Famous Actors Who Started Out As Athletes

It seems like nearly everyone in Hollywood is a hyphenate these days — actors are singers, singers are actors, and just about every form of talent is hawking something on Instagram. Crossover between different entertainment fields has ramped up, but that is nothing new, and neither is the crossover between athletics and Tinseltown. Good athletes are, after all, able to work grueling hours, take direction and critique, and block out distractions — all key skills for actors, as well.

While not all athletes are gifted thespians, a fair number have been able to hit it big on-screen. For some, the evolution has been slow: taking gigs here and there as they remained vested in their sport until they hit retirement. For others — especially wrestlers who, it could be argued, already do a fair share of acting as part of their in-ring persona — there has been a balance between athletics and acting. Here are some of the most famous actors who started out as professional athletes before going on to excel in film and television.

Dwayne Johnson

Though commercial wrestling lacks the prestige of other professional sports, it lends itself especially well to theatrics, given the performance element required. It combines the power, flexibility, and competitiveness of sport with the entertainment of Hollywood, and the result has been lucrative for many wrestlers-turned-actors. That said, few of them have had the success of the naturally charismatic, charming, and handsome Dwayne Johnson, who is perhaps the gold template for how to transition from celebrated athlete to mega movie star. Author of "The Rock Says," Johnson — a third-generation wrestler with failed dreams of being a football player — "made his debut in the WWF in 1996" (per Yahoo!). However, it was not until the following year that he became "The Rock." 

Though "The Rock" started off as a villain, Johnson himself has become a beloved personality in the decades since. In 2001, after appearing as himself on a couple of television series, Johnson made his film debut in "The Mummy Returns," which quickly led to spin-off film "The Scorpion King" and a dueling acting and wrestling career until he left the WWE in 2004 (he would later return). Today, Johnson is one of the highest-paid movie stars in the world (per Variety), has a television show ("Young Rock") based upon his life, and has had roles in massive franchises like "Fast & Furious" and "Jumanji." Gigantic box office hits for the star include "Central Intelligence," "Skyscraper," "San Andreas," "Rampage," and "Hobbs and Shaw."

Terry Crews

After being drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1991, linebacker Terry Crews spent five years in the NFL playing for the Los Angeles Rams, the Washington Redskins, and the San Diego Chargers before deciding to call it quits in 1996 (at the time, he was a member of the Philadelphia Eagles' practice squad). According to Business Insider, Crews then struggled to make a living wage, so he swept floors to get by. With a graphic design background (per Sports Illustrated), acting was not the logical choice for a next move, but it has proven to be lucrative for Crews, who in 2021 received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Crews started his film career with very small roles before breaking out as Damon in 2002's "Friday After Next." His rising fame led to progressively larger parts in films, including all of the movies in "The Expendables" franchise, and eventually, major success in television and voice acting. Crews has been a series regular on several multi-season sitcoms including "Everybody Hates Chris," "Are We There Yet?", and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." The "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "America's Got Talent" host is an author, too. He wrote memoirs "Manhood" and "Tough," tweeting about the latter volume: "I wrote this book for anyone who considers themselves 'tough' but feels unfulfilled. Who struggles with procrastination or self-sabotage. Who is ready to achieve true, lasting self-mastery and strength." Crews has also memorably starred in a series of Old Spice commercials, which he started doing in 2010.

Jason Lee

Jason Lee is best known to many as Earl Hickey, the lead character in the four-season NBC comedy "My Name is Earl," which earned the actor numerous award nominations. Lee had already established himself as a strong force in the professional skateboarding world before acting. According to the website for Stereo Sound Agency, which he co-founded in 1992, Lee rose to prominence in the late 1980s and developed a roster of skateboarding tricks that got him noticed by those in the know, which led to him starring in the promotional film "Video Days." Lee spent time in Texas and focused on his work as a photographer ("It's all green and windy roads, and there's horses and cows everywhere you look," he told Vanity Fair), but there were several decades where he was an in-demand Hollywood hotshot.

Lee's first substantial role was in Kevin Smith's 1995 film "Mallrats," and he has gone on to appear in many of Smith's other works, including "Chasing Amy," "Dogma," and "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back." Proving his versatility, Lee has also appeared as Chipmunk-loving Dave in the four live-action "Alvin and the Chipmunks" films, and in Oscar-caliber works such as "Almost Famous" and "Vanilla Sky." In addition to "Earl," he led TNT's dramedy "Memphis Beat" for two seasons. Finally, Lee's distinctive voice has lent itself well to voiceover work, and he has played characters in both big and small-screen animated fare.

