The list of athletes who shed their helmets, boxing gloves and cleats for film and TV stardom is pretty long. For some, the choice seemed as natural as anything. Others have more work to do in order to be taken seriously as a thespian.
Here are our picks for the best — or most interesting — sports studs who quit reading defenses to start reading scripts.
Before Tom Brady, most considered this guy the greatest football player who ever lived. Jim Brown hung up his spikes at the ripe old age of twenty-nine.
The three-time MVP running back of the Cleveland Browns then stiff-armed his way in front of the camera.
Brown transitioned well from the gridiron to Hollywood. He starred—most notably—in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen, alongside tough-guy greats like Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin.
He’s acted consistently since then, spanning many genres in a nice body of work that saw him appear in The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tim Burton’s zany Mars Attacks!
Mickey Rourke’s life has been an odyssey. An A-list star in the ‘80s, he found himself in many obscure films in the ‘90s.
Needing a break at the height of his career, because he lost all self-respect, Mickey turned to the ring.
In 1991, Rourke threw down in eight professional bouts, winning six of them, with four knockouts (and two draws). So why’d he think he could box in the first place? Because as an amateur before his acting career, he was 27-3!
The 2000s saw him make an acting comeback, culminating, appropriately, with his Oscar-nominated performance in The Wrestler.
Who among us doesn’t love the sardonic wit of Joel McHale? The former host of The Soup, turned TV star, turned movie star, is more than meets the eye.
Joel is 6’4”. That served him well at the University of Washington. When he was blocking pass rushers and running routes.
McHale was a tight end for two years at the school. He made the squad as a walk-on, even though he’d been recruited by the rowing team.
Fortunately for us, McHale apparently avoided any head injuries. The result has been some smart, biting comedy for a long time now.
When he wasn’t dunking and shattering backboards, Shaquille O’Neal was standing at the free throw line, making Lakers and Magic fans nervous for the better part of his career.
When he wasn’t doing those things (and winning NBA titles in the process), he was setting his sights on Hollywood.
You might be more familiar with O’Neal’s goofy car insurance commercials for The General. But while he was still on the hardwood, he was making big budget movies.
Shaq starred as a superhero in Steel, and a powerful genie in Kazaam. If you’ve seen those, you know it’s a good thing he didn’t quit his day job at the time.
Kevin Costner is an American treasure. The kind of actor and director who cherishes periods and pastimes of the US of A, there’s one particular athletic pursuit he’s always excelled at.
And he’s proven it in front of the camera. A few times.
Costner loves baseball, as evidenced by his—count ‘em—five baseball themed movies. He was a player in two of them. Costner tried out, unsuccessfully, for his college baseball team—Cal State Fullerton.
But during the filming of Bull Durham, Costner claims he hit one out of the team’s minor league park during batting practice. His performance as a home run hitting catcher is no stretch.
An up and coming actor, you probably remember Wyatt Russell from 22 Jump Street, and Netflix’s Black Mirror, just to name a few. He’s also got very famous parents: Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.
Before his career got hot, Wyatt was cold. Icy cold, in fact.
Russell was a pro hockey player—a goaltender for a handful of independent hockey teams in the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands.
Had injuries not cut his career short, he may be in the NHL today. Instead, we get to watch him without the mask, following in the footsteps of mom and dad.
If you haven’t seen Jon Bernthal yet, you’re not paying attention. In addition to starring in two hit shows—The Walking Dead and The Punisher—he’s popped up in dozens of films playing critical roles.
An intense actor often in harrowing circumstances, a different intensity was once required of Jon.
After playing college baseball, he then went to Russia, of all places, to take acting classes at Moscow Art Theater School. While there, he picked up his baseball equipment again.
Bernthal was a catcher for a semi-pro team in Moscow. Russia has hardly produced much baseball talent. But it produced a great actor in Jon Bernthal.
On Friends, Matthew Perry played the bitingly sarcastic Chandler Bing. And we loved him in the role. His manic energy is part of what made the show such a hit.
Speaking of hits, Perry had an athletic career burgeoning as a teen.
In Canada, Perry was a formidable amateur tennis player. He was so good, he was nationally ranked at the young age of thirteen!
When he moved to Los Angeles two years later and got beat—a lot— he realized he might need to make a new career choice. Fortunately for Friends fans, he chose acting.
If it seems like Charlie Sheen grew up in Hollywood, that’s because he did. Martin’s son, Charlie has been acting since he was a teenager.
One of his best known characters is Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn from Major League (and Major League II). The performance came quite naturally to Charlie.
In high school, Sheen—then known as Charlie Estevez—was a star pitcher. When he wasn’t pitching, he was a standout shortstop.
Next time you watch Charlie fire fastballs in the Major League films, or hit line drives in Eight Men Out, you’ll know you’re watching actual talent.
Dwayne Johnson is on top of the world. One need not list his credits to identify him; everyone knows who he is. Unless you’re living under a “Rock.” Sorry.
