25 Awesome Film Roles By Professional Athletes

Posted by , Updated on May 21, 2024

Typically, an athlete’s professional career, irrespective of the sport they play, tends to be shorter compared to other professions. From a scientific standpoint, a person’s physical peak generally starts to decline in their early to mid-thirties, an age that is fairly young by both societal and biological measures. So, what do athletes do when they retire and need to find another source of income? This article highlights 25 instances where well-known athletes moved into the acting industry for additional income and fame after leaving their sports careers behind.


Terry Bradshaw, Cannonball Run


Terry Bradshaw is a “giant” of American football who tried his hand in the film industry shortly after he retired from the sport. He played for fourteen seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and won four Super Bowl titles in a six-year period, becoming the first quarterback in history to win four Super Bowls. His charismatic personality and bright smile helped him launch a broadcasting career once he was done on the field and landed him multiple minor roles in three Burt Reynolds (with whom he shared a friendship) movies, Hooper, Smokey and the Bandit II, and Cannonball Run, for which he’s best remembered.


O. J. Simpson, The Naked Gun Films


Before O. J. become notorious worldwide for his criminal acts, he was known as one of the greatest running backs in the NFL; he broke several records and won many awards and trophies. After he retired from football Simpson became a successful broadcaster and actor. His hilarious roles in all three Naked Gun films are by far the best in his career and every time we watch him in them we can’t believe what a douchebag he turned out to be.


Ray Nitschke, The Longest Yard


You will most likely find the name of Ray Nitschke near the top of every poll and ranking of the ten greatest American football players in history and this shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially if you take into account his accolades: a member of the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame, three-time first-team All-Pro selection, five NFL championships (pre-Super Bowl days) and two Super Bowl victories for a total seven championship rings, a decorated member of the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, and last but not least, his #66 jersey is one of the few to be retired by the Green Bay Packers for which he played for fifteen seasons. Even though he never pursued a full-blown acting career he pleasantly surprised everybody with his unexpected acting skills in The Longest Yard starring Burt Reynolds.


John Matuszak, The Goonies


Every child who grew up in the ‘80s probably watched The Goonies more than once and loved John Matuszak without even really knowing it. See, the man behind the deformed “monster” named Sloth was the 6’8˝ and 300-something-pound former NFL star who played for five different teams and helped the Oakland Raiders win two Super Bowls before he retired in 1982. Additionally, he was the NFL’s number one draft in 1973, and in 2005 Sports Illustrated named him one of the top five all-time “bad boys” who ever played in the NFL.


Randy Couture, The Expendables


Randy Couture is, along with Fedor Emelianenko, Chuck Liddell, Anderson Silva, and Georges St-Pierre, one of the greatest and most popular fighters in the history of the fastest-growing sport in the world, MMA. After Couture became the first of only two fighters (B. J. Penn being the other) to hold two UFC championship titles in two different divisions and won the UFC title a total six times (a record), he found a physically less-taxing way to make money and became an actor.

Make no mistake, we don’t think Randy’s a good actor or anything, but in a film like The Expendables where he’s the only non-professional actor in the main cast, we were surprised to see he wasn’t the worst actor in the bunch. For that fact alone, he gets an honorable mention here.


Wilt Chamberlain, Conan the Destroyer


Do you guys remember the huge black guy in Conan the Destroyer who bit off a chunk of Conan’s ear and probably became the main inspiration for the likes of Mike Tyson and Luis Suárez? In real life the man who portrayed Bombaata was none other than the mighty Wilt Chamberlain. We would literally need pages to write down all his basketball records and accolades but let’s just mention two things about him so you can get the picture: He’s considered the greatest basketball player of all time by many fans and experts, even ahead of Michael Jordan, and he’s also the only player in history to score 100 points in a single NBA game. Did you say anything, Mike? That’s right, I didn’t think so.


Hulk Hogan, Rocky III


Hulk Hogan has been the face of professional wrestling for decades and he’s arguably the most famous wrestler who ever lived. He became a world champion a total of twelve times, including his six reigns as the WWE world heavyweight champion and his six WCW world heavyweight titles. During the ‘80s he was so famous and successful that anything he touched turned to gold. Stallone was fully aware of this and hired him to give the awesome performance that he did as Thunderlips in Rocky III where he literally kicks ass.


Alex Karras, Blazing Saddles


Alex Karras claimed nationwide fame with his role as Mongo in the 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles and also starred in the popular ‘80s TV show Webster. However, he was already famous among football fans for being one of the most dominant, intimidating defensive tackles in the NFL. Before “Mongo” made it big on the big and small screen he played twelve seasons for the Detroit Lions and was part of the 1960s All-Decade NFL team.


