Sports stars in movies

Ben Skipper
Yahoo UK Movies Features

This week sees the release of Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Haywire’, an out-and-out action film revolving around hard-hitting Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter Gina Carano.

Impressed by the presence and toughness of Carano whilst watching the sport late one night, Soderbergh decided to make a film with her as the star. She’s not the first sports star to have a crack at acting and she won’t be the last so we’ve decided to look back over the years at the biggest names to try their hand at that little thing called showbusiness.

The Muscle Men
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the undisputed king of sportsmen turned movie stars. It takes a lot to go from body-builder to governor of California but Arnie did it and it’s one of the film industry’s most remarkable success stories. Despite minimal acting skills, Schwarzenegger has starred in dozens of films that have succeeded and continue to be mighty fine films almost entirely because of the Arnie-factor.

His charm and on-screen presence play their part but it’s the mix of endearingly hammy acting and that Austrian accent that keep people buying his films. Let’s not mention ‘Junior’ though.

Alongside Arnie in ‘Predator’ was Carl Weathers, who had success playing American football for the Oakland Raiders before starting a film career. He is most famous for playing Apollo Creed in the ‘Rocky’ franchise alongside Sylvester Stallone.

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More recently MMA fighter and former Light Heavyweight Champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson has made the jump to film. It was the role of B.A. Baracus in the surprisingly fun ‘A-Team’ film that brought him to people’s attention and for a role so universally believed to be owned by one man and one man only, he did a good job. Since then however, he’s stepped back into the cage to continue his fighting career.

Finally there’s the legend that is Bruce Lee. He was originally a kung-fu champion of course but had roles in films from a young age.  He played Kato in the 1960s superhero TV series ‘The Green Hornet’ but he is most famous for his films ‘Fists of Fury’ and ‘Enter the Dragon’.

He is responsible for the worldwide appeal of martial arts movies and could have done so much more for the industry were it not for his untimely and mysterious death aged 32.

The Wrestlers
Not surprisingly, wrestlers are better suited to movies than their athletic counterparts in real sports, which is why  Hulk Hogan was the first major wrestler to make the leap but let’s leave him for now, he’s more suited to a later category.

The Rock has done better than any other wrestler, despite the numerous attempts of many. He took his first tentative step as the largely mute Scorpion King at the end of ‘The Mummy Returns’ in 2001, a role that was later fleshed out in the less successful prequel in which The Rock, or Dwayne Johnson as he preferred to be called by then, was the star.

He has since been in such Disney efforts as ‘The Tooth Fairy’, ‘The Game Plan’ and ‘Escape to Witch Mountain’. He was built for action though and his résumé in that regard is not bad, there’s ‘Walking Tall’ and the so-bad-its-great ‘Welcome to the Jungle’. The big one however was last year’s fifth ‘Fast and the Furious’ film ‘Fast Five’. He follows that up this year by starring in the sequel to ‘GI Joe’ and will also return to the wrestling ring after a lengthy absence.

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Wrestlers are always having cracks at action movies, current top man John Cena had a go in ‘The Marine’ which was followed up by a sequel starring Ted DiBiase Jr.  Paul “Triple H” Levesque starred in ‘The Chaperone’ last year, a film described as “haphazardly clichéd” by the LA Times.

Wrestlers like cameos as with Hulk Hogan in ‘Rocky III’ and The Rock in ‘The Mummy Returns’. The best however would be “Macho Man” Randy Savage in the first big screen outing of ‘Spider-Man’ back in 2002. As to not strain the wrestling legend too far, he played wrestler Bone Saw McGraw, but that didn’t stop him heaping on the old Macho Man shtick. OOOH YEEAAHH!

The Comedians
We’re stretching the term comedians here. We’re including all those who had a crack at providing laughs either by normal means or by thoroughly taking the Mickey out of themselves. Kareem Abdul Jabbah is better known in the States for his celebrated basketball skills but among film fans he’s most famous for his cameo in spoof-to-end-all-spoofs ‘Airplane’.  The entirely self-aware Jabbah played Roger Murdock, who people kept mistaking for the basketball legend.

OJ Simpson didn’t have a prosperous movie career thanks to a certain court case but he did appear in the ‘Naked Gun’ trilogy as Detective Nordberg alongside the sadly-missed Leslie Nielsen. It was a straight role for the former American football player unlike other sportsmen playing for laughs.

Mike Tyson played an exaggerated (or maybe it wasn’t) version of himself in the ‘Hangover’ films, gladly playing up to a few of the non-criminal ideas people have about the man. His rendition of Phil Collins on the piano is a thing of beauty.

Another cameo comes from Lance Armstrong in ‘Dodgeball’, who was wonderfully deadpan in a small scene. Intended to make Vince Vaughn’s character feel bad about turning his back on his friends, he described his battle with multiple cancers before coming back to win the Tour De France five times in a row. He then wonderfully asks, “So what are you dying from that's keeping you from the finals?”

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The Footballers
The standouts from the world of football are Vinnie Jones and Eric Cantona - both have found success in the film business, Jones as a thug from Landaaan and Cantona as a proper bona fide actor.

Jones made his name starring in Guy Ritchie’s debut film ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ before moving on to another Ritchie film ‘Snatch’ and then ‘Swordfish’ a couple of years later. After a failed attempt to make a British version of ‘The Longest Yard’ in ‘Mean Machine’, he took on a different role as comic villain Juggernaught in ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’, which he turned into standard Vinnie fare anyway with such lines as, “I’m the Juggernaught, b****!” Classic.

Cantona has largely stuck to films in his native France with notable exceptions in the high profile film ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Looking for Eric’. The latter, highly regarded film, follows a United fan (also called Eric) going through a major life crisis who works through his problems thanks to Eric Cantona, who appears to him as a sort of imaginary friend, just one great at football.
‘Goal’ sold itself on the appearances of football stars like Steven Gerrard, Alan Shearer, then England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson, Zinedine Zidane and a certain David Beckham. Playing themselves isn’t exactly taxing  for actors or anyone but there’s still something weird about seeing these men on the big screen.

The Cash Cows

This category is for the sportsmen who became so famous that not making a film with them in would have been a terrible business decision. To kick us off is a man not content with being the world’s greatest and most famous basketball player - Michael Jordan, who starred in ‘Space Jam’. 

A straight forward basketball film with Jordan would have done great business as it is, but why do that when you can have Jordan playing with and against the cast of Looney Tunes?

The result is a slice of fried 90s gold with some sizeable laughs making up for Jordan’s questionable acting skills. It even has Billy Murray in it, in a role film fans will be surprised the typically picky actor took. Maybe he was getting bored of his massive house and wanted a new one?

I mentioned Hulk Hogan earlier but said he could wait for a more fitting category. Well here it is. Being the biggest and most popular wrestler of the time, and probably ever, Hollywood was naturally going to be on the phone. He started off his film career with a cameo in ‘Rocky III’ as Thunderlips and first starred in a film about a wrestler, called ‘No Holds Barred’.

After that however his career took a turn for the far more, err, interesting. Just the names of these films should tell you all you need to know. ‘Suburban Commando’, ‘Thunder in Paradise’ and that old classic ‘3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain’ are the picks.

His most famous starring role would be ‘Mr Nanny’ however, a precursor/warning released a few months before ‘Mrs Doubtfire’.