Total Recall

Total Recall: Best Football Playing Actors

In preparation for the Super Bowl, we've assembled a killer lineup of gridiron-to-screen stars.

by and | January 28, 2009 | Comments

Who says jocks and theater types don’t mix? With the eyes of the sports world fixed on Super Bowl 43, we at RT figured it would be a good time to look at the former pigskin standouts who’ve made their mark on the world of cinema. We’ve got a surprisingly diverse roster of pigskin stars that traded their helmets and shoulder pads for SAG cards. In filling out our starting lineup, we decided to stick to a game plan; thus, everyone below has at least several significant screen credits to their name, and we omitted cameos, no matter how memorable (sorry, Dan Marino in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective).

Lyle Alzado

You could probably field an entire squad of former Raiders who’ve gone on to have movie careers. The silver and black attack is known for cultivating outsized personalities and bad boy swagger, and Lyle Alzado certainly fit the bill. The Pro-Bowl defensive end was known as one of the NFL’s most intimidating defenders; he brought his brawn and good humor to roles in Ernest Goes to Camp, Destroyer, and Tapeheads, as well as the sitcom Learning the Ropes. Alzado came clean about his extensive steroid use shortly before his death in 1992, making him one of the first sports stars to do so.

Bubba Smith

Two-time Pro-Bowler Bubba Smith had an outstanding career with the Colts (where he was part of the 1971 championship team), the Raiders, and the Oilers. Upon retiring, Smith has made a number of supporting appearances on television and starred in a series of memorable Miller Light commercials with numerous other ex-jocks. On the silver screen, though, Smith’s most memorable role was Moses Hightower in the critically-derided but enduringly popular Police Academy movies. A florist before entering the academy, Hightower has the strength of a superhero, but is one of the most soft-spoken of the recruits.

Howie Long

In his 13-year career with the Raiders, Howie Long established himself as one of the greatest defensive linemen of all time. Since retiring, Long has a filmography that includes supporting roles in Broken Arrow and 3000 Miles to Graceland, as well as cameos on a number of TV shows. The one attempt to turn the affable Hall-of-Famer and Fox NFL Sunday analyst into a legitimate action hero, Firestorm, failed to, ahem, catch fire with audiences or critics (it currently sports a robust eight percent on the Tomatometer). Long starred as Jesse Graves, an expert firefighter who is tasked with thwarting a forest fire set by criminals attempting a jailbreak. It’s certain that more people have seen Long’s Radio Shack commercials, in which he co-starred with Teri Hatcher.

Frank McRae

After a standout career at Tennessee State, where he double-majored in drama and history, Frank McRae spent one undistinguished season in the NFL as a defensive tackle with the Bears. His theatrical training served him well, as McRae has gone on to be a consistently solid “that guy” in a wide range of films. His credits include Norma Rae, 48 Hours, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Red Dawn. McRae was notable as James Bond’s best buddy in License to Kill, as well as the incredulous Lt. Dekker in Last Action Hero.

Warning: NSFW — language.

Vinnie Jones

At first glance, the inclusion of Vinnie Jones on this list might seem incongruous; after all, his game is footie, not American football. However, Jones’ reputation as a fearsome enforcer – a Conrad Dobler for the English Premiere League – and his noteworthy filmography certainly warrants mention here. As a midfielder for eight squads, Jones was better known for misconduct than goal-scoring. And he’s brought his tough-guy persona to a number of noteworthy films, including Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties. His role in Eurotrip must have slightly rankled the notoriously temperamental Jones, however, since he plays a Manchester United-mad hooligan; in real life, he played for Man U’s main rivals, Chelsea.

Warning: NSFW — language.

John Wayne

It would take a lot more than just true grit for John Wayne to play offensive tackle for the USC Trojans today. However, in the mid-1920s, the future Duke manned the line for one of the nation’s best squads. After failing to get into the Naval Academy, Wayne accepted a football scholarship at USC, but his tenure would be short-lived: he injured himself while bodysurfing at Newport Beach, and ended up losing his scholarship and dropping out of school. The gridiron’s loss was cinema’s gain, and even though he was best known for his westerns, Wayne starred as a football coach in Trouble Along the Way.

Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones had quite an eventful couple years at Harvard. The future Oscar winner lived in the same freshman dorm as Al Gore and John Lithgow. In 1968, Jones, who played offensive tackle, was an All-Ivy League selection for the undefeated Crimson. “Undefeated” is a relative term, however; as the critically acclaimed documentary Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (which Jones narrated) recounts, the Crimson’s season ended with one tie. The squad came back from a 16-point Bulldogs lead to knot the score in the last game of the season. Subsequently, Jones played an alcoholic former football star in the 1985 TV adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and in Man of the House, he starred as a state trooper tasked with protecting a cheerleading squad that has witnessed a murder.

