Professional Athletes have a long, if not storied, history of appearing in films. Athletes rarely play roles of any consequence, though, as they are generally asked to make cameos. Their stilted, emotionless presence on screen have prompted critics and fans alike to conclude that athletic talent does not translate into acting talent.
However, many successful actors have athletic backgrounds. Matthew McConaughey played for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, and Jim Caviezel played basketball at Bellevue College before a foot injury forced him to retire; he subsequently took up acting. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson played football at University of Miami before his wrestling (read: pseudo-acting) and acting career. Of course, these athletes-turned-thespians never had any success as professional athletes.
Certain professional athletes, though, have made successful crossovers from sport to film. Ray Allen played the lead role in Spike Lee’s He Got Game (1998), and the ageing sharpshooter has expressed interest in continuing his acting career when he retires from basketball. Moreover, Jim Brown, arguably one of the greatest football players of all-time, has appeared in many films since his retirement from football. Given the right conditions, then, professional athletes can flourish as actors.
This list looks at the Top 10 performances by professional athletes in film. In terms of the criteria used to judge and rank performances, this list considers both the fame of the professional athlete and the depth of the role played by them. Who says athletes cannot act? (Note: career earnings have been listed where available—otherwise, the player’s net worth has been listed)
10 Terry Bradshaw in Failure to Launch (2006)—net worth: $10 million
This Hall-of-Fame quarterback has had a successful career in the media since retiring from football. Terry Bradshaw works as a television analyst throughout the football season for Fox Sports. He is estimated to be worth $10 million.
Bradshaw has also acted in various films and television shows since walking away from football, not the least of which being his role in the 2006 film Failure to Launch. In the film, Bradshaw plays Matthew McConnaughey’s demonstrative father. Though critics disliked the film for its trite narrative, Bradshaw is surprisingly funny in it. The repartee and chemistry between his character and the others are the film’s strongest element.
9 Shaquille O’Neal in Kazaam (1996)—career earnings: $292,198,327
Arguably the most dominant NBA center of all-time, Shaquille O’Neal walked away from basketball in 2011. O’Neal walked straight from the locker room into a position as a TV analyst for TNT. His larger-than-life personality has endeared him to fans over the years, and he has made a successful transition from the basketball court to the studio.
Throughout his playing career, Shaq acted in several films. O’Neal’s best effort came in 1996, when he starred in Kazaam. Shaq plays a genie in the film. His character emerges from an enchanted stereo to grant a boy three wishes. Critics hated the film, but Shaq deserves praise for his starring role.
8 Rick Fox in He Got Game (1998)—career earnings: $34,029,278
Throughout his basketball career, Rick Fox was mainly a role-player. The Canadian forward earned a good deal of money over his career and won three NBA championships with the LA Lakers. Since his retirement, Fox has become an actor, mainly appearing in television shows.
His best performance in film came in 1998, when he played a supporting role in Spike Lee’s He Got Game. In the film, Fox’s character, Chick Deagan, is a promiscuous ladies man. When Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen) visits Chick’s university on a recruiting tour, Chick attempts to cajole him into signing a letter of intent. Fox’s performance is commendable in that his character highlights the immoral and ostensibly real underside of college recruiting.
7 Michael Jordan in Space Jam (1996)—career earnings: $90,235,000
His Airness needs no introduction from a basketball standpoint. The best basketball player of all-time, Michael Jordan made over $30 million dollars a season in his last two years with the Bulls. Though his career earnings seem miniscule, Jordan continues to make money, as his Jordan Brand shows no sign of falling off.
Jordan also capitalized on his fame with the 1996 film Space Jam. In the film, several NBA players begin to mysteriously lose their basketball abilities. Jordan soon learns that aliens have stolen the NBA players’ abilities, and Jordan teams up with the Looney Tunes to defeat the aliens in a game of b-ball. While not a critical success, the film remains a popular film among children, and attests to Jordan’s lasting fame.
