Actors Who Started Out As Athletes
Some of the actors on this list may surprise you!
The worlds of sports and entertainment have grown increasingly intertwined over the years. Celebrities have become regular (and regularly photographed) attendees at professional baseball and basketball games and, of course, the Super Bowl halftime show has always been an entertaining spectacle of big-name musical celebrities amid the year’s most-watched sporting event.
Meanwhile, more and more professional athletes have ventured into the realms of television and movies, doing cameos as themselves or even transitioning into full-on acting careers. Check out some of the athletes-turned-actors who have proven that succeeding in Hollywood is truly a matter of survival of the fittest.
Dwayne Johnson, Football And Wrestling
Before he was the versatile actor performing in everything from HBO’s “Ballers” to Disney’s “Moana,” Dwayne Johnson was a professional WWE wrestler, and his wrestling ring moniker, “The Rock,” lingers to this day. Even before that, however, the beloved beefcake (and 2016’s Sexiest Man Alive) enjoyed success on the gridiron as part of the NCAA championship team the Miami Hurricanes. Although he famously lost his starting lineman job to future NFL Hall of Famer Warren Sapp, things still worked out pretty well for “The People’s Champ.”
To this day, Johnson places a high priority on personal fitness, frequently posting images on social media of his workouts. For The Rock, mental prowess and physical fitness go hand in hand.
Terry Crews, Football
On “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” the exceptional physique of Terry Crews’ character is often woven into the jokes, as the actor is undeniably blessed with a body for fitness. So it will surprise nobody that Crews played football professionally before he began acting. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1991 and went on to play for the San Diego Chargers and Washington Redskins as well.
He left football in 1996 to pursue acting — and he was surprised that he didn’t immediately land roles in Hollywood.
“It was a big shock to me,” Crews told Business Insider. “I moved to Los Angeles thinking that because I was a football player, I was going to get a lot of big opportunities. They didn’t even have a football team then, nobody cared!”
Eventually, Crews (and his sculpted body) became recognizable as the hilarious hunk in the Old Spice commercials, and his acting career blossomed.
Ed O’Neill, Football
Ed O’Neill has made a career for himself in entertainment playing grumpy, blustery men who have plenty of opinions about marriage and fatherhood. His now-classic roles on “Married… With Children” and “Modern Family” may not lead you to assume he was once a dedicated football player, but he did, in fact, play football in high school and college before signing a contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969. He was cut from the Steelers during training camp, however, which was just fine with the future Al Bundy.
He could have tried to sign with another team but decided against it.
“I thought, ‘I’m done,'” he explained in a 2016 episode of “The Rich Eisen Show.” “I had knee problems. And I was sick of football. If I had made the team, my life would’ve been probably different. Probably for the worse.”
Josh Duhamel, Football
Fans of the hunky “Las Vegas” and “Transformers” star have likely noticed that Josh Duhamel is a buff-looking guy, but they may not know that he once had big dreams of playing professional football. As a college student at North Dakota’s Minot State University, Duhamel played quarterback for the school’s football team.
In a 2010 SportsNation interview, Duhamel even admitted that he might have traded his acting career for success as a professional football player, but he knew he wasn’t cut out for it.
“At one point that’s all I cared about, being a pro athlete,” he said in the interview. “But I realized I wasn’t athletic enough. This is a good alternative. I’m having a lot of fun doing this. Plus, a little more longevity with acting.”
Ronda Rousey, Mixed Martial Arts
Ronda Rousey began studying judo at the suggestion of her mother, a world champion in her own right. By the age of 16, Rousey was the youngest American woman to be ranked No. 1 in her weight class. After a foray into mixed martial arts, she became the first woman signed by the UFC in 2012. Her success there led to appearances on late-night television and feature films such as “Furious 7,” “Entourage” and “Expendables 3.”
Sean Connery, Bodybuilding And Soccer
As a tall and athletic young man, Sean Connery tried his hand at bodybuilding, starting at the age of 15. He even participated in a Mr. Universe competition but didn’t manage to take home any honors.
The Scottish actor also played soccer in the 1950s and was even offered a contract to play for Manchester United, but the dapper future 007 declined the gig.
“I really wanted to accept because I loved football,” Connery said to Mud & Glory in 2005. “But I realized that a top-class footballer could be over the hill by the age of 30, and I was already 23. I decided to become an actor and it turned out to be one of my more intelligent moves.”
John Cena, Football And Wrestling
Even prior to his 2002 WWE debut, John Cena was already an accomplished athlete. As an All-American football player (and co-captain) at Springfield College, Cena led his team to their first ever Division III tournament. In the process, Cena was named a New England/Northeast All-Star. Despite his success on the gridiron, it would be his childhood obsession with professional wrestling that would eventually lead to roles on the big screen in movies like “Trainwreck” and “Blockers.”
Tony Danza, Boxing
If it weren’t for his career as a boxer, Tony Danza may have never become a cab driver, a housekeeper or even a talking baby. Starting in 1976, “Tough” Tony Danza compiled a career record of 9-3, helped train a young Robert De Niro for his turn in “Raging Bull” and — most fortuitously — caught the attention of producers from NBC. Since then, Tony has amassed over 50 credits in TV and films including the recent Netflix series, “The Good Cop.”
