Hollywood has a long history of casting actors as football players. From Harold Lloyd’s portrayal of a shy college student who joins the football team in the 1925 comedy The Freshman, to David Morse’s brilliant performance as Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster in the new film Concussion, countless thespians have starred as gridiron warriors over the years. And yet, occasionally, the opposite can be true. Take for instance the following professional players who successfully transitioned from sports heroes to movie stars!
Standing 6 feet 2 inches, with blue eyes, broad shoulders and matinee idol looks, Hall-of-Famer Joe Namath was destined to become either the highest-paid quarterback of his time or a Hollywood movie star. Instead, he picked both. One year after winning the Super Bowl for the New York Jets, Namath starred as a motorcycle mechanic who joins an outlaw biker gang in the 1970 action comedy C.C. & Company. Putting his roguish charm and stuntman’s physique to good use, Namath looked every bit the hero while rescuing Ann-Margret from the clutches of the gang’s violent leader. Though he starred in several more films, including the Spaghetti Western The Last Rebel and the espionage thriller Avalanche Express, Namath eventually turned his attention to TV roles, appearing on shows like The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and The A-Team.
Having earned the nickname “The Hammer” for the pulverizing forearm blows he dealt to opposing players, Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Fred Williamson took the field in 1967 for the very first Super Bowl. Three years later, he made his feature film debut in Robert Altman’s Oscar-winning satire M*A*S*H. But it was his role as a ruthless Harlem kingpin in the gritty crime thriller Black Caesar that cemented his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most bankable African-American action stars. Whether acting alongside Richard Pryor in the 1976 comedy Western Adiós Amigo, which he also wrote and directed, or killing vampires in Robert Rodriguez’s cult classic From Dusk Till Dawn, Williamson’s powerful charisma and intense physicality made him a beloved silver screen icon around the world.
Named by Sporting News magazine as the greatest professional football player ever, Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown shattered dozens of records in his nine years with the NFL. He announced his retirement from football during a press conference on the set of the Oscar-winning classic The Dirty Dozen, which he co-starred in with Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson and Ernest Borgnine. A slew of memorable roles followed, including the hard-hitting Slaughter film series and the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi blockbuster The Running Man. Like a blaxploitation John Wayne, Brown’s laconic screen presence, coupled with his take-no-prisoners command of action sequences, left an indelible mark on cinema history.
John “Tooz” Matuszak launched his pro career as a defensive end with the Houston Oilers in 1973, but was traded a year later to the Kansas City Chiefs following a dispute involving the short-lived World Football League. It was with the Oakland Raiders, however, that he achieved his greatest success, winning two Super Bowl rings before retiring in 1982. A larger-than-life personality, Matuszak appeared on dozens of TV shows like Silver Spoons, Miami Vice and Perfect Strangers, but it was his role as Sloth in the adventure comedy The Goonies that made him a star to millions of moviegoers. Hidden beneath monstrous makeup, Matuszak imbued the gentle giant with a lovable spirit and a hero’s heart. Tragically, the NFL’s popular bad boy died of an accidental overdose at the age of 38.
Super Bowl champion Bubba Smith spent nine seasons in the NFL as a defensive end, playing for the Baltimore Colts, the Oakland Raiders and the Houston Oilers, before retiring in 1976. A gifted athlete, his towering 6 feet 7 inch frame and 265 pounds of muscle made him one of the most physically imposing players to ever don a helmet. Yet those same unique attributes also helped him become a memorable Hollywood character actor. Beginning his showbiz career with guest spots on TV shows such as Wonder Woman, Charlie’s Angels and Good Times, Smith struck box-office gold playing Officer Moses Hightower in the 1984 comedy hit Police Academy. He returned for five sequels, and appeared in numerous other films, before dying of acute drug intoxication at the age of 66.