Athletes Who Turned To Hollywood Careers

It's easy to think of sports and film as two very different industries, but the truth is, both exist for the sake of entertainment. And as it turns out, if you're good at putting on an athletic show, you just might be good at acting, too. The performance, showmanship, and persona-building skills required to become a star athlete have helped many sports professionals move on to successful careers in Hollywood. Athletes have been trying their hand at acting for as long as both endeavors have been around. Even in the ancient world, sports competition served as entertainment whereby gifted athletes became highly-praised celebrities

Savvy Hollywood executives sought to profit from athletes' fame early on in the film industry, creating whole genres based on the talents of figure skater Sonja Henie and champion swimmer Esther Williams. Later, wrestlers like André the Giant paved the way for Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and John Cena to build acting careers from WWE fame. And when you have as massive star power as Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal had in the 1990s, it would have been nearly impossible to resist Hollywood's hoards of cash to make a few movies. Let's take a closer look at the variety of athletes, from wrestlers to football players to skateboarders to ballerinas, who have successfully pursued Hollywood careers.

Dwayne The Rock Johnson

While Dwayne Johnson is considered an actor first and foremost nowadays, he was once a successful professional wrestler known as "The Rock," a nickname that has stuck to this day. His wrestling career is well-documented, but what might come as a surprise is that he initially directed his athletic skills toward football.

According to ESPN, he played defensive lineman at the University of Miami and then became part of a championship-winning team, the Miami Hurricanes, in 1991. The Rock dreamt of being an NFL player, but injuries eventually ended his football career. "The dreams I had, they [were] dashed. There [was] no more football. ... That was my absolute worst time," Johnson told The Hollywood Reporter.

Johnson realized he needed to make a career change, and as the son of pro wrestler Rocky Johnson, wrestling was in his blood. He had a natural talent for it and soon became a megastar. "I loved the showmanship, and I loved the theatricality. It was so entertaining and over-the-top, and I was always mesmerized by these guys," he told The Hollywood Reporter. It wasn't long before that "theatricality" inspired him to pursue acting. His first foray into a Hollywood career was "The Mummy Returns" in 2001, and he's hardly slowed down since, acting in over 40 movies. He's now one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood with an estimated net worth of $800 million.

Michael Jordan

The name Michael Jordan is practically synonymous with basketball. He reigned in the 1980s and 1990s when he played on the Chicago Bulls, earning well-deserved recognition as a 5-time MVP Award winner in the NBA, also being named an All-Star a whopping 14 times! 

In the '90s, Michael Jordan was already one of the most famous people in the world — a study commissioned by Warner Bros. put him right up there with the Pope and Princess Diana (via ESPN). Jordan's acting stint in "Space Jam" remains one of the most memorable moments of his legacy. According to The Washington Post, the basketball legend had rejected several movie offers throughout his career. Jordan's manager, David Falk, told the publication, "I always used to tell him when we'd turn the deals down, 'You can't act. There is only one role for you.'" That role, of course, was the role of Michael Jordan, so "Space Jam," in which he plays a fictional version of himself, technically fit that criteria.

Jim Riswold, the creator of the "Hare Jordan" commercial that initially sparked the idea for the movie, told The Washington Post, "It's a marketing idea first, and a movie, maybe ninth." Even if Michael Jordan's brief silver screen career was more of a layered marketing plan than it was an acting pursuit, the box office numbers ($230 million to be exact) and the cultural impact of the film made it nothing short of a Hollywood blockbuster and definitely opened up the door for other basketball players to star in movies.

Shaquille O'Neal

Like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, or simply "Shaq," was one of the most well-known basketball superstars of the 1990s. And also like Jordan, he tried his luck in Tinseltown.

Following basketball flick "Blue Chips," Shaq's acting career was launched with the 1996 movie "Kazaam" (no, the movie was not called "Shazam" and did not star Sinbad despite what the Mandela Effect might have you misremembering). In the kids' movie, the 7'1" athlete played a genie released by a 14-year-old boy prone to shenanigans, per IMDb. While the movie was watched widely by '90s kids and basketball fans alike, it was far from a hit. When asked why he did the movie (which was notoriously bad), O'Neal told GQ, "I was a medium-level juvenile delinquent from Newark who always dreamed about doing a movie. Someone said, 'Hey, here's $7 million, come in and do this genie movie.' What am I going to say, no? So I did it."

