to work on television shows until Deliverance made him famous in the ’60s. He still acts today.

Bob Uecker

Uecker is an announcer who played major league baseball as a catcher while he also worked on television commentating, doing so when starring in NBC’s Mr. Belvedere. The last opportunity gave Uecker a chance to act – portraying himself in the 1989 movie Major League. Today at age 81, he still does commentary for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Caitlin Jenner

The gold medalist from the 1980 Olympics and college football player turned actor after his competition ended, became well known for playing a motorcycle cop on an 80s hit show. It wasn’t until 2014 when he admitted his true identity to the world – that he had been born female.

Andre the Giant

André René Roussimoff was born in France and grew up to be 7’6. He stood at least three feet taller than his opponents during his wrestling career in the 1970s and 1980s.

Jim Brown

Brown starred in three sports at Syracuse University and went on to become an NFL legend as a running back for the Cleveland Browns. Upon retiring from football, he switched gears and became an actor while maintaining his stature of activism with many public appearances. Today, Brown pursues both careers simultaneously – something he has been doing since the beginning of his professional career.

Lou Ferrigno

A few months ago, I read this book called Pumping Iron written by George Butler and it introduced me to Lou Ferrigno. It also talks about Arnold Schwarzenegger who was one of my favorite movie stars when I was a kid. This book made me think back on how big these guys were and how they had such different lives from what people typically expect from celebrities today.

John Wayne

Western icon and patriot soldier John Wayne was one of the most famous actors in Hollywood history. Perhaps known best for portraying cowboys and soldiers, he had many nicknames including The Duke – but few know that he also played college football at USC until a knee injury ended his career. He was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor at the 1969 Oscars for True Grit which would go on to become one of his most iconic roles before passing away from stomach cancer just 10 years later.

Bubba Smith

Bill Smith had such a successful college career at Michigan State that he went on to become an all-pro NFL Defensive End. After nine seasons in the league, Bill decided it was time for him to retire. He then took up acting, playing Moses Hightower in the Police Academy comedy films – until his death in 2011.

Terry Bradshaw

Terry Bradshaw played for Pittsburgh Steelers and has won four Super Bowl Championships. After retiring from football, he went on to pursue a career in acting; most famously co-starring with his close friend Burt Reynolds.

Rick Fox

At the University of North Carolina, Fox already had swarms of young women swooning over him while a college hoops star. Years before he won three NBA titles with the Lakers, Fox began his acting career almost as soon as he turned pro. Ever since then, he has appeared in hundreds of guest starring roles in film and television.

Esther Williams

Wiliams was a prodigy swimmer who dominated the world with her skills. Because of World War II, she could not compete in the Olympics but instead pursued an acting career. Wiliams appeared in aqua musical films highlighting her skills; however, she also wanted to branch out into more serious roles. Sadly, Williams passed away at age 91 in 2013.

Carl Weathers

Having been born as a football player, Weathers became one of the most successful action movie stars of all time. Starting his career after playing for the Oakland Raiders and in Canada, he’s made a name for himself through comedic television shows and commercials these days.

Fred Williamson

Known as The Hammer for his punishing tackles, Williamson had been an all-star with the Oakland Raiders in the 1960s. After retirement, he starred in brutal yet popular Blaxploitation films until 1996 when Quentin Tarantino cast him as one of the villains in From Dusk Till Dawn.

Brian Bosworth

The Boz had a big personality when he attended college in the 1980s. His buzzcut and trademark sunglasses made him noticeable; his steroid use got him kicked off of Oklahoma’s football team. Without making it in the NFL as a linebacker, he starred in multiple bad-action movies, but today he is currently known for working as a commentator for college football games.

Ed Marinaro

The Cornell University football player was a Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1971 and went on to play for three seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. His claim to fame among other achievements is his five-year stint on the TV show Hill Street Blues where he played Officer Bobby Hill alongside another famous actor Michael Conrad who played Sergeant Phil Esterhaus. Today, Marinaro spends his time between acting performances and charitable work as well as being a spokesperson for various brands.

Howie Long

Long was one of the hardest hitters in NFL history; he had 8 consecutive selections for being elected to the Pro Bowl and his name will always be remembered as a Hall of Famer. After his time playing football, Long had tried acting with mixed results. One memorable movie role was when he played a villainous role against John Travolta in Broken Arrow. Nowadays, you can find him providing insightful commentary about football games on Fox Sports alongside Michael Strahan.

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