6 Cam Neely in Dumb and Dumber (1994)—earnings from 1989-1996: $7,042,000
Over twelve years in the NHL, Cam Neely recorded 694 points and he twice averaged over 90 points in a season. Though a hip condition forced Neely into an early retirement, he was named the Vice President of the Boston Bruins in 2007.
Surprisingly, Neely has had a successful acting career. His best role to date came in the 1994 film Dumb and Dumber, where he plays Sea Bass, a trucker who resurfaces throughout the film to argue with Lloyd and Harry (Jim Carey and Jeff Daniels, respectively). Neely is hilarious, and the film would not be the same without him.
5 Lawrence Taylor in Any Given Sunday (1999)—net worth: $100,000
Though Lawrence Taylor was inducted into the NFL's Hall-of-Fame, a series of bad investments and business ventures left him broke by 1998, forcing him to file for bankruptcy. He has since turned his life around, but Taylor’s financial disaster has left him relatively poor for one of the best players in NFL history.
Taylor, though, is not a bad actor. His best role came in 1999, when Oliver Stone cast him in Any Given Sunday. The film features an all-star cast of actors and former professional athletes. In the film, Taylor plays “Shark” Lavay, a linebacker who conceals an injury to keep playing in hopes of collecting a $1 million dollar contract incentive. Lavay gets knocked out of football towards the end of the film, happy to have earned his incentive. Lavay highlights the unfortunate reality of NFL players who get paid to sacrifice their bodies, and Taylor plays the role well.
4 Malik Sealy in Eddy (1996)—career earnings: $9,550,000
Tragically, a car accident cut Malik Sealy’s life short. Over eight seasons in the NBA, Sealy averaged 10.1 points and 3.2 rebounds per game, and he earned over 9$ million as a member of the Indians Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Sealy also starred in the 1996 film Eddy. Opposite Whoopie Goldberg, Sealy plays Stacey Patton, a jaded and self-involved basketball player for the struggling Knicks. Eddy (Goldberg), who becomes the coach of the Knicks, eventually convinces Patton to jettison his selfish style of play. As a result, the team starts to win, and Eddy and Patton forge a strong bond. Sealy and Goldberg have great on-screen chemistry, which benefits the film.
3 Jim Brown in The Dirty Dozen (1967)—net worth: $50,000,000
Born in 1936, Jim Brown is one of the greatest athletes of all-time. On the football field, he was indomitable, racking up 12,312 rushing yards in just 9 seasons of professional football. His averages of 104.3 rush yards per game and 5.2 yards per rush remain staggering to football fans. He has also had a successful acting career, as he has made 53 appearances in television shows and films.
His best role came in 1967 when he was cast in The Dirty Dozen. In the film, Brown plays Robert Jefferson, a convict who killed a police officer in self-defense. Jefferson, along with the other convicts in the narrative, is forced into military service during World War II, and the band of pariahs winds up on an important mission to assassinate Nazi officers. The film remains a classic from the 60s, and critics have commended Brown for his performance.
2 Jackie Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)—career earnings: $296,250
One of the most important athletes of all-time, Jackie Robinson's name transcends the sport of baseball. He famously broke the colour line in the sport at a time when the civil rights movement was still two decades away.
Robinson starred in the film that tells the story of his harrowing journey to professional baseball. Despite the fact that The Jackie Robinson Story was released in 1950—a time when open and unabashed racism pervaded American society—critics praised the film, and it was a box-office success. The fact that Robinson experienced the hardships that the viewers witness on screen underpins his excellent performance.
1 Ray Allen in He Got Game (1998)—career earnings: $184,356,410
When he retires, Ray Allen will be inducted into the NBA Hall-of-Fame. He is the league's all-time leader in three pointers made, and he won a championship as a member of the Boston Celtics. Allen has also earned an immense amount of money over his player career.
What surprised Allen’s fans, though, was his stellar performance in Spike Lee's 1998 film, He Got Game. Roger Ebert said that Allen “is that rarity, an athlete who can act.” And Allen can definitely act. No professional athlete has been asked to show the depth and range of emotions that Allen displays as Jesus Shuttlesworth. Starring opposite Denzel Washington, Allen carries his own, and the two of them have great on-screen chemistry.