For decades, athletes have been making cameos in TV shows and films, much to viewers’ delight. Some roles have been significant (hello, Mike Tyson in The Hangover) while others have been just small appearances, like LeBron James in that one episode of Entourage.
But some athletes have followed up illustrious sporting careers with significant acting roles on both the small and big screen, bringing impactful performances of a totally different kind than their time on the court, the field, or even the ring.
Here are 10 of the most interesting and successful sports stars who have each parlayed their celebrity status into an acting payday.
Johnson has enjoyed so much success in the acting biz that it’s sometimes easy to forget he became famous as an extremely popular professional wrestler. Scratch that: who can forget that signature raised eyebrow and “do you smell what The Rock is cooking” catchphrase? While he still works with the WWE from time to time, Johnson is a bonafide superstar. He most recently appeared in the latest film in the Fast and the Furious franchise Furious 7, has multiple other franchises in the works, and serves as star and executive producer of HBO’s Ballers.
This pivot was clearly a smart move – Johnson was ranked by Forbes as the highest-paid actor of 2016, raking in an impressive $64.5 million last year, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
O.J.: Made In America
These days, OJ Simpson’s legacy is more of a cautionary tale than anything close to a happy ending, but before his many notorious run-ins with the law, Simpson was both a legendary sports icon, and later, a beloved film star. Even before his official retirement from a highly successful football career that saw him earn titles like the fastest player to gain 1,000 rushing yards in a season, Simpson starting dabbling in acting. Early roles were in TV series like Roots (1977) and The Klansman (1974). On the big screen, Simpson is probably best remembered for his role in The Naked Gun trilogy films.
His fall from grace has been well documented, but back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, he was beginning what looked to be a successful acting career. In fact, just prior to the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, and the controversial trial that followed, Simpson had completed the pilot for an NBC TV movie called Frogmen that ended up never airing.
Trained in the martial art of Tang Soo Do while serving as an Air Policeman in the United States Air Force, Norris ran a chain of karate schools after being discharged in 1962. He continued to compete in tournaments, eventually becoming the first Westerner to be named an 8th Degree Black Belt Grand Master in Tae Kwon Do. But Norris also began crafting his acting chops alongside his martial arts ones. The role that really got him noticed was as Bruce Lee’s nemesis in 1972’s Way of the Dragon.
He went on to star in a number of films like An Eye for an Eye (1981) and Delta Force (1986), as well as all nine seasons of the popular (and laughably terrible) ‘90s CBS series Walker Texas Ranger. Most recently, Norris hit the big screen with Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables 2.
When you think of athletes-turned-actors, chances are Jason Lee is not anywhere on that list. But he should be. Before he snagged leading roles in films like Mall Rats and series like My Name is Earl, Lee was a professional skateboarder. Working in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, he was fairly well known within the skateboarding circuit, and was even featured in the skating film Way Out East!
He still has a passion for skateboarding, serving as co-founder and co-owner of Stereo Skateboards, which makes skateboard decks.
Known as “The Hammer,” Williamson had great success as a professional defensive back in the American Football League (AFL) in the ‘60s, before the NFL/AFL merger. But he pivoted over to acting in the ‘70s, appearing in a number of films with fellow footballer Jim Brown over the decades to follow, including Three the Hard Way (1974), One Down (1982), and Original Gangsta (1996). He also made several TV appearances, including an appearance on Star Trek, playing Anka in the 1969 episode entitled The Cloud Minders.
As a popular pro football player in the ‘50s and ‘60s – in fact, he is often considered one of the greatest players ever at his position – Brown took his first stab at acting during the 1964 season, appearing in Western action film Rio Conchos. From there, he made appearances on the small screen in shows like Knight Rider, The A-Team, and CHiPs, as well as snagging a number of roles in high-profile films like The Dirty Dozen (1966), I Spy (1967), The Running Man (1987), Any Given Sunday (1987), and Mars Attacks! (1996).
Now 80, Brown is taking a much-deserved break from the screen, and works as part owner of the New York Lizards Major League Lacrosse team, and a special advisor to the Cleveland Browns. In 2014, however, Brown did make one small appearance as himself in the Ivan Reitman film Draft Day, which starred Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner.
Alongside his professional NBA career, which includes having won a trio of championships and multiple MVP awards, James has begun to carve out a career in Hollywood — both on and off camera. Following his cameo in HBO’s Entourage, James landed a high-profile role in the 2015 Judd Apatow film Trainwreck in which he played himself opposite Amy Schumer and Bill Hader. Showing even more interest on the acting side of things, James has developed his own production company, SpringHill Entertainment, with his business partner Maverick Carter. The company has produced a number of projects, including the Disney XD sports documentary Becoming, Starz series Survivor’s Remorse, and the animated web series The LeBrons.
His latest work aims to do some good: he hosted the 2016 CNBC unscripted series called Cleveland Hustles that provided financing to entrepreneurs with plans to revitalize a neighborhood in the city. Most recently, he serves off-screen as executive producer of the new game show The Wall. Hosted by Chris Hardwick, players are specifically chosen for having done good deeds in their hometowns.
He’s best known as the original Hulk, but prior to making his way to the small screen, Ferrigno worked as a professional bodybuilder who won IFBB titles for Mr. America and Mr. Universe. Interestingly, it was his friendly rivalry with another bodybuilder-cum-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger that put him on the acting map. The 1975 docudrama Pumping Iron, which starred both Ferrigno and Schwarzenegger, chronicled the competitive world of bodybuilding.
At the same time that Ferrigno competed in the first-ever World’s Strongest Man competition (he came in fourth), he was cast as The Hulk in the CBS series The Incredible Hulk. Since then, he’s done mainly guest appearances as himself, and voiceover work.
Who knew body building was such a successful stepping stone into acting? No list would be complete without Schwarzenegger, one of the most famous and popular cross-over actors of all time. Having competed professionally and taken home Mr. Universe and My. Olympia titles, the Austrian put his buff bod to good use on the big screen, with his first big role coming in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian.
Schwarzenegger then went on to play key characters in an illustrious string of iconic films, including massive hits like the Terminator franchise, Commando, and Total Recall, and even dipped his toes in comedy with films like Twins and Kindergarten Cop. That wasn’t enough to satisfy the superstar, who then became Governor of California, before returning to acting once again in a string of roles. He’s currently the new host of The Celebrity Apprentice, where he spends a fair bit of time resurrecting many of his famous movie catchphrases.
Yes, Mr. Bean was an athlete (of sorts, anyway) before becoming a great comedic talent. Prior to acting, he was an accomplished racer, having driven in the Turbo Cup racing series in the ‘80s, in a mid-engine Renault 5. But we all know him best for his role as the goofy Mr. Bean, which morphed from a half-hour special for Thames Television to feature films based on the character, and several other roles of the same ilk.
In 2012, Atkinson announced his intent to retire the character that essentially type-cast him for much of his career. He continued to race, recently owning a rare McLaren F1 that was sadly damaged in an accident in 2011. Thankfully, Atkinson emerged unscathed.