The star told Vanity Fair in 2019 that he was interested in returning to acting, and while he's still flourishing in photography, Lee was living in Los Angeles again as of 2021.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

It is a well-known fact that before he was an action movie legend or the governor of California (still weird), Arnold Schwarzenegger was a notable bodybuilder with a series of titles under his belt. Schwarzenegger became active in the sport as a teenager and, per his Bodybuilding.com profile, first competed in the Steirer Hof Competition in Graz, Austria, in 1963. Two years later, he became "Junior Mr. Europe," followed by "Mr. Europe." By age 20, Schwarzenegger had become "the youngest person ever to win the 'Mr. Universe' title" for bodybuilding, according to his own website. In total, the Austrian icon earned seven "Mr. Olympia" titles, won five "Mr. Universe" competitions, and took home several other awards in between.

Even before he stopped competing professionally in 1980, Schwarzenegger had begun to establish himself as a thespian with roles in "Hercules in New York" and "Scavenger Hunt," and guest stints on "The Streets of San Francisco" and other television series. His big acting break was 1982's "Conan the Barbarian," which led to an ill-fated "Conan" sequel and the legendary role of "Terminator" in the franchise's first film in 1984. 

Schwarzenegger earned his reputation as a bankable movie star and capitalized on the booming success of the action genre in the 1980s and '90s, starring in "Predator," "Total Recall," "True Lies," and "Eraser." He's also demonstrated his proficiency in comedy, appearing in "Twins," "Kindergarten Cop," and holiday classic "Jingle All the Way" (the Turbo Man toy was not forgotten).

Kurt Russell

Unlike some of the other actors on our list, Kurt Russell's acting career has so far eclipsed his sports career that few people even remember the latter existed. But once upon a time, Russell was on a very different path — one that may have led to the MLB if not for an injury. "For my family, baseball was a year-round thing," Russell is quoted as saying on the official website of Minor League Baseball. He added, "Acting was a business for me like it was for my dad. I made money but I wanted to play baseball. That was the pursuit." Though he started acting in 1962, Russell made sure his entertainment career worked around baseball, per the Society for American Baseball Research. He became a Disney star by the mid-1960s but continued to play ball and, in the early 1970s, played for a number of minor league organizations, including the California Angels.

After his injury, Russell turned to acting full-time around 1973, and the rest is history. He has appeared in more than 100 acting projects, including action fare like "Tango & Cash," "Backdraft," and "Executive Decision." But Russell is more than just an action hero, starring in everything from comedies — including "Overboard," opposite his long-time partner Goldie Hawn — to sports dramas "Miracle" and "Dreamer." He has been nominated for both a Primetime Emmy, for 1979's "Elvis," and a Golden Globe award, for 1984's "Silkwood," and was inducted into the Walk of Fame in 2017.

Wyatt Russell

Like his father Kurt, Wyatt Russell (whose mother is star Goldie Hawn and whose half-siblings are actors Kate and Oliver Hudson) has had major accomplishments in both acting and sports. The younger Russell's sport of choice is hockey, which he has played both domestically and abroad. According to his Elite Prospects stats, Russell has played for a variety of professional teams, including the Brampton Capitals, Coquitlam Express, and Langley Hornets (Canadian teams) and the Chicago Steel. The goaltender also played college hockey at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and a season for the Pecoma Grizzlies Groningen, a hockey team in The Netherlands.

Like many pro athletes, injuries cut Russell's career short and, after retiring in 2010, he took after his family and decided to break into show business. His first acting role of note was in an episode of the short-lived "Law & Order: L.A.," and he gained further notice when he played a flirty hockey player in Judd Apatow's "This Is 40" — a job that required his athletic knowledge as early as the audition (as he told the NHL). He followed this up with more small film roles and television guest spots before landing a leading role in "Lodge 49," a television series that ran for two seasons on AMC (from 2018 to 2019). His career reached new heights in 2021 when he appeared in the Disney+ Marvel miniseries "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier."

John Cena

That iconic wrestler John Cena has become one of the biggest action movie stars in the world is not entirely surprising, but the fact that he has established himself as an actor with stellar comedic chops and a charmingly goofy on-screen persona? That has been a revelation. According to The U.S. Sun, Cena was homeless prior to achieving success as a wrestler, a career that started when he became affiliated with Ultimate Pro Wrestling, but exploded after he made his 2000 WWE debut. And despite his thriving acting career, which includes playing the titular character in the HBO Max series "Peacemaker," Cena has remained active in wrestling and has yet to permanently walk away from the WWE.