Most know of his wrestling career as well, where he gained massive popularity performing in the ring. But another sport set him apart before that.
At the University of Miami, Johnson was a football star, playing defensive tackle. He even won a national championship on the 1991 team.
After college, The Rock signed with the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders. He played with the practice squad but was later cut, leaving football altogether. Seems he made the right choice.
If you’re a grown-up, you know Jason Lee from Almost Famous, or the TV series, My Name is Earl. Your kids might have seen him in four (yes, four) Alvin and the Chipmunks films.
Before he was a snarky sidekick and sometimes leading man, Lee had another career going.
Skateboarding was his passion in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He was so good at it, he went pro. He even founded Stereo Sound Agency in 1992—a skateboard merchandise company.
He may not win an Oscar any time soon, but in 2019, Lee was inducted into the skateboarding hall of fame. Pretty impressive.
The dancing pecs have turned Terry Crews into a fan favorite. He’s also hosted TV shows, starred in TV shows, and cracked us up on those Old Spice commercials.
With all those muscles, you’d think Crews was an athlete at one point. And you’d be right.
Terry was a star defensive end for the Western Michigan University Broncos. He was then drafted by the L.A. Rams.
He saw action in NFL games between 1991 and 1995 for the Rams, Chargers, and Redskins. But he never established himself as an impact player. Lucky for us, he’s got charisma and comedy chops.
Jim Thorpe has, at times, been called the greatest athlete who ever lived. As a football player, he’s in both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He’s also got two gold medals, winning the Pentathlon and Decathlon in the 1912 Olympics. Acting came next.
When his pro football and pro baseball careers were over, Thorpe found himself cast in films, often in westerns as Native American chiefs (he was half Native American). Most were bit parts and, in many, he’s uncredited.
But in all, Thorpe appeared in seventy-one productions!
André the Giant
Famed pro wrestler André René Roussimoff, better known as André the Giant, was hugely popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Standing at 7’4”, André was a villain over much of his dominant career in the ring.
His size and popularity quite naturally led to roles on the big screen.
He may have fought Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Destroyer. But fans know him best for one role in particular.
As Fezzik in The Princess Bride, André plays a, ahem, gigantic hurdle to the beloved Westley. It was a performance that broadened his appeal. Today, the film is among the most cherished of the 1980s.
Bursting onto the Hollywood scene as a child actor, Kurt Russell has had a long and successful career.
Somewhere between those very early days and his legendary role as Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, Kurt was doing something else with his time.
Bing Russell, Kurt’s father, was a minor league baseball player. He loved the game so much, he founded an independent pro team in Oregon called the Portland Mavericks.
A pretty good baseball player himself, Kurt wound up playing for the Mavericks in 1973 after a few years of minor league ball. He was a career .292 hitter. That’s pretty good at any level.
This one’s from left field. Aubrey Plaza, of Parks and Recreation, is known and loved for her deadpan sarcasm. She’s weird and macabre, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you assumed she took no interest in sports or was athletically uncoordinated, you’d be wrong.
Aubrey grew up an athlete. Volleyball and softball were her focuses in high school. But she didn’t quit once she became a star.
She’s been playing for L.A.-based recreational women’s basketball team the Pistol Shrimps for several seasons now. They’re the most famous rec team around, even becoming the subject of a 2016 documentary.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Carl Weathers was someone you didn’t want to mess with. Unless you were Rocky or the Predator. The musclebound actor’s work in action films was blossoming in those days.
He had seen some action in a different profession a few years earlier.
Though he’d convincingly played a boxer in the Rocky films, Weathers was a football player as a younger man. A standout in college, he went on to play for the Raiders in 1970 and 1971 as a linebacker. He then played in the Canadian Football League for three seasons.
Tragically, he was killed by Ivan Drago. In Rocky IV.
Television fans of the 1990s and 2000s have great affection for Matthew Fox. He starred in not one, but two hit shows. First, there was the family drama Party of Five. After that, he was Dr. Jack Shephard on the mysterious adventure, Lost.
But did you know he was a college athlete?
Before he was raising his siblings or saving lives on an island, Fox was catching passes at Columbia.
Now, Columbia wasn’t a very good team in those days, but Fox was still able to crack the squad as a wide receiver. That’s an impressive athletic feat, no matter how bad the team was.
Stand up comedy fans know and love Jim Gaffigan for his clean, though self-deprecating bits, which are often about food.
If you’re wondering what in the world he’s doing on this list, you’re probably not alone. Gaffigan, now a film star, was once more athletic than he appears to be currently.
In college, Jim Gaffigan was a football player. That’s right, a college football player. He played offensive line for three seasons, one at Purdue and two at Georgetown.
He may not look back too fondly on his football days, but for a guy who boasts of his laziness, college athletics is something to be proud of.
If you’re a hockey fan, you know about Cam Neely. The Boston Bruins great is beloved in New England. The team’s all-time leading playoff scorer was inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame in 2005.
And while he was still scoring goals, he showed up in a place we never expected him.