For O'Neal, acting was enjoyable, and he went on to star in the superhero movie "Steel." His career has included a slew of other acting credits, and he was even offered the part of John Coffey in the 1999 Oscar-nominated movie "Green Mile," though he turned the role down

Sonja Henie

Sonja Henie was a women's figure skating trailblazer in the 1920s. Not only did she beautifully blend ballet into her skating routines long before it was the norm to do so; she was also fearlessly the first woman to wear a skirt above her knees in the rink and initiated the tradition of wearing white skates, per Vanity Fair. Born in Norway, she became a teenage skating star and won a gold medal at the 1928 Olympics when she was only 15, doing so again in 1932 and 1936.

Soon she set her sights on Hollywood. "I want to go into pictures, and I want to skate in them. ... I want to do with skates what Fred Astaire is doing with dancing. No one has ever done it in the movies and I want to," she told The New York Times in a 1936 interview. Twentieth Century Fox was ready and willing to cash in on the idea, and that same year, Henie starred in her first of many popular ice skating-centric movies, "One in a Million." She was one of the biggest box-office draws of the 1930s and 1940s, starring in over a dozen films.

O.J. Simpson

In contemporary pop culture, O.J. Simpson might be more associated with car chases, murder trials, a glove, and names like Cochran and Kardashian, but believe it or not, there once was a time when O.J. Simpson was famous for other things. Most predominantly, for being a record-breaking professional football player. In 1968, he took home the Heisman Trophy, and he was drafted to the Buffalo Bills in 1969, making NFL history when he became the first 2000-yard rusher in the 1973 season, per Britannica. Simpson later played for the San Francisco 49ers. Now a hall-of-famer, he retired from the game in 1979.

Finished with football, Simpson focused on acting, a career he pursued while still doing sports, with credits dating back to 1968. He had taken roles during his tenure in the NFL, with guest spots in TV series such as "Roots" and work in dramatic films such as "Capricorn One." But when his athletic career ended, Simpson was ready to pursue his big Hollywood dreams full time. "I always put my fantasies in the realm of goals. The Oscar or the Emmy says you've reached a level of competence in this business, and I would love to have one," he said in 1980 (via the Los Angeles Times). Unsurprisingly, his acting career collapsed after his 1995 trial, a televised event that remains his most remembered on-screen appearance.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Before Arnold Schwarzenegger became an action star and the governor of California, he was a professional bodybuilder. Born in Austria, he declared, "I want to be the best-built man in the world!" when he was only 13, according to his official website. With determination and brute force, he made his dreams come true, winning the title of Mr. Olympia 7 times and Mr. Universe 4 times during his professional bodybuilding career spanning the '60s and '70s, per Britannica.

He carved a new path in the bodybuilding world. "I had a different approach. I hired a publicist in '74... I started this fitness crusade, because I realized the whole movement needed explanation. So I did endless seminars, I wrote books, I did TV interviews, 'Pumping Iron,'" he explained to Men's Health. The persona he created along with his impressive build led him to a related career after he retired: an action movie star. Though technically Schwarzenegger starred in his first movie in 1970 with "Hercules in New York," he didn't find his Hollywood footing until starring in 1982's "Conan the Barbarian," his breakout role. He enjoyed a fruitful film career for over a decade starring in films including "The Terminator," "Kindergarten Cop," and "Batman and Robin" before eventually turning to politics, which one might note is yet another career bordering on the entertainment business.

John Cena

John Cena was a professional wrestler long before becoming the movie man he is today. A career in bodybuilding eventually led him to wrestling. His signature look in the ring was jean shorts and sneakers; Cena explained this style to James Corden, saying, "My persona was a tough, wannabe rapper kid from the mean street of West Newbury [Massachusetts]." During his impressive wrestling career, he won the WWE World Championship 16 times and gained international fame amongst wrestling fans worldwide.

Like several pro-wrestlers before him, Cena's introduction to acting was through action movies, but he found he didn't feel at home in that arena. "Doing action wasn't a real good fit for me because it's the opposite of how I work. It was extremely choreographed and extremely scripted," he told The New York Times. Cena's natural inclination to let loose soon drew him to comedy. His first comedic role was in Amy Schumer's 2015 movie "Trainwreck," wherein he proved that he could be seriously funny. Tina Fey, who worked with him on the movie "Sisters," told The New York Times, "He's just a fantastically funny improviser. If you said anything, he was perfectly ready to react to it. That was a wonderful surprise." Cena has enjoyed a string of successful film roles since, most notably in the 2021 movie "The Suicide Squad."

Gina Carano

You might know her as Cara Dune from Disney's "The Mandalorian," or from the films "Haywire," "Fast & Furious 6," and "In the Blood." But long before she was an action star, Gina Carano was a mixed martial arts fighter dubbed the "face of women's MMA," per UFC. Her popularity in the sport was unparalleled. According to the official UFC website, she was frequently searched online in 2008 and made a Yahoo! top ten list as the fifth most influential woman. By 2009, she had also made the list for Maxim's "Hot 100," coming in at number 16.

