12 Actors Who Were Incredible Athletes

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Regardless of the great schools of acting available the world over, the ability to tell stories form the perspective of another is rooted in talent over acquired skill. At it’s simplest, it’s playing a child’s game: make believe. It’s no surprise that many actors have come from athletic careers to pursue the competition in the entertainment industry, or simultaneously work in both fields. Some have tried and failed, while others went on to huge success, million dollar movie deals and even acting awards.

12. Shaquille O’Neal

Sure, Shaq is better known as a basketball player, but make no mistake, this dominant center was an actor playing basketball. Because Shaquille O’Neal is a quality ham, he has enjoyed several roles in feature films. Shaq charmed the kids with Kazaam, then took a turn toward drama, and displaying some acting chops in the 1994 basketball-based Blue Chips, starring Nick Nolte. Throughout Shaq’s playing career, which resulted in four NBA championships, it was rather obvious that he was grooming a path toward a career continuation in the world of entertainment. From feature film roles, to TV appearances and his current gig on TNT’s Inside The NBA, Dr. Shaquille O’Neal is everything you’d hope for in a 7’1″ class clown.

Source: Columbia Pictures

11. Jim Brown

Regarding athletes who gave up sports to play characters, there is likely none greater than Jim Brown. Brown played pro football for the Cleveland Browns, after enjoying a legendary college career at Syracuse. As a running back, he was relatively unstoppable, and commanded size and speed the likes of which had never been seen before during his time. Brown walked away from the game at the height of his career, owning a slew of NFL and Browns team records to pursue another love: acting. He went on to act in over 40 films, including the iconic film, The Dirty Dozen (1967).


10. Ray Allen

For those who have seen Spike Lee’s film, He Got Game, there’s a reason the lead character, Jesus Shuttlesworth, looks familiar. He’s NBA champion, Ray Allen. When casting for the role of Jesus, Spike was adamant about the actor having a basketball skill set that would be lucrative to NBA scouts. This included the actor’s size. Ray Allen had the look, and built an impressive chip on his shoulder to play the hard-knocked Shuttlesworth. A performance which was praised by the late Roger Ebert. Ray’s playing career is winding down, and he remained a free agent throughout the 2015 season. It will be interesting to see if he considers more acting roles after his basketball retirement.


9. Mark Harmon

Mark Harmon, known best as Leroy Gibbs on NCIS, has graced the small screen and silver screen, and grew up in the heart of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. The son of a Heisman Trophy winner and football great, Tom Harmon, Mark cut his own path on the gridiron, playing for the UCLA Bruins in 1972 and 1973. He was the starting QB, and led the Bruins to an impressive 17-5 record while under center. Mark wasn’t presented with great opportunity to play football professionally, so he considered a career in law. Before enrolling in law school, he decided to take advantage of some familial connections in the entertainment industry, and in no time, he was guest starring on television shows. His career has been marked with roles in law and law enforcement.

Photo by Broadimage/REX

8. Carl Weathers

Before Carl Weathers played the iconic character of Apollo Creed in the Rocky series, he played linebacker for the Oakland Raiders of the NFL and the B.C. Lions of the CFL. Weathers was one of the few college athletes who went to school for drama, played football, then had an opportunity to make a team after going undrafted. Though his football career lasted only four years, it presented him with some life experience and a few great stories to tell while meeting with agents and casting directors. Weathers has enjoyed some great roles in the realm of comedy, drama and action flicks, including the lovable Chubbs in Adam Sandler’s cult classic, Happy Gilmore.


7. Howie Long

Howie Long could once be seen every Sunday terrorizing quarterbacks as a defensive end for the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders. After he retired with 91.5 sacks, and the reputation of being an unstoppable force in his playing prime, Howie hopped straight in front of the camera. He has worked as an analyst for NFL on FOX since retiring from the playing field, but he also carried several roles on the big screen, the most memorable in John Woo’s Broken Arrow (1996), a member of John Travolta’s spec ops team. Trivia: Howie actually played Tom Hanks partner in Hanks film, That Thing You Do!, but his scenes were cut from the theatrical version of the film. They can be seen on the special edition release.