Neely plays “Sea Bass” in the comedy classic Dumb and Dumber. A trucker who terrorizes Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels—first with a loogie in their burger, then with a chance meeting in a gas station bathroom stall—Cam didn’t stop there.
He appeared in two more Farrelly Brothers comedies. As Sea Bass!
Gravel-voiced Brit Jason Statham went from stardom to superstardom with the Fast & Furious franchise. His martial arts prowess is obvious. A kick from Statham could send you into next week.
But it’s not his kung fu or kickboxing that lands him on this list.
In his twenties, Statham was a longtime member of Britain’s National Swimming Squad as a diver. In 1990, he competed in the Commonwealth Games. At the 1992 World Championships, he placed 12th.
Diving kept him out of trouble in his youth, he says. These days, he reserves his trouble for the big screen.
Serbian basketball star Boban Marjanović has played for several teams since making his NBA debut in 2015 for the San Antonio Spurs.
The 7’3” big man’s made an impact in the NBA. Now he’s making an impact someplace else: the silver screen.
Marjanović co-starred in the massively popular John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Playing an assassin, Boban introduced himself to a whole new audience. The film was a smash hit. It grossedover $320-million worldwide at the box office.
With that kind of success, Marjanović could have a bright future when his hardwood career is over.
Tony Danza is a darling of television. Winning over audiences in the 1970s in Taxi, he did it again in the 1980s on Who’s the Boss? The comic actor later became a high school teacher for a year in Philadelphia.
But it was his first career that gets him on our list.
Danza was a professional boxer from 1976 to 1979, and a pretty good one at that. He compiled a nine wins to three losses record over that span—seven of those wins by knockout (two by TKO).
Even in the ring, Tony was the boss.
You know and love him in the Marvel movies—the latter Avengers films and, more prominently, in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Dave Bautista has appeared in many other films, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
Before he was on the big screen, he was still performing.
Bautista rose to fame as a wrestler in the WWE, becoming a six-time world champion. In fact, he holds the record for the longest reign as champion.
What’s more, in 2012, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt won a professional MMA fight! The guy is a champ, no matter the industry.
John David Washington
He’s not a household name just yet, but John David Washington will be soon enough. If you don’t know him, you definitely know his famous father, Denzel.
John stars in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and the 2020 Christopher Nolan film, Tenet. Before the movies, the gridiron was Washington’s passion.
A running back at Morehouse College, John signed with the St. Louis Rams in 2006, though he only made their practice squad. He would later play for the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the United Football League.
John’s football career was short-lived, but as an actor, the sky’s the limit.
Millennials may not know the name of Johnny Weissmuller, but in his day, he sure accomplished a lot.
Johnny is best known for playing Tarzan. That familiar Tarzan roar? Johnny invented that. He played the character an astonishing twelve times! But he came from the water, not the jungle.
He admits he wasn’t much of an actor, as does anyone who’s seen his work. He was, however, a tremendous swimmer.
A winner of five Olympic gold medals for the U.S. in the 1924 and 1928 games, Weissmuller was the world’s best back then. Over his storied career, he never lost a race.
If you ever watched Married With Children, you know Al Bundy once scored four touchdowns in a high school football game. It was the highlight of his life.
Ed O’Neill, who played Bundy, has had many highlights, including another hit show—Modern Family. And his sports career was more impressive than Al’s.
O’Neill played defensive line at both Ohio University and Youngstown State University. After college, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969, but was cut before the season.
To top it off, Ed earned a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He calls this his greatest achievement (aside from his children).
If you’ve seen any Guy Ritchie films—Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, or Snatch—you’ve seen tough guy Vinnie Jones.
The British actor has appeared in dozens of big films, including X-Men: The Last Stand. Before he was kicking butt in the movies, he was doing a different kind of kicking.
Vinnie was a professional footballer from 1984 to 1999. That’s soccer, if you’re an American.
Jones had a nice career in the sport, acquiring a reputation as one of the game’s “hard men,” not surprisingly. On the field or in the movies, you don’t want to pick a fight with Vinnie Jones.
A leading man in the 1960s, Burt Reynolds rose to the top of the A-list in the 1970s with films like Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit.
It turns out, his role in the 1974 hit The Longest Yard was informed by a good bit of life experience.
No, Burt wasn’t a prisoner, but he was a running back. At Florida State on a full football scholarship, Burt expected greatness of himself, hoping to turn pro. However, injuries piled up, and his playing days ended in college.
Maybe that’s a good thing. Can you imagine Hollywood history with no Burt Reynolds?
NCIS has been on television since the dawn of man. Its star will always be Mark Harmon.
He’s had many film and TV roles over the years, but his Leroy Jethro Gibbs is his bread and butter. Before that, it was his golden arm.
Harmon was UCLA’s starting quarterback in 1972 and 1973. Over that time, he led the Bruins to a 17-5 record.
In his first season, he beat two-time defending champion Nebraska in a major upset—his greatest college feat. Though we never saw him play in the NFL, we can watch him forever in syndication.
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