Esther Williams, Swimming
In the 1940s and ’50s, Esther Williams was known as “America’s Mermaid” after a string of successful swimming films. Prior to her appearance in MGM’s “Bathing Beauty,” Williams was an Olympic swimmer and even qualified for the 1940 games.
The escalation of World War II led to the event’s cancellation, but indirectly also led to Williams’ discovery by producer Billy Rose. She was soon cast alongside fellow Olympian Johnny Weissmuller in Rose’s live “Aquacade,” a Broadway-style revue featuring swimmers, divers and music.
Burt Reynolds, Football
Before he was the mustachioed screen heartthrob of the ’70s and ’80s, Burt Reynolds played fullback for the Florida State University Seminoles, where classmates knew him as “Buddy.” A knee injury took him off the field for good, however, and he left FSU to pursue acting, allegedly telling his friends, “I’m leaving. I’m not the player I was. I’m going to go off to Hollywood to be a movie star.”
But Reynolds never stopped cheering for FSU, often attending games and donating money to the team. He was even inducted into the FSU Hall of Fame in 1977.
John Goodman, Football
John Goodman became a household name when he played Dan Conner on “Roseanne,” an average American family man who didn’t exactly prioritize fitness. In his younger years, however, Goodman was quite the sportsman. A Missouri native, Goodman attended what is now Missouri State University in order to play football, but an injury brought his athletic ambitions to a halt.
In 2014, Goodman received an honorary doctorate from Missouri State, and the school’s president, Clif Smart, said Goodman’s injury “was the bad news. The good news for all of us was that he changed his major to drama.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bodybuilding
Long before he was The Terminator or The Govern-ator, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a professional bodybuilder. The “Austrian Oak” won the Mr. Olympia title six times in a row from 1970-1975. He briefly retired from the sport before returning to win one last title in 1980.
His passion for bodybuilding led to the creation of the Arnold Classic, a fitness and bodybuilding festival, in 1989. The 2018 edition hosted over 18,000 athletes from all over the world.
Bruce Lee, Martial Arts
Though some believe his skills were mere movie magic, Bruce Lee actually spent years studying and teaching martial arts. At age 13, he began studying kung fu under Wing Chun master Yip Man. By the time he moved to America, he was versed enough to teach others and soon opened his own school in Seattle (where he attended the University of Washington). By 1964, he and wife Linda moved to Oakland where Lee would open a second school.
Eventually, Lee would develop his own form of martial arts he would call “Jeet Kune Do.” Reportedly, he was inspired after giving a poor performance in a very real — though oft-mythologized — fight with a rival teacher and was determined to change his approach. Jeet Kune Do is still taught today.
Mark Harmon, Football
When your father is a Heisman Trophy-winning star, football is bound to be in your blood, and such is the case for “NCIS” actor Mark Harmon. Harmon was named starting quarterback for the UCLA Bruins in 1972 and remained until he graduated in 1974.
In his very first season, he led the Bruins to a surprise win over the defending national champions, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Coming off a dismal 1971 season, this legendary upset was UCLA’s first win of the season. The Bruins went on to a 17-5 record with 1986’s Sexiest Man Alive at the helm.
Jason Statham, Diving
It’s not hard to imagine this steely British actor being a competitive sportsman and, apparently, the fact that he never made it to the Olympics even continues to be a sore spot for the international film star. As a boy growing up in England, Jason Statham participated in many sports, including gymnastics, tennis and boxing, among others. At the age of 15, he set his sights higher — all the way up to the high dive, in fact — and became a competitive diver.
The action star ultimately represented England in the 1990 diving competition at the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand, but the best he did was finish eighth place in the 1-meter springboard competition.
“I started too late,” Statham said of his diving career during a press event in 2012. “It probably wasn’t my thing. I should have done a different sport.”
Gina Carano, Mixed Martial Arts
The daughter of a Dallas Cowboys quarterback, Gina Carano’s own athletic resume is impressive. Carano led her high school to the state basketball championship and also excelled at volleyball. After discovering Muy Thai kickboxing, she eventually set her sites on MMA, competing for Elite XC and Strikeforce, quickly becoming the face of those promotions. This exposure led to her being cast as the lead in the Steven Soderbergh film, “Haywire.” Since then, she has been cast in films such as “Deadpool” and the upcoming “Star Wars: The Mandalorian.”
Joel McHale, Football
Comedic actor and TV host, Joel McHale, might seem like more of a class clown than a star athlete, but there was a time when he was serious about football. Originally recruited to join the crew team at the University of Washington, McHale got into a fight with his teammates and left crew to play football. He spent a year and a half as a tight end for the Huskies, never actually played in a game and yet still managed to earn a Rose Bowl ring with the team in the early ’90s. He once claimed to Conan O’Brien that flashing the Rose Bowl ring has gotten him out of traffic tickets.
