The Stars of Track and Screen

by Robert Collins

20 May 2008

People who love sports love sports stars turned actors far more than we love actors playing sports stars.
Victory movie poster (partial) 

Sport, as we’re reminded on an almost daily basis, is the ultimate reality drama. The results are as important or trivial as we choose them to be, but only the most ardent sport-hater would deny the raw appeal of the never-ending narrative of victory and defeat.

And yet, despite sport being the most glaring example of daily drama around us, when it comes to actually translating it into drama, the sports movie is a genre shackled by its own limitations. As much as sports fans are drawn to these movies, we’re routinely disappointed.

Sports movies are inherently predictable because the action can only go one of two ways: the plucky underdogs triumph against the odds, or they fail gallantly at the last hurdle. Whether they’re Disney’s Mighty Ducks or Will Smith’s Muhammad Ali, we’re ahead of the story every step of the way.

In Ali’s case, we all know the story of the 20th century’s most famous athlete. As for the Ducks? Well, what else would you expect? Even a good sports film like Million Dollar Baby telegraphed its tragic twist long before it happened. The only way to make a decent sports movie is to put sports in the background. In Raging Bull, Scorsese uses boxing as just one element in LaMotta’s ultimate destruction. In Field Of Dreams, baseball becomes a metaphor for a lost age. Winning or losing, those two impostors, are irrelevant.

The essential problem with the sports movie is that drama is guaranteed. Sport doesn’t guarantee anything. Sure, the TV promos suggests that we’d be crazy to miss the game, barking at us in a voice like thunder that these two teams are primed for battle and really, really hate each other, but we still understand that by committing to watching the game we’re taking a gamble. Our team could lose heavily. It could be hopelessly boring and disappointing. It could be all over after ten minutes. The underdog, no matter how plucky, is an underdog for a reason. The race doesn’t always go to the swift, nor the fight to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.

But it’s precisely because of this harsh reality that real sport turns into drama. When the outcome of the game goes down to the final seconds, it hasn’t been scripted that way; it’s because a series of unlikely events have led that game to that position. Like Huxley wrote in Brave New World, happiness without sadness is meaningless. For the sports fan, the nerve-jangling thriller means nothing without the yawners.

The sports movie can’t escape this. It must concentrate on the drama. The unlikeliest outcome in reality will always happen in the sports movie, completely negating any surprise element. That’s not what sport is about. Sport can shock and surprise us, but it never asks us to suspend our belief.

There is, however, a shining ying to sports movies’ dull yang, summed up neatly in the following exchange from the Airplane! movie.

“I know you. You’re Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. You play basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers.”

“I’m sorry son, but you must have me confused with someone else.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bruce Lee in Game of Death

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bruce Lee in Game of Death

Great joke, but the kid in the cockpit was only saying what the rest of us were thinking. He may have been playing co-pilot Roger Murdock, but there was never any mistaking one of America’s biggest, and tallest, sports stars. There could be no suspension of belief that this is an actual pilot. Airplane! may be a supremely silly film, but this breaking of the fourth wall illustrates the wonderful lunacy of casting athletes in movies.

Career actors may come with the baggage of prior roles and past triumphs and failures, but they are at the most basic level, professionals. In theory at least, an actor should be able to convince the viewer that they are watching a real character in a real situation (of course, I don’t include Ben Affleck in this group). But the athlete turned actor arrives on screen with a whole batch of preconceptions. Actors pretend to be heroes. Sportsmen have been heroes. Every time they appear on screen they bring an element of that heroism with them.

There’s a certain amount of pleasure that comes from that recognition. No matter what the role, you still can’t help but root for him. Casting directors know that, which is why guys like Brett Favre and Roger Clemens pop up in goofy comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Kingpin

Spotting sports stars on screen is a sneaky, guilty pleasure. It’s an extra opportunity to silently cheer for an old hero, nudge friends and reminisce about past glories, or dazzle/bore non-sports fans by reciting inane sports trivia.

People who love sports love sports stars turned actors far more than we love actors playing sports stars. Once you’re famous for your sport, you’ve carved the role for yourself forever. You’re a football player, never an ex-football player. You can put on the uniform and act like a soldier or a cop, but you’ll always be playing yourself. And that’s why we love them.