John Matuszak

Even before he crossed over from the NFL to Hollywood, John Matuszak was a bona fide celebrity; thanks to his imposing 6’8″ figure and outlandish personality, he never had a problem attracting attention, either positive (winning two Super Bowls as a defensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders) or otherwise (his well-known extracurricular activities off the field). Although his size precluded him from traditional leading-man roles, Matuszak enjoyed steady work during his relatively brief acting career, cut short when he died of heart failure in 1989; he booked roles on both television (a wide range of shows, from M*A*S*H to Silver Spoons) and film (North Dallas Forty, The Ice Pirates, One Crazy Summer). The role of Matuszak’s short lifetime, though, was unquestionably his iconic performance as Sloth, the deformed Fratelli brother in The Goonies — if its long-rumored sequel ever comes to pass, no one will ever scream “Hey you guys!” with as much passion as the Tooz.

Terry Crews

Terry Crews is much better than at stealing scenes than stopping ball carriers; he played three seasons as a linebacker in the NFL with the Rams, Redskins, and Chargers, and racked up only three tackles. However, Crews has found his niche in Hollywood as a strong character actor, with brief (but often outstanding) roles in a number of films, including Get Smart, Street Kings, and Balls of Fury. His performance as an overly amorous suitor in White Chicks was one of the best things about that guilty pleasure, but his best work may be as former smackdown champion and porn star-turned commander-in-chief, President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, in Idiocracy. Perhaps his best-known starring role is as Julius Rock, the put-upon father on TV’s Everybody Hates Chris.

Brian Bosworth

The Boz is a poster child for high-profile NFL busts; during his brief career with the Seattle Seahawks, the former Oklahoma star was better known for his wacky mullet and bad attitude than his defensive prowess (he registered only four sacks in his career, and was memorably bowled over by Bo Jackson). Retiring after three years, Bosworth brought his chiseled good looks and anti-authoritarian mind-set to Hollywood, starring as an undercover detective in Stone Cold. The film failed to make the Boz into an action star, but nevertheless, he’s had greater longevity as a thespian than as a jock, with a few starring roles in movies and on TV. Bosworth’s most memorable recent performance was as a prison guard in the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard.

Alex Karras

You wouldn’t necessarily know it from his six-year run as the dishwater-dull George Papadopolis on the hit 1980s sitcom Webster, but Alex Karras led a fascinating life, turning his sandlot gridiron education into a storied career as a defensive tackle at the University of Iowa (where he helped lead the team to its first-ever Rose Bowl victory) and a successful, albeit controversy-laden, tenure with the Detroit Lions. Before, between, and after, he entered the pro wrestling ring, owned a bar and an ice cream parlor, and acted in a handful of movies, making small but memorable turns in Blazing Saddles, Porky’s, Against All Odds, and Victor/Victoria. His scant filmography doesn’t have the heft of some of our other entrants’, but what he lacks in prolificacy, he’s more than made up for in unforgettable roles.

Warning: NSFW — language.

Woody Strode

Venerable supporting player Woody Strode was a pioneer on both the gridiron and the silver screen. After a memorable career as an end at UCLA, where he was a teammate of Jackie Robinson’s, Strode was among the first African Americans to play in the NFL in the modern era. He spent a year with the Rams and a season in Canada before making acting his main gig. He picked up a Golden Globe performance as a gladiator in Spartacus, and starred in three films directed by his close friend John Ford, even appearing as the lead in Sergeant Rutledge. Strode also did noteworthy work in The Ten Commandments, The Professionals, Once Upon a Time in the West.

Fred Dryer

He’s a familiar face to fans of 1980s TV, thanks to his occasional appearances on Cheers as blowhard sportscaster Dave Richards and his starring role in the long-running cop show Hunter — but Fred Dryer is a legend to hardcore football fans, especially those who were around to see him bust heads during his long and illustrious career as a defensive end for the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams. Between 1969 and 1981, Dryer notched over 100 sacks and set an NFL record when he caused two safeties in a single game. Dryer took that winning streak with him to television, collaring perps every week of Hunter‘s seven-season run, but his film fortunes have been less impressive, including appearances in such noteworthy turkeys as 1987’s Death Before Dishonor, 1998’s Stray Bullet, and something called Playboy – Warm Texas Rain. Still, even in his 60s, he cuts an imposing figure — maybe he could be one of Stallone’s Expendables — and did we mention two safeties in one game?

Dean Cain

You’d think having at least a modicum of athletic talent would be a prerequisite for anyone who hoped to play the role of Superman — and Dean Cain, who wore the red and blue tights for four years on ABC’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, fit the bill. Make that Bills, actually, as in Buffalo Bills, the team that signed Cain as a free agent after he racked up some impressive stats as a free safety for the Princeton Tigers. When a knee injury ended Cain’s NFL career before he played a single game, he moved quickly into acting, taping guest appearances on shows such as A Different World and Beverly Hills, 90210 before getting his big break in Lois & Clark. As a film actor, he hasn’t been as lucky; his resume is dotted with titles like Boa and Dark Descent. But even if he hasn’t found another hit vehicle for his talents, Cain has kept on working, piling up a long list of credits on either side of the camera — and his 2007 cameo on Smallville proves he still has a sense of humor about his caped past.

