Now that Dwayne Johnson is no longer billing himself as “The Rock,” he’s become a movie star in family-friendly films like “Race to Witch Mountain,” opening Friday. But make no mistake about it: Johnson first came to public attention as a bellowing, bulked-up pro wrestler with a memorable catchphrase - “Can you smell what The Rock is cookin’?” - and loads of charisma.
Johnson still has the magnetism and looks, and has proved he’s a more-than-capable on-screen presence. Which means he’s the latest in a long line of athletes (wrestling may be fake, but these guys are still athletic) who have tried their hands at the silver screen, a history that dates at least as far back as 1926, when football legend Red Grange starred in a long-forgotten flick called “One Minute to Play.”
“I think pro athletes are, by nature, so competitive, just the idea of testing themselves (acting), represents another challenge for them,” says Ray Didinger, co-author (with Glen Macnow) of the forthcoming “The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies.” Many pro athletes “are so naturally gifted,” he adds, “playing the game is easy for them, so the acting is something they really have to work at.”
“Athletes often stick close to what they are comfortable with when they start acting, often playing athletes or starring in action parts that play off their pro sports personas,” adds Irv Slifkin of Moviesunlimited.com. “If that succeeds, they try other things.”
And some have been better at it than others. Of the many football and basketball players, wrestlers, boxers, decathletes, ice skaters and pro skateboarders who have given the thespian arts a try, here are a few who stand out - for better or worse.
THE ATHLETE Joe Namath
THE MOVIE “C.C. and Company” (1970)
THE SCORECARD Broadway Joe had just engineered a legendary Super Bowl win and was known as a flamboyant media presence, but this lame motorcycle film practically killed his film career overnight. Even the presence of curvy love interest Ann-Margret couldn’t help the Jets quarterback, whose thespian skills Variety referred to as “clumsy.” Namath went on to make other films, but was never taken even remotely seriously as an actor.
THE ATHLETE Michael Jordan
THE MOVIE “Space Jam” (1996)
THE SCORECARD A fun animated film filled with familiar Warner Bros. characters and MJ playing himself, this proved to be a comfortable fit for the hoops immortal, who looked amiable as he performed alongside Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Marvin the Martian and other celluloid stars. Maybe it was his experience in all those Spike Lee-directed sneaker commercials that helped make Jordan “very engaging,” according to critic Leonard Maltin.
THE ATHLETE Fred Williamson
THE MOVIE “Black Caesar” (1973)
THE SCORECARD A former player for the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, Williamson became a star during the 1970s blaxploitation era, when his good looks, strutting sexuality and ability to deliver tough-sounding dialogue enthralled audiences. This film is one of his better efforts, a solid tale of a gangster on his way up.
THE ATHLETE Jim Brown
THE MOVIE “Any Given Sunday” (1999)
THE SCORECARD Arguably the greatest running back in NFL history, Brown made tons of movies starring as a tough guy (“The Dirty Dozen,” “Slaughter,” “100 Rifles”), but this supporting role as Al Pacino’s assistant coach on a troubled pro football team might be his finest performance. “He’s really good in that film,” Didinger says. “That world-weary coach he plays was right on the mark.”
THE ATHLETE Shaquille O’Neal
THE MOVIE “Kazaam” (1996)
THE SCORECARD O’Neal as a giant genie helping a troubled kid is engaging enough, but the film is trapped uncomfortably between family fare and urban grit. Give Shaq credit for attempting to break into movies, but there are only so many roles available when you are 7-foot-1, 325 pounds.
THE ATHLETE Bruce Jenner
THE MOVIE “Can’t Stop the Music” (1980)
THE SCORECARD How to destroy your athletic cred in one fell swoop. Olympic gold medalist (for the decathlon) Jenner appears as an uptight lawyer in a movie starring the Village People (go figure). Janet Maslin of The New York Times said Jenner’s performance is “sympathetically amateurish.” Several plastic surgeries and at least one marriage later, Jenner is now featured as the befuddled stepdad on the reality series “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” And to think this guy was once on the cover of a Wheaties box.
THE ATHLETE Chuck Connors
THE MOVIE “The Big Country” (1958)
THE SCORECARD Former pro baseball player Connors is best known as the star of the 1950s TV series “The Rifleman,” but he had a solid career as a character actor in the movies. In this A-list extravaganza starring Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston, he’s “especially convincing,” according to Variety, as a slimy gunslinger with the hots for Jean Simmons. Connors’ death scene is particularly memorable.
THE ATHLETE Roddy Piper
THE MOVIE “They Live” (1988)
THE SCORECARD “Rowdy” Roddy has been a pro wrestling mainstay for decades, and a decent enough actor in an endless series of movies and TV shows. In this memorable cult film from director John Carpenter, he’s a homeless guy who discovers aliens have invaded Earth. When Piper decides to fight back, he utters one of film history’s great catchphrases: “I’m here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m out of bubble gum.”
THE ATHLETE Alex Karras
THE MOVIE “Victor/Victoria” (1982)
THE SCORECARD NFL star Karras memorably sucker- punched a horse in “Blazing Saddles,” and that moment probably has overshadowed the fact that this former Detroit Lion is a talented comic actor who has had a legit career in movies and TV. He’s never been better than in this Blake Edwards farce, however, in which he plays “Squash” Bernstein, a hulking bodyguard who is a closeted homosexual.
THE ATHLETE Jason Lee
THE MOVIE “Almost Famous” (2000)
THE SCORECARD Once a pro skateboarder, Lee is now a TV star, thanks to “My Name Is Earl.” But he’s a solid presence in several feature films, none better than director Cameron Crowe’s opus about the maturation of a music writer, in which Lee plays the hotheaded lead singer of an up-and-coming rock band.