30 All-Time Greatest Athletes in Movies
These are 30 athletes who also starred in movies, including Jim Brown (with Raquel Welch).
By: Nathan Rush | 9/26/12, 12:53 PM EDT
While most athletes are content to enjoy the limelight on the field of competitive sports, many have tried to bask in the bright lights of Hollywood. Here are 30 athletes who made their mark in the movies; some as classic characters in blockbusters and others in forgettable box office disasters.
1. Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Terminator (1984)
The four-time Mr. Universe and International Powerlifting Champion from Austria went on to become the greatest action hero of his — or any — generation. Schwarzenegger’s signature role was the Terminator sent back in time to assassinate Sarah Connor, the mother of unborn revolutionary leader John Connor. Although he speaks only 18 lines in the James Cameron classic, Arnold utters his most memorable quote — “I’ll be back.”
Other notable films: Conan the Barbarian (1982), Predator (1987), Total Recall (1990), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), True Lies (1994)
2. Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
A five-time gold medalist swimmer and bronze medalist water polo player, Weissmuller starred in 12 Tarzan films from 1932-48. Although he was the sixth actor to portray the Edgar Rice Burrough character, Weissmuller added arguably the most important element to Tarzan — the ape-man’s ululating yell.
3. Jim Brown, 100 Rifles (1969)
Arguably the greatest running back (and lacrosse player) in history, Brown retired from the NFL during the prime of his career to become a movie star.
“To leave at 29 years old, MVP, having won the championship in ’64 and played for it in ’65,” Brown told Esquire in 2008. “To go into the movies and break the color barrier and be in a sex scene with Raquel Welch. To get to be in The Dirty Dozen with some great actors. To make more money in one year than you damn near made in nine years of football. Everything about it was ingenious.”
Other notable films: The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Running Man (1987), Mars Attacks! (1996), Any Given Sunday (1999)
4. O.J. Simpson, The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991)
The Juice was a Heisman Trophy winner at USC and the only running back in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in only 14 games. But he was also the bumbling klutz Detective Nordberg in The Naked Gun franchise.
Nordberg: “All right, listen up everyone! I want you to calmly file towards the exits. That’s it, that’s it! Nobody runs, just walk. Single file. That’s it. Now if we just stay calm, no one’s gonna be harmed by the huge bomb that’s gonna explode any minute.”
But O.J.’s best acting scene came during his 1994-95 trial for double-homicide — when he was given black gloves and the stage in one of the greatest legal dramas ever.
Other notable films: The Towering Inferno (1974), The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994)
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Airplane! (1980)
From sky hook to fly boy, Kareem was co-pilot Roger Murdock — flying alongside a very Jerry Sandusky pilot played by Peter Graves — in the comedy classic Airplane! He also fought Bruce Lee during his film debut in Game of Death.
Roger Murdock: “Listen Kid! I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.”
Other notable films: Game of Death (1972), Fletch (1985)
6. Carl Weathers, Rocky (1976)
Before he was iconic heavyweight champion Apollo Creed in the Best Picture Academy Award-winning Rocky, Weathers played football at San Diego State, then four seasons with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and the CFL’s B.C. Lions.
Apollo Creed: “Southpaw nothing. I’ll drop him in three. Apollo Creed meets the Italian Stallion. Now that sounds like a damn monster movie.”
Other notable films: Rocky II (1979), Rocky III (1982), Rocky IV (1985), Predator (1987), Happy Gilmore (1996)
7. Mike Tyson, The Hangover (2009)
The youngest fighter (20 years, 4 months, 22 days) to unify the heavyweight title belt (WBC, WBA and IBF), Iron Mike was a terror in the ring — going 37–0 before losing to Buster Douglas in Tokyo, in one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
A surreal caricature of a man, Tyson infamously did hard time, bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear, got a face tattoo and speaks with an effeminate voice that contradicts his baddest man alive persona. Already bordering on a fictional existence, Tyson took his act to the big screen, singing Phil Collins’ classic “In the Air Tonight” in the bachelor party flick Hangover.