Jim Brown, The Dirty Dozen

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Jim Brown wasn’t just any professional athlete but arguably the greatest American football player of all time. After he smashed multiple NFL records, he transformed into a very successful actor with roles that would make him a star even if he wasn’t already famous on the football field. He starred in such popular films as The Running Man, Any Given Sunday, 100 Rifles (next to the super-hot Raquel Welch), and The Dirty Dozen, which was highly praised by most film critics of the day.


Jack Dempsey, Requiem for a Heavyweight


When the conversation about the greatest heavyweight boxer who ever lived drops on the table the name Jack Dempsey is always in the top 10 along with the names of Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson, and, more recently, the Klitschko brothers. Dempsey held the world heavyweight title from 1919 to 1926, became the first undisputed boxing superstar and the first athlete to make over a million dollars. Even though he showed really great acting talent in one of the most iconic boxing-themed films, Requiem for a Heavyweight, he never took acting seriously mainly because he had made enough money from boxing to enjoy a very comfortable life.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Airplane!


We don’t think there are any sports and non-sports fans out there alike who are not familiar with the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem is one of the greatest NBA players ever and still holds several records after all these years since he retired. So, after he won a record six NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards, played in a record nineteen NBA All-Star games, and won six NBA championship rings, he decided to retire and go into acting. Most readers will remember him as the huge, blind, skinny tower in Game of Death in which his character, Hakim, got his butt kicked by Bruce Lee, but his best role, in our opinion, was as the copilot in the hilariously funny ‘80s comedy Airplane!


Tommy Morrison, Rocky V


Back in the late ‘80s and before the current era of Eastern European domination in the heavyweight boxing division, America was in search of the next great white heavyweight champion in an era when black boxers had the monopoly in the weight division. Tommy Morrison, a professional heavyweight boxer at the time, successfully portrayed the next white heavyweight champ in Rocky V and a few years after the movie was shot, life imitated art when Morrison became the WBO heavyweight champion of the world by beating George Foreman for the title.


The Rock, The Mummy Returns


Following in the steps of Hulk Hogan, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson began his acting career after winning the WWE heavyweight title a bunch of times and becoming one of the most loved professional wrestlers the sport ever produced. Just like every other professional wrestler who has made movies, Johnson doesn’t have the acting skills and talent of Al Pacino or Daniel Day Lewis, but at the same time he never fails to entertain in his roles, especially as the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns.


Gina Carano, Haywire


Carano is a semi-retired kickboxer and MMA fighter who has more fans thanks to her knockout looks than her fighting skills. In 2009, she was ranked #16 on Maxim’s Hot 100 list and in 2012 she became the first recipient of the Chuck Norris (Best Female Action Star) Award, given by ActionFest to the female action star of the year. The beautiful athlete proved she could be a good actress as well in her role as a former marine in Haywire, where she made a very explosive duo with Channing Tatum. Unfortunately for her male fans, however, she’s already taken; she’s dating the latest Man of Steel, Henry Cavill.


Bubba Smith, Police Academy I & II


Bubba Smith became widely known as the huge, intimidating cop with the deep voice named Moses Hightower in the Police Academy movies, but before he ventured into film he used to be an NFL player, playing nine seasons for three different teams: the Baltimore Colts, the Oakland Raiders, and the Houston Oilers. He won Super Bow IV with the Colts, was named to two Pro Bowls and was a First-Team All-Pro in 1971.


Dolph Lundgren, Rocky IV


Dolph Lundgren is one of the most multitalented guys you could ever meet; he has literally done pretty much everything in his life: He has a master’s degree in chemical engineering; he served two years in the Swedish Marine Corps at the Amphibious Ranger School; he worked as a model, he worked as a bouncer and also competed as a professional karateka (karate practitioner) in international tournaments winning the European championships in 1980 and 1981, and a world heavyweight title in Australia in 1982. However, it’s almost certain most of us remember him as the Soviet boxing machine who killed Apollo in Rocky IV and accidentally broke Stallone‘s ribs while shooting a fighting scene. “Whatever he hits, he destroys.”


Johnny Weissmuller, All His Tarzan Films


Johnny Weissmuller is known globally for his role as Tarzan in the original film series and according to critics and fans alike he’s the best actor to ever portray the “jungle man.” At 6’3˝ and 195 lbs, Weissmuller was too big and muscular in a non-steroid era in which most athletes (let alone actors) looked as natural as Mother Nature made them. With his incredible physique and natural athleticism he shocked the movie goers who were unfamiliar with his strength and appearance in his debut in Tarzan the Ape Man.

