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Athletes Turned Actors: Hollywood's Most Popular Stars From the Field

Being a professional athlete places people in a unique spotlight. The roar of the crowd and the adulation is hard to give up once their careers end. The only way to keep that juice flowing for some is to stay in the public eye by becoming an actor. Some athletes, like pro wrestlers, were already hams and acting came easy to them. Other athletes turned actors had to work rigorously at it and some failed miserably.

Here is a list of some legends of the field who became legends of the screen too, or failed spectacularly trying. Which of these athletes turned actors do you think was the most successful? Be sure to SHARE this list with anybody who was a fan of their famous roles!

Terry Crews

Crews’ first love was neither football nor acting, but art. He earned an art scholarship before earning his football scholarship to Western Michigan University as a defensive end. The Los Angeles Rams drafted Crews in 1991. After retiring from pro football in 1997, Crews returned to LA to pursue acting. The star of Brooklyn Nine Nine still enjoys painting and sketching.

Jason Lee

Best known for his role on the NBC comedy My Name is Earl, Lee was a successful professional skateboarder and extreme sports entrepreneur. He decided to try acting in the early 1990s, and caught the eye of Kevin Smith, who put Lee in a lead role in the 1995 comedy Mallrats.

Michael Jordan

Arguably the greatest professional basketball player of all time, Jordan’s acting career is limited to one memorable movie, Space Jam, where Jordan starred alongside Warner Brother’s legendary animated characters. Nike recently commemorated the film’s 30th anniversary with – what else? – a limited edition Air Jordan model.

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. Connors decided to leave the basketball world and join the Brooklyn Dodgers where he played in only one game. He later played for the Chicago Cubs as a first baseman. Connors was also drafted by the NFL’s Chicago Bears, but never played a game. Connors then left the sports world to have a 40-year career in film and television. He is best known for his role as Lucas McCain on the ABC series, The Rifleman.

Chuck Norris

Internet meme, conservative political activist, Bruce Lee victim, chest hair legend, these are just some of the ways we know Chuck Norris. Before all that, Norris was a real-life championship Karate athlete. Norris was already pursuing an acting career at that time, but didn’t become well known until Bruce Lee put Norris in the villain role in the film Return of the Dragon in 1972.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Jabbar was a member of the three-time national champion UCLA Bruins basketball team and won several NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. By the time the Lakers ruled, he was already an actor. Jabbar fought Bruce Lee in the film Game of Death and appeared in the deadpan comedy Airplane as himself. Today, he is a noted expert on Jazz music and a social commentator for TIME magazine.

Kurt Russell

Russell played minor league baseball; however, he didn’t want to give up his acting career, which had been going strong since he was a child. Russell is a cult movie fan favorite thanks to his work with director John Carpenter. Accordingly, cult movie fanatic Quentin Tarantino has cast Russell in the upcoming movie The Hateful Eight.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

“The Rock” was a troubled kid. Johnson’s father, who wrestled professionally as Rocky Johnson, was never there for his son, always on the road. After joining the University of Miami’s championship team, Johnson played briefly in the Canadian Football League before turning to pro wrestling. Johnson’s first acting job was playing his father on an episode of That 70’s Show. The Fast and Furious star is currently in the HBO show Ballers.

Jason Statham

He was the ultimate movie tough-guy in the early 2000s, yet the chosen sport of his youth would not suggest his later roles as an intimidating bone crusher in films like The Transporter. Statham was a member of the British National Diving Squad for twelve years.

John Cena

Cena was a Division III football player at Springfield College before becoming a pro wrestling icon. Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Enterprises developed a movie production company in 2005, and Cena landed the lead role in one of its first films, The Marine. Today, Cena concentrates more on wrestling and selling cereal than acting.

Joe Namath

“Broadway Joe” was a flashy, handsome, Super Bowl winning quarterback for the New York Jets. After football, he started accepting small roles on TV, often playing himself. His easy-going personality and icon status lead to his hosting several talk shows. Today, the NFL Hall of Famer comments on pro football.