Cena started his acting career in WWE-produced films like "The Marine," "12 Rounds," and "Legendary," but he was by no means a big action star at the time. Unexpectedly, his breakthrough role was actually in the comedic "Trainwreck," followed by the similarly silly "Sisters" and a cameo in "Daddy's Home." He then ventured back to his action roots with "The Wall," but found more success playing an overprotective dad in "Blockers" and an overwhelmed firefighter in "Playing with Fire." The "Fast & Furious" actor is also a sought-after "Wipeout" co-host. 

Cena shares excitement for his work on Twitter but isn't afraid to give his followers a pep talk: "When the opportunity for adventure presents itself, find the line where values aren't compromised and the diem is fully carped," he wrote.

Jason Statham

Video footage of Jason Statham diving has been making the rounds for years on the Internet and yet, many fans still do not know that the popular actor was once a professional sports star. Statham competed as a diver at the Commonwealth Games in 1990, but failed to medal in any of his three events. Though he didn't compete in the Olympic games — that's still "a bit of a sore point," he said to the Press Association (via the Independent) — he was reportedly once ranked "12th in the world for diving on the platform" (per IGN). Statham told the outlet that he sold wares on the streets of London, as diving was not lucrative. However, he spent a dozen years on the British national team, and it was during diving training that he was noticed by a modeling scout (via the Sydney Morning Herald).

A French Connection campaign led to a fateful introduction to Guy Ritchie, who then cast Statham in his breakthrough role in the film "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." Statham's film career blossomed from there, and he now has over 50 acting credits, including a few other Ritchie films. Like many athletes-turned-actors, Statham has overwhelmingly worked on action movies. In addition to starring in three "Transporter" movies, two "Crank" films, all of "The Expendables" movies, and a couple "Fast & Furious" flicks, Statham has made many appearances in standalone action/adventures and thrillers. These have included "The Italian Job" and "Safe," as well as the crime comedy "Spy." 

Tony Danza

Tony Danza has been lighting up screens for more than four decades now — heck, his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is itself more than 30 years old. His prolific entertainment career makes it easy to forget that Danza was first a college wrestler and that he spent three years as a professional boxer before skyrocketing to fame in the hit television show "Taxi." Danza appeared on "Taxi" for all five seasons, receiving one Golden Globe award nomination for his work, while at the same time appearing in other film and television content. A year after "Taxi" ended, he began playing his most iconic character, housekeeper Tony Micelli on ABC's "Who's the Boss?" The series ran for eight seasons and earned Danza three Golden Globe nods.

In addition to those two famous sitcoms, Danza has been a series regular on a number of other programs, including "Family Law," "Hudson Street," and "The Tony Danza Show." He hosted a daytime television show for two years in the 2000s (also called "The Tony Danza Show"), has appeared in a variety of television movies, and even tried out reality television with 2010's "Teach: Tony Danza." Danza is a frequent television guest star, and his sole Primetime Emmy nomination is for a four-episode guest arc on "The Practice" in 1998. Though he is more associated with TV, Danza has a diversity of film credits including "Angels in the Outfield," "Crash," and "Don Jon," as well as considerable stage credits. The actor and former athlete has written a memoir, and with his son, a cookbook

John David Washington

Though he made cameos in a couple of his father Denzel's films as a child, John David Washington's original career plan was to be an athlete, not an actor. He took up football at least partially to distance himself from his famous dad, once telling Sports Illustrated, "When I saw that it was about me and not my father, it was like a drug. I got addicted to that." He was good enough to play football at Morehouse College and was even signed to the St. Louis Rams at one point (though he never made it off the practice squad). He also played in the United Football League and, when that ended, was hoping for a second shot at the NFL when an injury put a kibosh on things (per Sports Illustrated).

Once football was officially off the table, Washington was approached by an old friend-turned-agent who recruited him for a main role in the HBO series "Ballers," which lasted for five seasons. It remains his only television gig to date, as Washington has instead chosen to focus his sights on the silver screen. His most acclaimed role has been in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman," for which he was nominated at the Golden Globe Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, and Satellite Awards. His other film credits include action flick "Tenet," legal drama "Monster," and domestic drama "Malcolm & Marie." Washington reportedly makes his Broadway debut in 2022 in August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson" (per Broadway World).

Ronda Rousey

Though she has been acting since 2014, Ronda Rousey is still very much thought of as an athlete first, actor second (if at all). This is perhaps because she is still currently participating in professional sports — as a wrestler for the WWE — or maybe because of the sheer number of athletic fields in which she has dominated. In addition to wrestling, Rousey is an accomplished mixed martial artist, one of the most famous female MMA fighters to have ever fought. She made her MMA debut in 2010, became pro in 2011, and was the first female signed by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (in 2012).