See, Johnny Weissmuller made a living as a swimmer and water polo player before he became an actor; he was quite a success winning five gold and a bronze in both sports at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, earning him the title of the greatest Olympian who ever pursued an acting career.


Jet Li, Hero


Jet Li started working at a very early age and by eleven won the Chinese national championship in the acrobatic martial art of wushu. Along with his trophy his prize was a trip to Washington, DC, to meet then-president Richard Nixon. Li made a living as professional martial artist and acrobat for many years before he was spotted by local Chinese film producers. He has starred in a number of blockbusters and is one of today’s highest-paid action stars. His role as the nameless warrior in Hero is, in our opinion, his best moment to date as an actor.


Jason Lee, My Name Is Earl


Way before My Name Is Earl, Jason Lee used to be one of the most talented and prominent professional skaters in the world. Actually he was the one who popularized one of the trendiest and most common moves of the sport: the “360 flip.” So believe it or not the “bum” with the funny mustache from your favorite TV show was a professional athlete and one of the best skaters the sport has ever laid claim to.


Carl Weathers, Rocky I through Rocky IV


Carl Weathers played American football as a linebacker in college and professionally for one season on the Raiders. Even though he didn’t win any titles, he had a great acting career starring in blockbusters such as the Rocky films and Predator while he also took part in the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Liberian Girl.” He’s better remembered for his role of Apollo Creed in the Rocky films, and it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration if we said that he’s probably the second-most-famous Apollo in history behind the Greek god, of course.


Chuck Norris, The Delta Force

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The name Chuck Norris might be synonymous with jokes and anecdotes nowadays but the actor and martial artist was a true badass with supreme fighting skills before he became an actor. He won the Professional World Middleweight Karate Championships in 1968 and held the title for six years until he retired in 1974. For that matter, he was so good that he caught Bruce Lee’s eye, who then demanded that the producers hire Norris to play the villain in Way of the Dragon. To be quite honest we’re not really fond of Chuck’s acting skills in that film, but his portrayal of Major Scott McCoy in The Delta Force is so bad it’s actually ironically good.


Lou Ferrigno, The Incredible Hulk


Lou Ferrigno was one of the most decorated and famous professional bodybuilders during the era in which Schwarzenegger was the king. He won the IFBB Mr. America title and two consecutive IFBB Mr. Universe titles before he finished second to Arnold in the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition. However, that didn’t stop him from pursuing a stellar acting career during which he made millions and became a legend, especially among young comic book fans. To date he is, and will probably always be, the best Incredible Hulk we have ever seen on the big or small screen, and he didn’t even need special effects and modern technology to look like the “green giant.”


Jason Statham, Every Film He Has Been In


Okay, we’re obviously being biased here but for a good reason; it’s not easy to make up your mind which role of the greatest action movie star of this generation is your favorite. From Transporter to Snatch, Crank to The Expendables, and The Bank Job to Homefront, Jason Statham not only shows his prime acting skills but also performs pretty much 99 percent of his most dangerous scenes and very rarely will accept being replaced by a stuntman. Not bad for a guy who used to make a living representing England in the Commonwealth Games and other International competitions as a diver.


Vinnie Jones, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels


This is a rare case where a former professional athlete not only pursued an acting career and got a couple of roles in a few movies but also literally had a better career  as an actor than he had as an athlete. Vinnie Jones, a former British footballer and an all around badass who got more red cards for punching or kicking his opponents than any other player in the English League, transformed into an absolute superstar of the big screen with major roles in films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch by Guy Richie and blockbusters such as X-Men: The Last Stand and Freelancers.


Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terminator


Arnold became the youngest Mr. Olympia in the history of professional bodybuilding at the age of twenty-three, an honor he still holds today, almost forty-five years after he set the record. He won a total of seven titles and experts believe he could have gone after another seven or eight titles if he didn’t go for bigger and better things in life. Other than becoming the highest-earning and most recognizable bodybuilder ever, Arnold managed to become a movie star, the governor of California, and a pop icon; quite a talented guy if you think about it.

He’s also the professional athlete with the most accomplished acting skills, since everyone who has watched Terminator at least once has probably wondered if Arnie is a human or a robot after all. Also, his classic quote, “I’ll be back,” is probably the most popular quote in film history.