“The time spent there I felt was very precious and I learned a ton,” he told ESPN in 2012. “I was doing school, I was doing football and I was doing theater and those days really taught me about work ethic and what you have to do: You have to work really hard at the thing you love doing to be able to do it.”
Mickey Rourke, Boxing
When Mickey Rourke stepped into the boxing ring in 2014, the “Sin City” actor was actually picking up where he left off. Prior to making it big on-screen, Rourke amassed an impressive record as an amateur boxer. As a professional, he had just as much promise, posting a record of 6-0 with five knockouts.
Rourke’s in-ring success came at a price, however. Some feel Rourke’s obsession with boxing may have contributed to his multiple plastic surgeries and hurt his film career, rendering Rourke’s smoldering turns in films such as “Body Heat” a thing of the past.
Shaquille O’Neal, Basketball
Prior to appearing in films like “Kazaam” and TV shows such as “Fresh Off the Boat,” Shaquille O’Neal (Shaq Diesel, Shaq Daddy, The Big Aristotle) simply dominated the world of professional basketball. As the top overall pick of the 1992 NBA Draft, O’Neal went on to win that season’s Rookie of the Year award. Soon after, he would lead the Orlando Magic to their first NBA Final appearance.
Opponents soon figured out the only way to keep O’Neal from scoring was to foul him on purpose — a practice that became known as “Hack-a-Shaq.” That didn’t stop the star of “Steel” from winning an Olympic Gold Medal and four NBA Championships. O’Neal was named to the NBA Hall of Fame in 2016.
Jason Segel, Basketball
Towering over many Hollywood actors at 6 feet 4 inches tall, Jason Segel has the kind of height that makes people assume he played basketball — and he did! Playing for his high school team at Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles, he even earned the nickname “Dr. Dunk.”
Segel shared the court with two teammates, Jarron and Jason Collins, who would go on to play for the NBA. As for Segel, he would go on to launch an acting career, scoring a lead role on CBS’s long-running comedy series, “How I Met Your Mother,” among many other roles and projects.
Dean Cain, Football
Arguably best known as Superman in the ’90s TV series, “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” the actor who played the man of steel first spent several years on the football field. Dean Cain played college football while he attended Princeton and later signed on as a free agent with the Buffalo Bills in the late 1980s. A knee injury swiftly ended that that career path, however, and Cain hung up his shoulder pads for good.
“I got in as a rookie and I was out,” he told ABC News in 2014.
Carl Weathers, Football
From his iconic role as Apollo Creed in the “Rocky” movie franchise, one might suspect that Carl Weathers used to be a boxer himself. But while he was an impressive fighter on film, off-screen he put his physical prowess to use on the football field. In the 1960s, Weathers was a linebacker at San Diego State University before going pro with the Oakland Raiders from 1970-1971.
He then spent a few seasons with the Canadian Football League — but his heart simply wasn’t in football. He left the game and focused on a career in Hollywood.
“I never saw myself playing football, even though I enjoyed it,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1991. “I always saw myself being an actor.”
Chuck Norris, Martial Arts
Before he was a meme or even “Walker, Texas Ranger,” Chuck Norris was a renowned competitive karate champion. For roughly a decade, Norris compiled a record of 183-10-2, winning upwards of 30 tournaments. The “Missing in Action” star also held the World Professional Middleweight belt for six years.
Like Bruce Lee, alongside whom Norris appeared in the 1972 film “Way of the Dragon,” Chuck Norris founded his own form of martial art: Chun Kuk Do. Chun Kuk Do incorporates several styles including Tang Soo Do, a form Norris learned when stationed in South Korea while serving in the Air Force in 1958.
Jon Stewart, Soccer
It’s hard to imagine the hilarious Jon Stewart anywhere except behind the desk on “The Daily Show,” but there was a time when Stewart was a college soccer star. Known at the time as Jon Leibowitz (or “Leibo”), Stewart attended the College of William & Mary and worked his way up to the varsity soccer team by his senior year. As his coach Al Albert recalled to ESPN in 2015, “He was athletic and feisty and quick.”
Apparently, he earned as much admiration for his comedic sensibilities as his athleticism. In 1998, the team named an award after Stewart, “The Leibo Award,” handed out to the player who had the most positive influence on the team’s attitude.
“He wasn’t a clown or anything,” Albert explained. “But I can remember Jon holding court in the locker room and he could really, as the cliché goes, take the piss out of people pretty well if we wanted to — and he’s still doing it.”
Kurt Russell, Baseball
Starting at the age of 11, Kurt Russell veered from acting to baseball and back to acting again. In the 1960s, he was a child actor (there’s even an urban legend that Walt Disney’s last words were “Kurt Russell,” which isn’t quite true, though Disney thought highly of the young actor), before he decided to focus on his big goal of playing professional baseball.
In 1971, Russell made his debut on a minor league baseball team and even found success there — until a torn rotator cuff derailed his baseball career for good. As an adult, he’s become a well-known actor and even earned Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Most recently, you can catch Russell playing a wise-cracking Santa Claus in Netflix’s “The Christmas Chronicles.”