Mark Harmon

He’s played law enforcement officers so many times that some people might assume he was born with a badge, but Mark Harmon actually started off on the football field, where he was UCLA’s starting quarterback for two years in the early 1970s. After graduation, he made the jump to acting, scoring guest roles on a number of 1970s series, including Emergency! and Laverne & Shirley, as well as a part in 1978’s Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. In the ’80s, his career really took flight, thanks to high-profile TV gigs on St. Elsewhere and Moonlighting (not to mention being named People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive); during this era, he booked roles in a number of films, including The Presidio, Stealing Home, and the cult classic Summer School. These days, he’s settled into a five-year run as the star of the CBS drama NCIS, but he’s still making movies — 2009 is scheduled to bring us Weather Girl, a co-starring vehicle with another 1980s survivor, Jon Cryer.

Carl Weathers

As a linebacker, Carl Weathers didn’t last long with the Raiders. So, like Doug Flutie and Andre Rison in his wake, he headed north, logging time in Canadian Football League with the British Columbia Lions (and you thought all CFL teams were called the Roughriders!). After his retirement in 1974, Weathers made appearances on a number of TV shows before landing his most famous role as Apollo Creed in Rocky. His subsequent career has consisted of a mix of TV and movie roles, most notably Action Jackson and Happy Gilmore. He also had a memorably loopy stint as an acting coach on Arrested Development, as well as a fake Saturday Night Live commercial in which he promised to follow in the footsteps of his Predator costars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura and become the governor — of any state that would have him.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

He rose to fame as a nine-time World Heavyweight Champion pro wrestler, beloved as much for his pithy one-liners and perpetually raised eyebrow as his skills on the mat, but he got his start as a defensive tackle for the Miami Hurricanes — and these days, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is one of the more legitimately interesting action stars in Hollywood. Sure, he’s prone to signing off on dimwitted “fun for the family” fare such as The Game Plan and paycheck projects like Doom, but he’s also gained a reputation for making the most of his screen time, earning positive notices for his work in poorly reviewed releases like Be Cool and Get Smart. With Tooth Fairy and Disney’s Witch Mountain reboot on his docket, Johnson shows no signs of cooking anything terribly complicated or demanding, but his on-screen charisma — and obvious bankability — should keep the scripts coming.

Burt Reynolds

Unlike many of the names on this list, Burt Reynolds never got to make a run at the NFL; his football career was cut short in college by a horrific car accident that left him with a long list of injuries. Looking to earn some easy college credits, the former Florida State halfback enrolled in drama courses, and the rest is history: he went on to become one of the biggest movie stars of the 1970s and early 1980s. However, like his football career, Reynolds’ filmography is a story both inspiring (Boogie Nights, Deliverance, Sharky’s Machine) and tragic (Cop and a Half, Striptease). These days, the man once known as the Bandit is popping up in Uwe Boll movies, but that can’t take away from his best work — or the fact that he rocked a ‘stache more convincingly than anyone not named Billy Dee Williams.

Fred Williamson

The Hammer was an all-pro defensive back and kick returner for three NFL teams, most notably the Chiefs, with whom he appeared in the first Super Bowl against the Packers. His was a distinguished career, but it’s the movies where Williamson really made his mark. Following some memorable television roles, he appeared in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H* and Otto Preminger’s Tell Me You Love Me, Junie Moon before becoming one of the biggest stars of the Blaxploitation era. In such pictures as That Man Bolt, Black Caesar, and Three the Hard Way (which co-starred fellow gridiron great Jim Brown), Williamson exuded suave cool and rugged authority. In recent years, Williamson has appeared in From Dusk Till Dawn and Starsky & Hutch. In addition, starting with Mean Johnny Barrows, Williamson has directed more than 20 features, all produced by his company, Po’ Boy Productions.

Jim Brown

There can be little debate that Jim Brown was one of the greatest running backs of all time; indeed, many say he was the greatest football player, period. However, the Cleveland Browns star’s talents were hardly limited to the gridiron; in fact, he retired from the Browns when owner Art Model demanded he report to training camp rather than finish work on The Dirty Dozen (which remains one of Brown’s best-known roles). Turning to Hollywood, Brown starred in a number of films, including 100 Rifles with Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch (one of the first films to feature an interracial romance). Brown was an action hero in such solid Blaxploitation fare as Three the Hard Way and Slaughter, and even formed the short-lived Ocean Productions as a means to increase minority involvement in filmmaking. Since his heyday, Brown has had memorable supporting roles in The Running Man, I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka, Any Given Sunday, and Mars Attacks!

Check out the rest of our Total Recall archives here.

Finally, we’d like to mention a former standout with the Buffalo Bills who enjoyed a long career in Hollywood and a squeaky-clean image before tarnishing his sterling reputation with the juvenile pay-per-view prank show Juiced. Orenthal James Simpson, how do you live with yourself?

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