Hollywood soon came knocking on her door. Her first lead role came after Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh saw one of her fights on TV and promptly reached out to her agent. He wanted her for the lead role in his film "Haywire," and Carano was surprised to find how much she enjoyed acting. "I always was attracted to fighting because of the intimate experience that it is and the adrenaline that you get off of it. I didn't know that that same feeling can be put into acting and not being choked out or...not having to hurt anybody to do it," she explained in an interview with Hollywood Streams.

However, things haven't always gone her way. Carano was famously fired from "The Mandalorian" in 2021 after a string of offensive tweets.

Terry Crews

Once upon a time, Terry Crews was a professional football player. After playing college football at Western Michigan University on a scholarship, he was drafted into the NFL in 1991 to play for the Los Angeles Rams, per Business Insider. His time with that team didn't last long. He moved from one team to another before realizing football was perhaps not his calling. "I was not very good. 6 teams in 7 years. I was all over the place, but it was good. It got me the body that I wanted," he told Wired.

After his football career ended, he began to pursue acting while working as a security guard, sometimes on movie sets. Eventually, this led him to on-screen opportunities. While on set of "Training Day" as the guest of a location manager friend (who he met through security gigs), the director, Antoine Fuqua, saw potential in Crews and asked him to play an uncredited role in the film. "I didn't get one dime for 'Training Day.' I just showed up, I volunteered, I said, 'Whatever I can do. I just want to help the movie. I want this to be the best thing ever,”' he explained to GQ of the Denzel Washington film. It's that very work ethic and dedication to quality entertainment that has undoubtedly contributed to his success in Hollywood. Some of his most famous roles include "White Chicks," "The Expendables," those outrageous Old Spice commercials, and the hit television series "Brooklyn Nine-Nine."

Jason Lee

Born in California, Jason Lee started skateboarding at a young age. "Growing up in Huntington Beach, you were either a traditional sports athlete, a skateboarder, or a surfer. I got my first skateboard when I was five," he explained in an interview with IGN. He became a professional at the sport in the late '80s. His skateboarding career spanned the rise of the sport's popularity, and he was inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame in 2019.

By the mid-'90s, however, he had grown weary of skateboarding and was ready to move onto other things. When he landed a role in the 1995 movie "Mallrats," he realized acting might be his next move, though he was never too serious about it. "I was still naive, and I didn't have that confidence that comes [from] experience," he told IGN, adding, "That's why I was able to get into acting as easily as I did, because I wasn't jaded." Pretty soon, he was landing one project after another, including "Chasing Amy," "Almost Famous," "Alvin and the Chipmunks," and the Emmy-winning TV comedy series "My Name is Earl."

Fred Williamson

Nicknamed "The Hammer," Fred Williamson played cornerback for the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs in the 1960s. On the field, he was more than just an athlete — he was an entertainer. According to the NFL, Williamson once made the claim: "When I walked out on the field, 20,000 people gave me a reaction: 10,000 booed, 10,000 cheered. That's okay. I mean, they were watching me." With that kind of showmanship, it was only a matter of time before he discovered he was good at other forms of performance art, as well.

Williamson became one of the most iconic stars of the 1970s blaxploitation films, a genre of movies with Black leads that targeted Black audiences, per Britannica. The genre's name, reportedly coined by the president of the Beverly Hills NAACP at the time, came from critics who claimed such films exploited Black culture for the sake of ticket sales and often perpetuated harmful stereotypes. However, over 200 movies were made in the '70s that could fit into this genre, and many of them became classics, like "Blacula," "Foxy Brown," "Shaft," and "Coffy," just to name a few. Williamson's biggest blaxploitation blockbuster was undoubtedly "Black Caesar," per Vulture. The film was scored by James Brown and was an instant hit. Williamson's acting career has spanned decades, and he is still making movies today, according to IMDb.

Esther Williams

Before Esther Williams was Hollywood's mermaid movie star, she was an athlete with a dream of Olympic gold. A champion swimmer by the time she was in her teens, Williams was slated to compete in the 1940 Olympics until they were canceled due to World War II, per Britannica. "My dreams were crushed," she said in her 1999 autobiography "The Million Dollar Mermaid, clarifying, "a minor thing in comparison to the horrors that soon engulfed the world, but to a teenage girl the world can seem very small. It would not be until 1948 that the Olympics would be held again. By then, I was among the top ten box office stars in the world. Stardom would be my consolation prize."