The sports star turned actor negates any suspension of belief, and that’s no bad thing. How else can one explain the perpetual appeal of Escape to Victory (called Victory in the US), a film about a team of Allied soccer players taking on the Nazi National team in a propaganda match? Allegedly starring Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone, the actual stars were the real life players in the Allied team, including Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles and Pele. Originally based on a tragic and heroic true story, the eventual plot bordered on insulting. That wasn’t the point. The fun was seeing these players and their shoddy attempts at acting. And therein lay its success.

Sports movies ask us to suspend our belief and believe in miracles. Sports stars in movies remind us that we want to be entertained and don’t really mind how it’s done. Although having said that, there’s still no excuse for Dennis Rodman in Double Team.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bruce Lee in Game of Death

So without further ado, we proudly present the Sticky Wickets’ Pro Athletes Turned Acting Icons Hall of Fame.

OJ Simpson: Although the job offers have strangely dried up recently, The Juice appeared in some bona fide hits and won plenty of laughs as Nordberg in The Naked Gun series. More importantly, when he’s on screen viewers inevitably find themselves shouting ‘That guy did it!’, even if it’s not a crime movie.

Jim Brown: Most NFL fans will tell you Brown was a better running back than Simpson. He’s a better actor, too. And he was never finer than in his first role, demonstrating his athletic ability by running across the compound in the bloody finale of The Dirty Dozen. Tragically, a German bullet succeeded where the linebackers of the 1960s had failed, and brought down the great man for good.

Gary Stretch: Stretch, a one-time middleweight contender, was brilliant as a low-level drug dealer in the ultra-grim British revenge thriller Dead Man’s Shoes. His key moment, and the key moment of the film, is his confrontation with Paddy Considine’s ex-army killing machine. Stretch may have possibly drawn on his boxing experience for this scene, as he paints a spot on portrait of a man coming face to face with an imminent pummelling.

Brian Glover: Few realise that uber-Yorkshireman Glover started out as a pro wrestler by the name ‘Leon Aris the Man from Paris’. Since then he starred in Alien 3 and pinned down Shakespeare. He never beat his role in American Werewolf in London though, stealing the show with his shocking roar, “That’s ENOUGH!”

Alex Karras: Karras turned to acting almost by chance, after stealing a few scenes playing himself opposite Alan Alda in the movie version of George Plimpton’s Paper Lion. His portrayal of the lovable Mungo in Blazing Saddles, knocking out a horse with a single punch, set the bar for comedy big guys.

Kareem Adbul-Jabbar: Hardly the most gifted actor in this list, but props must be given for a pair of iconic scenes: ranting about basketball fans in Airplane and going toe to very long toe with Bruce Lee in the finale of the uncompleted Game of Death, thankfully available on the bonus DVD that comes with Enter The Dragon.

Shaquille O’Neal: Another big man with, let’s say, limited acting ability. Blue Chips wasn’t great and Kazaam was hopeless, but Shaq redeemed himself by turning up opposite Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Not that playing himself was a challenging role, but respect is due for risking potential marketing deals by appearing in the most offensive, foul-mouthed comedy of its generation.

Vinny Jones: Jones’ hard-man persona was scarcely deserved in his career in English soccer. A thug and a bully would be more accurate. But he’s worked at his craft, and was terrific in Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. His portrayal of Juggernaut in X-Men 3 wasn’t great, but it wasn’t like the rest of the cast were trying very hard, either.

André the Giant: Given André’s physical appearance, there were only ever going to be a handful of roles open to him. But he was brilliant in The Princess Bride, adding a surprisingly light touch that overcomes his strong French accent and speaker-busting low register. For his delivery of the line “Anybody want a peanut?” alone, he would deserve inclusion in any acting hall of fame. 

The Cast of Escape to Victory: Shaq may have delivered a pretty convincing performance as himself, but the all-star cast of the WW2 sports thriller spluttered their lines seemingly alien to the very concept of emotion. Brazilian Pele in particular seems to have little idea of the meaning of the English words coming from his mouth. This is so bad that it’s good, with the all time special effects highlight being when Ossie Ardiles flicks the ball over his head.

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