Photo by Broadimage/REX

6. Caitlyn Jenner (Formerly Bruce)

To a story line that has become a little confusing: Before Bruce Jenner was Caitlyn Jenner, she was admired as one of the world’s greatest athletes. An Olympic Champion in the decathlon, Jenner went on to enjoy roles in features films and television, most notably being nominated for a Golden Raspberry in 1980 for the film Can’t Stop The Music. The film was a commercial flop, and Jenner’s performance was considered laughable. In all fairness to Jenner, it probably wasn’t the best role to take for a first film. Still, she went to make several guest appearances and guest starring roles on TV shows in the 80s, including the popular CHiPs and Silver Spoons.

Photo By: Dee Cercone/Everett Collection

5. Terry Crews

Terry Crews is a man with a special set of skills. Beyond the ability of making his pecs dance on command, the highly energetic actor was once an NFL journeyman, who played for several teams in the early 1990s. Crews is now the go-to for Old Spice commercials, and has enjoyed a steady climb to acting fame playing a variety of comedic and athletic characters. His roles on Everybody Hates Chris and Brooklyn Nine-Nine garnered much deserved attention, while the role of Caesar in Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables film series solidified his place as a genuine, Hollywood action star.

Photo by Rob Latour/REX

4. Jason Statham

Joining Terry Crews as an Expendables alumni, and former athlete, Jason Statham enjoyed his first major success in the swimming pool. In fact, Jason was a member of the British National Diving Team. Yes, thanks to YouTube, fans of the action star who is well known for his dry wit and supreme athleticism, can easily see what he was up to in his teens and early 20s. Statham went on to his first film role with British director, Guy Ritchie, in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Following Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels with Snatch opposite Brad Pitt, Statham’s career as an actor was solidified.

Photo by Picture Perfect/REX

3. Merlin Olsen

Merlin Olsen was so well known as an actor before the supreme popularity of NFL football, that many fans of shows like Little House on The Prairie didn’t realize he had enjoyed a long career in the NFL resulting in an induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The 6’5″ Olsen was as intimidating on screen, as he was to opposing quarterbacks. Becoming good friends with Michael Landon while working on Little House…, Olsen went on to star in the short-lived series created by Landon, Father Murphy, which ran from 1981-1983. Olsen continued acting through the 1980s, and predominately focused on television roles.

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2. Jason Lee

Jason Lee is best known for his irreverent comedic style, and uncanny timing. He’s a true charmer, and has played everything from sidekick to leading man. In short, his acting career was similar to his career as a sponsored, professional skater, a sidekick and a leading man. Jason Lee was the first skate athlete signed to Blind Skateboards. He made noise in an early 1990s skateboard video known as Video Days, which featured the skate team riding street style, and free form, doing crazy things and laying the foundation for the skate style that so prominent in popular culture. One thing obvious on the video: Jason’s sense of humor and comfort with the camera. Much of Video Days was shot by future Oscar winner, Spike Jonze.

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1. Chuck Connors

Chuck Connors holds a special place on this list, because a short stint with the 1952 L.A. Angels–the the AAA affiliate of the Chicago Cubs–led to his acting career. Connors played professional basketball with the upstart Boston Celtics, kicked around baseball’s minor leagues, and played in the MLB with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs… all after being drafted by the Chicago Bears, but choosing military service instead. In L.A. he was spotted on the field by an MGM casting director, who asked him to audition for a role in the Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn film, Pat and Mike. He didn’t get the role he initially auditioned for, but did book a part in the film. Chuck went on to major movie and television success, none greater than his role as Lucas McCain in The Rifleman.

Premium–The Rifleman

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James Sheldon