According to The New York Times, Williams was performing at a San Francisco World's Fair aquacade when a talent scout discovered her. He immediately recognized the potential of turning her swimming skills into silver screen success. Williams went on to star in over 20 films. Most of them were aqua musicals, a genre MGM created specifically for her. These films were composed of extravagant swimming choreography and impressive underwater ballets. The popularity of her movies at the time is often credited with creating a public interest in synchronized swimming.

Chuck Norris

For many, Chuck Norris is "Walker, Texas Ranger" and for others, he's the guy who had his own genre of jokes in the early 2000s. Either way, it should come as no surprise that before he was an actor, Norris was a professionally-trained martial artist — considering how his movie career thrived on his karate skills. Winning the World Professional Middleweight Karate Championship 6 consecutive times, Chuck Norris is a champion at martial arts, with black belts in karate, judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, taekwondo, and tang soo do, per Combat Museum.

Norris became a karate teacher and opened several karate schools in the 1960s and '70s, teaching a number of famous people, including Steve McQueen. When his karate school endeavor went under, it was actually McQueen who suggested he try acting, Norris explained to the Los Angeles Times in a 1988 interview. "When a door shuts in your life, that doesn't mean that a bigger door isn't going to open. That's what happened to me. If I hadn't lost my schools, I'd still be there teaching karate. But because I lost those schools I was forced to seek another avenue. And acting is a bigger door than karate," he told the publication. His lack of acting experience didn't stop him from finding success, as he has starred in a number of action movies and carried the television series "Walker, Texas Ranger" for 8 years.

André the Giant

André René Roussimoff, more commonly known as André the Giant, was already famous as a professional wrestler and "eighth wonder of the world" before he made his way to the silver screen. Standing at 7'4," Roussimoff's gigantism was due to the fact that he was born with the hormonal disorder acromegaly.

He viewed his size as a unique opportunity to leave the French farm life he was born into and find a different calling in the world. "With the size I have, I started being involved with sports and with that I'm traveling all over the world and met lots of people," he said on "The Don Lane Show." He told the talk show host that he had been interested in sports since he was 9 years old, trying his hand at soccer, boxing, and rugby before finding his way to wrestling. In 1974, he was named the world's highest-paid wrestler by "The Guinness Book of World Records" (via "André the Giant: A Legendary Life" by Michael Krugman).

The wrestling ring brought worldwide fame to Roussimoff, and that fame led him to acting. André The Giant's role as Fezzick in the 1987 film "The Princess Bride" is undoubtedly his most memorable. Other roles include the 1967 French film "Casse-tête chinois pour le judoka," guest appearances on several TV series, and the 1994 movie "Trading Mom." 

Carl Weathers

Unlike many athletes-turned-actors on this list, Carl Weathers always knew he had a soft spot for the arts. "It was my curse to be a sensitive kid. Certain things I was drawn to — like doing a little acting or singing in the choir — had no credibility on the street. And I was too ignorant and intimated to try to explain why they seemed valuable to me," he told The Washington Post. He soon turned to football instead and discovered he was also good at sports.

His athletic ability on the football field earned him a scholarship. In college, he tried to keep his interests in balance, explaining, "I kept on cultivating football on one hand and acting on the other." After he graduated, he played for the Oakland Raiders and two different Lions teams — Detroit and Canada's BC — but he admitted to The Washington Post that his heart was never fully in it: "I was still looking to hop out of football as soon as I made some headway with acting."

That opportunity soon came. After getting minor roles in "Friday Foster" and "Bucktown" (blaxploitation films) in the 1970s, he gained his first major role in "Rocky" portraying the character Apollo Creed. Throughout his career, he's proved to be a versatile and well-rounded actor, appearing equally in comedies and dramas. You've probably seen him hanging out with Baby Yoda in the "Star Wars" Disney+ series "The Mandalorian," and he's also stepped in as a director for the series.

Caitlyn Jenner

Though nowadays Caitlyn Jenner's controversial moments and reality show appearances eclipse the star's career, she was once primarily known for her Olympic endeavors. A decathlete, Jenner participated in football and track in college before shifting interests to the Olympic decathlon, for which she qualified in 1972, according to Britannica. By 1976, she was the number 1 decathlete in the world, won the gold medal, and broke the world record at the time, per The New York Times. Her Olympic achievements resulted in worldwide recognition, even gracing the front of a cereal box, one of the true tests of athletic fame.