Bruce Lee

Lee was already acting in films as a child and teenager; however, his battles with local gangs caused him to begin studying martial arts. Lee would move to the US and develop his own style of fighting, Jeet Kun Do. A TV producer discovered Lee’s skill and asked him to audition for the role of Kato in the TV series The Green Hornet. Lee died at age 32, but not before becoming a film icon and the man who popularized martial arts films in the US.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

The bodybuilding icon always dreamed of being famous. In 1982, the champion bodybuilder and small-time actor got his big break, winning the lead in Conan the Barbarian. His appearance as the android in James Cameron’s The Terminator started Schwarzenegger on his way to becoming the one of the biggest stars of the 1980s. He would shock the world by branching out in some… interesting directions, but told the acting world “I’ll be back.” The hulking Austrian kept to his word, and has since returned to the role that made him famous on several occasions.

Ronda Rousey

Currently a world champion in Mixed Martial Arts and a highly sought after commercial star, the outspoken Rousey hopes to build her profile enough so that Marvel Entertainment casts her in the upcoming film Captain Marvel.

Shaquille O’Neal

“Shaq Diesel” acted in several films while in the NBA and launched a successful rap music career. Post-retirement finds the former NBA champion playing it up for laughs in commercials and lampooning himself on television, like his recent appearance on the ABC show Fresh Off the Boat.

Mark Harmon

The son of an NFL legend, the photogenic Harmon won the Rose Bowl while quarterbacking the UCLA Bruins. He is now a TV star, playing doctors for years on St. Elsewhere and Chicago Hope, and 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. Unfortunately, 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

Carano was one of the early stars of the female Mixed Martial Arts circuit, winning fights and appearing in magazines because of her beauty. Carano is now an action movie star having appeared in the Fast and Furious 6 and will appear in the upcoming Marvel movie Deadpool.

Kevin James

Here’s one we bet you didn’t expect! Kevin James graduated from Ward Melville High School where he reached the top spot on the varsity wrestling team. Just ahead of friend and future professional wrestling legend, Mick Foley. James would later get to put his experience to use in his acting career for the movie ‘Here Comes The Boom’ where he would portray a teacher that took up MMA in his downtime.

Johnny Weissmuller

Though he claimed to have been born in Pennsylvania in order to compete in the Olympics for the United States, Johnny Weissmuller was actually born in the then-Austro-Hungarian Empire. During his time as an Olympic swimmer, Weissmuller was considered one of the world’s fastest swimmers, having never lost a match as an amateur. He won five Olympic Gold Medals in the 1920s. After his days of swimming, Weissmuller became an international acting sensation when he appeared as Tarzan in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). Weissmuller would portray the character in numerous other films and then go on to play the lead character in the Jungle Jim film franchise of the 1940s and 50s.

Hulk Hogan

The popular wrestler appeared as a villain in Rocky III and often starred as versions of himself in B-movies and TV shows. Hogan jumped on the reality show bandwagon with Hogan Knows Best in 2005. His latest claim to fame is being fired from the WWE after someone revealed a recording of him using racially derogatory language.

Buster Crabbe

Buster Crabbe was born in northern California, but it would be years before his life journey would take him south to the lights of Hollywood. Crabbe was an Olympic swimmer and won a gold (1932) and a bronze medal (1928). After his swimming career, Crabbe found some acting success in roles in the Tarzan movies of the 1930s before being offered the lead role as Flash Gordon in the first Flash Gordon serial in 1936. To round out Crabbe’s casting of comic-strip and pulp characters, he would also play Buck Rogers in the science fiction film serial.

OJ Simpson

Simpson won a Heisman Trophy while at USC and set an NFL rushing record while with the Buffalo Bills, but he will be forever associated with one of the most sensational murder trials in American history. In 1991, police accused him of murdering his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. “The Juice” was exonerated, but the families of the victims sued him in civil court for wrongful death and won. Now OJ sits in jail on armed robbery and kidnapping charges. The Juice was a successful actor in the 1970s and 80s, best known for Roots and The Naked Gun franchise.

Stacy Keibler

Keibler was a hugely popular wrestler for the World Wrestling Federation. After leaving pro wrestling, she performed in several TV series and hosted reality shows. Her most famous move doesn’t come from wrestling, but from dating George Clooney for a few years.

Burt Reynolds

Reynolds played football at Florida State University in the 1950s before injuries ended his football career. After winning an acting award in college, Reynolds got a scholarship to a New York acting institute. Hollywood beckoned in the ‘60s, and Reynolds worked on several TV shows before the movie Deliverance made him a star. He continues to act today.