Tyson: “By the way man, where you get that cop car from?”
Stu Price: “We, uh, stole it from these dumbass cops.”
Tyson: “Nice! High five there! That’s nice!”
Other notable films: Rocky Balboa (2006), The Hangover Part II (2011)
8. Bob Uecker, Major League (1989)
One of Uecker’s 14 career home runs in MLB was off of the legendary lefty Sandy Koufax. But the backup catcher was known more for his play-by-play commentary — both in real life as the five-time Wisconsin Sportscaster of the Year with the Milwaukee Brewers and in film as the hard-drinking Harry Doyle with the Cleveland Indians in the Major League trilogy.
Harry Doyle: “So, here is Rick Vaughn, the one they call the ‘Wild Thing.’ So, he sets and deals. (Vaughn throws a wild pitch) Just a bit outside, he tried for the corner and missed. (Vaughn throws another wild pitch) Ball 4. (Vaughn throws another wild pitch) Ball 8. (Vaughn throws another wild pitch) Low, and he walks the bases loaded on 12 straight pitches. How can these guys lay off pitches that close?”
Other notable films: Major League II (1994), Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco (1996), Major League: Back to the Minors (1998)
9. Alex Karras, Blazing Saddles (1974)
An Outland Award winning defensive tackle at Iowa and a four-time Pro Bowl selection in the NFL, Karras was the perfect fit for the horse-punching Mongo in the Mel Brooks wild Western satire Blazing Saddles.
Mongo: “Mongo only pawn … in game of life.”
Other notable films: Porky’s (1982), Victor Victoria (1982), Against All Odds (1984)
10. Andre the Giant, The Princess Bride (1987)
The 7’4”, 530-pound Frenchman was one of the greatest acts in WWF history before playing the lovable strongman running mate of Inigo Montoya in the rom-com fairy tale The Princess Bride.
Fezzik: “It’s not my fault being the biggest and the strongest. I don’t even exercise.”
Other notable films: Conan the Destroyer (1984), Micki + Maude (1984)
11. Bubba Smith, Police Academy (1984)
“Kill, Bubba, Kill” was chanted by fans at Michigan State before Smith became the No. 1 overall pick of the 1967 NFL Draft. The 6’7” Smith was a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end with the Baltimore Colts and a member of the Super Bowl V champions and Super Bowl III runners-up. But to many, he was Lt. Moses Hightower of the Police Academy series.
Hightower: “I was a florist.”
Mahoney: “A florist?”
Hightower: “Yeah, you know, flowers and shit.”
Other notable films: Police Academy 2-6 (1985-89)
12. Vinnie Jones, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
A real deal hooligan, Jones was a footballer who captained the Welsh national team before becoming a typecast movie tough guy.
Other notable films: Snatch (2000), Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000), Swordfish (2001), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
13. John Matuszak, The Goonies (1985)
“Tooz” was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1973 NFL Draft and a two-time Super Bowl champion (Super Bowls XI and XV) before playing the deformed “Sloth” in The Goonies.
Other notable films: North Dallas Forty (1979), Caveman (1981)
14. Jason Lee, Almost Famous (2000)
The former professional skateboarder has carved his way to becoming one of the top goofy-foot grinders in the acting game, turning a wicked 360 flip into mainstream big (and small) screen success.
Other notable films: Mallrats (1995), Chasing Amy (1997), Vanilla Sky (2001), Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007)
15. Cam Neely, Dumb and Dumber (1994)
“Kick his ass, Sea Bass!” has made its way into the vernacular thanks to the Hockey Hall of Famer who hockey-ed a loogie on Jim Carey’s hamburger in the cult classic.
Sea Bass: “What the hell? Who’s the dead man that hit me with the salt shaker?”
Other notable films: D2: The Mighty Ducks (1994), Me, Myself & Irene (2000), What’s the Worst That Could Happen (2001)
16. Roger Clemens, Kingpin (1996)
Clemens, like Neely, is an athlete-actor in Farrelly Brothers comedies. Another intimidator, Clemens plays the role of Skidmark, who doesn’t like it when he finds Amish bowler Ishmael dancing with his girl.