As Jenner's fame grew, it sparked an interest in a possible movie career. Her acting debut came in 1980 with "Can't Stop the Music," a musical movie extravaganza starring The Village People. It was a disastrous box-office flop and a critical failure. In a review of the movie, Variety noted, "Director Nancy Walker clearly had trouble with the non-actors in the cast. The Village People, along with ex-Olympic decathlon champion [Caitlyn] Jenner, have a long way to go in the acting stakes." The film pretty much ended Jenner's acting career before it began, though she did make guest appearances on several TV shows throughout the 1980s, including "CHiPs."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

You probably already know that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the most iconic basketball players of all time, playing for the Milwaukee Bucks for several years before joining the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975. Abdul-Jabbar, along with Magic Johnson, led the Lakers to unprecedented achievements, winning 5 NBA championships during his reign, according to "Great Athletes." His stats broke more than a few records, including being a 6-time MVP and scoring 38,387 total points, by his 1989 retirement.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made his on-screen debut in Bruce Lee's final film, "Game of Death," filmed in 1971 and released several years later. Abdul-Jabbar had actually been a student of Bruce Lee's in New York City, per ESPN. The two became friends, and Lee asked Abdul-Jabbar to spar with him in the movie, resulting in a pretty epic fight scene between the 7'2" basketball player and the 5'7" martial artist.

After Abdul-Jabbar retired from basketball, he began appearing in movies and TV shows, most famously in the 1980 parody movie "Airplane!" as the co-pilot Roger Murdock. Since then, he's made continuous on-screen appearances for decades, including on family sitcom favorite "Full House," comedy series "Dave," "The Big Bang Theory," and more. Though he's predominantly played various fictional versions of himself, he's made a post-retirement career out of it.

Terry Bradshaw

Terry Bradshaw was a seriously skilled football player in high school, which led him to collegiate success and eventually landed him a spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers, per Britannica. He was the quarterback for the Steelers for over a decade. During his time on the team, the Steelers won an impressive four Super Bowls.

His first acting gig was the Burt Reynolds film "Hooper." In his memoir, "It's Only a Game," Bradshaw explained, "...it was actually Burt Reynolds who gave me my first movie role. Burt Reynolds and I became friends after he apologized for making jokes about my intelligence, and in 1977 he offered me a part in a movie he was making..." Acting became a fun side hustle for Bradshaw, especially after his football career ended. "Of course I wasn't an actor, I was just acting like one," he confessed in his memoir, adding, "...I wasn't very good at it. But I definitely did enjoy it. Like most other things in my life other than family, football, and my ranch, I didn't really take it very seriously. The opportunity was offered to me because of my football popularity, and I accepted it."

Bradshaw has gone on to have a long on-screen career, especially in the comedic realm, appearing in sitcoms such as "Blossom," "Married... With Children," and "Malcolm in the Middle" and feature film comedies including "Failure to Launch" and "Father Figures."

Ray Allen

Ray Allen played basketball in the NBA for 19 years, playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, the Seattle SuperSonics, the Boston Celtics, and the Miami Heat, per The Basketball Hall of Fame. He was particularly exceptional at three-pointers, shooting 2,973 in his career, breaking the NBA's historical record (though Steph Curry broke his record in 2021). Allen retired in 2014 and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018, per NBA.

Ray Allen's acting career hasn't been nearly as prolific as his basketball career. According to his IMDb page, he's only acted in 3 movies. But in Allen's case, it seems that "quality over quantity" applies. His biggest film role was in Spike Lee's 1998 "He Got Game," alongside Denzel Washington, in which he proved to have some serious acting chops. In his review of the film, famous movie critic Roger Ebert said, "...Ray Allen, who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, is that rarity, an athlete who can act." He also played a prominent role in the 2001 film "Harvard Man."

Amanda Schull

Considering she's best-known for her role in the 2000 movie, "Center Stage," it isn't too surprising to learn that Amanda Schull has a dance background. However, unlike many actors who will intensely train to learn new skills for certain roles, Schull was a real professional ballerina with no acting experience when she starred in the film.

The ballerina-turned-actor was dancing for the San Francisco Ballet when a casting director discovered her, according to Entertainment Weekly. Nicholas Hytner, the director of "Center Stage," wanted a real ballerina to play the role. "He was a huge ballet fan and somebody else who didn't know ballet...probably would have hired someone and just had dance doubles. I was really fortunate that he championed for me," she explained to the publication.

After "Center Stage," she sought more acting roles following her 2006 dance retirement, per People. She's been a full-time actor since, with recurring roles on TV series "Suits," "Pretty Little Liars," "One Tree Hill," and a starring role in Syfy's "12 Monkeys." But she never completely abandoned ballet. "Ballet is now a form of relaxation for me," she told HILUXURY in a 2015 interview, noting that she especially enjoyed contemporary ballet styles.