Bob Uecker

Uecker was a terrible major league catcher but a talented play-by-play man. NBC cast him in a sitcom Mr. Belvedere based in part on his appearances on The Tonight Show. Later, Uecker acted in the 1989 film Major League. He still does play-by-play for the Brewers today at age 81.

Caitlin Jenner

The Gold Medal winner in the 1980 Olympic decathlon and small college football player turned to acting after the Olympics, starring in movies, and later he played a motorcycle cop on the 80s hit CHiPs. No one knew of his belief that he was born female until he announced his gender transition in 2014.

Andre the Giant

The French born André Roussimoff stood 7’6” tall, towering over the other professional wrestlers he faced in the 1970s and 80s. He made several guest appearances on television and featured in the 1987 cult hit The Princess Bride. Roussimoff died in 1993.

Jim Brown

Brown was a three-sport star while at Syracuse University, and became an NFL legend as a running back for the Cleveland Browns. He began acting while still a pro, but quit football before his breakthrough performance in The Dirty Dozen in 1966. Brown was also a vocal political activist during his time as an actor. He continues both endeavors today.

Lou Ferrigno

The legally deaf New Yorker was a professional bodybuilder at the same time as Arnold Schwarzenegger and both men were the subject of the documentary Pumping Iron. Ferrigno tried manual labor and pro football in Canada (a massive failure) before landing the role of his life, The Incredible Hulk, in 1977. Today, Ferrigno is an entrepreneur and philanthropist.

John Wayne

Wayne is a Hollywood legend. He personified our idea of a cowboy in westerns and of a patriot solider in war films. He won the Best Actor award at the 1969 Oscars for True Grit. Few know that Wayne played football at USC until an injury cut short his career. Wayne died in 1979.

Bubba Smith

Smith was a star at Michigan State before becoming an All-Pro defensive end in the NFL. The Super Bowl winner retired after nine years and began acting in commercials. We know Smith, who died in 2011, as Moses Hightower from the Police Academy comedies.

Terry Bradshaw

The Louisiana native won four Super Bowl championships with the Pittsburg Steelers. The Hall of Fame inductee retired in 1983 to the announcer’s booth, but by then Bradshaw was already performing in commercials, TV shows and bad movies. His best-known work was alongside his friend Burt Reynolds in comedies like Hooper and Smokey and the Bandit II.

Rick Fox

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

Esther Williams

Williams was a swimming prodigy, winning three US national championships in the 1930s. She was unable to compete in the Olympics because of the war, so she ended up working in Hollywood. She appeared in many “aquamusicals,” films that highlighted her athletic talents, and made attempts at more serious roles. She died in 2013 at 91 years old.

Carl Weathers

We know Weathers as boxer Apollo Creed from the Rocky movies, but Weathers was a pro football player before becoming an actor. The Action Jackson star played linebacker for the Oakland Raiders in 1971 and two years in the Canadian league before starting his acting career. Weathers now makes a living parodying his 80s action hero image in sitcoms and commercials.

Fred Williamson

Known as The Hammer for his punishing tackles, Williamson was an all-star with the Oakland Raiders in the 1960s. After retirement, he became a star of visceral, violent Blaxploitation films. Williamson may be best known for his role in the 1996 Quentin Tarantino film From Dusk Till Dawn.

Brian Bosworth

“The Boz” was a big personality in college football in the 1980s with his buzzcut and trademark sunglasses; however, his steroid use got him kicked off the team at Oklahoma. The Boz didn’t rate as an NFL linebacker and was out after two years, leaving him the chance to make movies. He didn’t fare well in that endeavor, either, starring in several awful action movies. Today, Bosworth is a college football commentator.

Ed Marinaro

The Cornell University legend was a Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1971, the highest ever for a modern era Ivy League athlete. He played several NFL seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, making two Super Bowl appearances. Marinaro’s claim to fame as an actor is the five years he spent on the classic cop show Hill Street Blues. Today he’s a celebrity spokesperson.

Howie Long

Long was a hard hitting defensive end for the Oakland Raiders, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and Hall of Fame inductee. His acting career was brief and full of unmemorable action movies, though he did appear as a villain in the John Woo film Broken Arrow opposite John Travolta. Long found his post-NFL calling as an analyst for Fox Sports and remains in the job today, watching his sons Kyle and Chris play pro football.

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