Ishmael: “Hi Mr. Skidmark.”
Other notable films: Cobb (1994), Anger Management (2003)
17. Ray Allen, He Got Game (1998)
Ray plays Jesus Shuttlesworth — Denzel Washington’s son, based loosely on the life of Stephon Marbury — in the Spike Lee joint He Got Game. The perky perks of college basketball recruiting, as well as its financially and politically charged shady side, are in the spotlight.
Other notable film: Harvard Man (2001)
18. Ray Nitschke, The Longest Yard (1974)
The iconic two-time Super Bowl (I and II) champion Green Bay Packers middle linebacker makes this Burt Reynolds original where the prison inmates play against the guards.
Other notable film: Head (1968)
19. Lawrence Taylor, Any Given Sunday (1999)
Another of the NFL’s all-time great linebackers stretches his acting chops by playing football in a film. Coached by Al Pacino, L.T. is a veteran risking his life to play another Sunday for the Miami Sharks.
Other notable films: The Waterboy (1998), The Comebacks (2007), When in Rome (2010)
20. Mike Ditka, Kicking and Screaming (2005)
One of two men to win Super Bowls as a player, assistant coach and head coach, Ditka may have been able to beat a Hurricane — according to Bill Swerski’s Superfans on Saturday Night Live — but he was no match for Will Ferrell.
21. Wilt Chamberlain, Conan the Destroyer (1984)
After scoring a record 100 points in a single NBA game, Wilt the Stilt teamed up with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Look out, ladies.
22. Jesse Ventura, Predator (1987)
Another Arnold Schwarzenegger castmate, “The Body” was hunting and hunted by a Predator monster in the jungles of Central America. The duo would go on to become governors, with Ventura taking over Minnesota and Arnold becoming the “Governator” of Call-ee-forn-ee-a.
Other notable films: The Running Man (1987), Demolition Man (1993), Batman & Robin (1997)
23. Terry Bradshaw, Failure to Launch (2006)
The four-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback plays the husband of Kathy Bates and father of Matthew McConaughey, a 35-year-old still living with his parents. Spoiler alert: Bradshaw bares all.
24. Brett Favre, There's Something About Mary (1998)
Cameron Diaz is a Niners fan, but Brett and Warren are friends.
Favre: “Hi, Mary!”
Pat Healy: “What the hell is Brett Favre doing here?”
Favre: “I’m in town to play the Dolphins, you dumb ass.”
25. Dan Marino, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)
Ray Finkle blames Marino — “Laces out!” — for losing Super Bowl XVII and ruining his career. The Jim Carey vehicle is funnier than Isotoner commercials, which is saying something.
26. Lance Armstrong, Dodgeball (2004)
After convincing Ben Still to Live Strong, Lance has since taken his ball and gone home.
Armstrong: “I’ve been watching the dodgeball tournament on the Ocho, ESPN 8. I just can’t get enough of it. But, good luck in the tournament. I’m really pulling for you against those jerks from Globo Gym. I think you better hurry up or you’re gonna be late.”
Peter La Fleur: “Uh, actually I decided to quit, Lance.”
Armstrong: “Quit? You know, once I was thinking about quitting when I was diagnosed with brain, lung and testicular cancer, all at the same time. But with the love and support of my friends and family, I got back on the bike and I won the Tour de France five times in a row. But I’m sure you have a good reason to quit. So what are you dying from that’s keeping you from the finals?”
27. Derek Jeter, The Other Guys (2010)
He’s a biracial angel.
28. Gheorghe Muresan, My Giant (1998)
The 7’7” Romanian sensation wasn’t just Billy Crystal’s giant, he was everyone’s giant.
29. Michael Jordan, Space Jam (1996)
Bugs Bunny owes us all an apology. You too, Michael.
30. Shaquille O'Neal, Kazaam (1996)
Shaq would probably spend all three of his wishes to wipe out this boombox genie flop.
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