Rousey began training in judo before she was even a teenager, and competed at her first Olympics in 2004, at age 17 (per Encyclopedia Britannica). She then went on to win a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics, which, according to Sports Illustrated, made her the first American woman to ever win a medal in the sport. 

She was an active UFC fighter when she made her acting debut in "The Expendables 3," and subsequently went on to appear in other action films such as "Furious 7" and "Mile 22." She also appeared as herself in the "Entourage" movie, and made a number of guest appearances on television, including a five-episode arc as firefighter Lena Bosko on the Fox procedural "9-1-1" in 2019. Given that this was her last acting credit, it seems safe to say that Rousey is focused on her WWE career for the time being.

Rick Fox

A fair number of hotshot basketball stars have tried to make it in the movies — take Shaquille O'Neal in "Kazaam" or Michael Jordan in "Space Jam" — but most NBA players have failed to achieve the level of acting success reached by athletes from other sports, such as wrestling or football. Rick Fox is an exception, as the former professional baller has established himself as competent actor over the last few decades. Per TV Guide, Fox was drafted into the NBA in 1991, playing first for the Boston Celtics and then later for the Los Angeles Lakers. He played in the league until 2004, but Fox started acting well before his retirement from sports.

Fox made his screen debut in 1994's "Blue Chips," which led to him being cast in films such as "Eddie" and "He Got Game." He also became active in television, appearing as a recurring character on series such as "Oz," "1-800-Missing," and "Love, Inc." Fox became even more involved in acting once he officially retired from the NBA. His later film credits include "Meet the Browns" and "Navy Seals vs. Zombies," but the overwhelming majority of his work has been on the small screen. He has been a series regular on "Mr. Box Office" and "Greenleaf," and has continued to make regular appearances in a variety of series as both a guest star and a recurring player. "I knew I'd be in the entertainment industry when I was done with my playing days," Fox told The Root in 2017.

Dave Bautista

Nearly every big-name wrestler — from Hulk Hogan to "Macho Man" Randy Savage to "Rowdy" Roddy Piper — has at least dabbled in acting, but only a handful have become giant movie stars. Dave Bautista is one such wrestler, having racked up dozens upon dozens of credits, and his involvement with the Marvel Cinematic Universe all but ensures that he will be working for years to come. The popular actor has now appeared as Drax the Destroyer in four films, beginning with 2014's "Guardians of the Galaxy," with more movies on the way in 2022 and 2023.

Before he hit it big in acting, Bautista was already a big name to wrestling fans, some of whom had been following his career even before he began in the WWE in 2002 (per the Baltimore Sun, Bautista wrestled for Ohio Valley Wrestling first). He left wrestling for acting full-time in 2010 but has returned twice (in 2014 and 2019) and also had a brief run doing MMA in 2012. His breakthrough acting role was in 2012's "The Man With the Iron Fists," in which he played the titular villain, and his other screen credits include giant box office hits like "Spectre," "Blade Runner 2049," and "Dune." Bautista has also attempted to branch out by appearing in smaller fare like "Bushwick," and blending comedy — for example, in "Stuber" and "My Spy" — into his action flicks. He has many upcoming projects, including the much-anticipated "Knives Out" sequel.

Gina Carano

According to Bleacher Report, Gina Carano played college sports, after which she became a pro Muay Thai fighter and began fighting in Elite Xtreme Combat MMA matches. Carano retired in 2009, per ESPN, and quickly settled into acting as her new battlefield. Her first film was "Blood and Bone," quickly followed by "Haywire" and, a couple years later, "Fast & Furious 6." Her acting career hit its peak in 2019, when she began appearing in the popular Disney+ original series "The Mandalorian." By all accounts, Carano's career was on the up and up — until it wasn't.

In early 2021, the actor became embroiled in scandal following her offensive social media post that compared modern-day Republicans to Jews in the time of the Holocaust, and Carano was then fired from her cushy gig on the space Western series. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the post speedily led to a trending #fireGinaCarano campaign and, because the studio behind the show (Lucasfilm) had been wary of Carano's controversial Twitter activity for a while, the scandal did her in. Just over a year later, Carano's career seems to be on the rebound, as the actor has several upcoming projects, according to her IMDb. The first of these, "Terror on the Prairie," is a film she produced for Conservative news outlet The Daily Wire (via Deadline).