From Sidelines to the Set: Check out These Athletes Turned Actors

Emma Watson played what sport? Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was on scholarship at what school, playing what sport, before breaking into sports entertainment and then acting? Jon Stewart walked on where before rising to “Daily Show” fame? These athletes turned actors have quite the background stories.

While many people think that Hollywood actors simply “grow up in the biz” or are discovered, you’d be surprised at how many starred in a different way before hitting it big on small or silver screen.

44. Arnold Schwarzenegger

Lets start our list of athletes turned actors with the one and only Arnold. Whether it’s from The Terminator franchise to Predator, nobody is quite king of the classic one-liners like the Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger. But before gaining international fame as an action movie star, Arnold was a professional body builder. Fun fact: At 23, Schwarzenegger was the youngest ever to be crowned Mr. Olympia. But as you may recall, body building and acting isn’t all Arnold was capable of, as he also served two terms as Governor of California.

43. Burt Reynolds

Perhaps one of the movies Reynolds is best known for, The Longest Yard, has elements of his past in it? No, not the prison part – the football part. Yes, before Reynolds became a breakout actor in film and television, he attended Florida State University on a football scholarship. After a career-ending injury during his sophomore year, Reynolds transitioned into acting. With Deliverance, Boogie Nights and the aforementioned Longest Yard, we’d say he’s done pretty well.

42. Chuck Norris

Insert your favorite Chuck Norris joke here. Before starring in The Delta Force movies and in “Walker, Texas Ranger” on the small screen, Norris was an accomplished martial artist. He holds black belts in a variety of different martial arts disciplines and has since opened up his very own martial arts school. Chuck Norris may be a punch line these days for his less than stellar acting chops, but at the age of 76, he could still kick your butt.

41. Denzel Washington

Before this Hollywood juggernaut was scoring Oscar nominations, he was scoring buckets – specifically as a point guard at Fordham University. While Washington may have once had NBA aspirations, we’d say he made the right choice to go into acting, as some of his most memorable movies – Training Day, Remember the Titans, Man on Fire, Flight and Malcolm X – wouldn’t have been the same without him.

40. Emma Watson

Is there anyone who doesn’t adore Emma Watson? If the answer is “yes,” we’d bet that those folks were the girl opponents she competed against as a field hockey player while attending Brown. Perhaps some of her Quidditch experience came in handy on the field? In the meantime, we can’t wait to see Watson’s turn as Belle in the forthcoming Beauty and the Beast.

39. Forest Whitaker

Like so many others on this list, Forest Whitaker has perfected the art of acting. But before he starred in movies such as Good Morning Vietnam, The Last King of Scotland, Panic Room and The Butler, Whitaker had aspirations as a football player. He actually even attended California State Polytechnic University on scholarship, but injuries eventually forced him out of the game. Now an Oscar winner, we’d say he probably has no regrets.

38. Jon Stewart

Though now retired, this former host of “The Daily Show” and actor in several films actually played college soccer while attending William & Mary. Word is that Stewart was pretty good too – he was a walk-on that eventually worked his way into the starting lineup.

37. Kurt Russell

Had it not been for a rotator cuff injury, we might best remember Kurt Russell one day as a professional baseball star and not as the star of several hit films, such as The Hateful Eight, Miracle and Escape from New York. But it was that injury forced him away from his baseball dreams and into acting.

36. Andre the Giant

Having stood at nearly seven-and-a-half feet tall, Andre the Giant was… well, a giant. He was also an accomplished professional wrestler and actor. That’s right – after gaining worldwide fame in the squared circle as a sports entertainer in the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment), Andre the Giant would go on to act in The Princess Bride. He died of congestive heart failure in 1993.

35. Carl Weathers

Weathers is another former athlete-turned-actor. But unlike what you may think, his athlete days had nothing to do with boxing, like his character Apollo Creed in Rocky, or with golf, like his fan favorite character Chubbs in Happy Gilmore. No, before his acting days, Weathers was a football player. He actually played professionally for the Oakland Raiders in addition to a stint in the CFL.

34. Jason Statham

He might not be comparable in the pool to the likes of Michael Phelps, but before starring in The Transporter series and The Expendables trilogy, Statham was an accomplished swimmer. He even represented England at 1990’s Commonwealth Games. And if you’ve seen any of Statham’s movies, you know that he’s well-versed in martial arts as well. A martial arts swimmer? Sounds like a cool premise for a future movie.

33. Bruce Lee

Lee Jun-fan was an accomplished martial artist before becoming a mainstream actor. Yes, in fact, the man better known as “Bruce Lee” is credited as the founder of the Jeet Kune Do style. As an actor, Lee was best known for film roles in Enter the Dragon and The Chinese Connection, as well as a recurring role as Kato in “The Green Hornet” television series. Unfortunately, we never got to see Lee’s true greatness on the silver screen, as he died in 1973 at the age of just 32.

32. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

Everybody knows about Dwayne Johnson’s memorable stint as “The Rock” in the World Wrestling Federation’s “Attitude Era.” But many don’t know that he also played college football at the University of Miami, helping the school win the NCAA title in 1991. Today, Johnson is still going strong on the silver screen with a recurring role in the Fast and the Furious franchise, as well as recent hits like San Andreas and his HBO series “Ballers.”

31. Jason Lee

Before playing a lovable redneck on the TV hit “My Name is Earl,” Jason Lee was actually an accomplished skateboarder. Upon venturing into acting, however, he was quickly discovered by Kevin Smith, who casted him in Mallrats. Though now an accomplished actor, he still returns to the skate parks to help the skating community when he can.

30. Lou Ferrigno

Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t the only body builder-turned-actor. Look no further than the Incredible Hulk himself, Lou Ferrigno, for further proof. And while Ferrigno may not be remembered along the lines of Schwarzenegger for his film career, his Mr. Universe and Mr. America titles speak for themselves on the body building circuit.

29. Mark Harmon

This NCIS lead and acclaimed television actor also once quarterbacked UCLA in the 1970s. What’s more is that his father, Tom, was a star at the University of Michigan. There must be something in the gene pool.

28. Michael Jordan

Jordan didn’t win rave reviews for his acting in the 1996 hit Space Jam, but his credit does make him one of the many athletes-turned-actors. Regardless of his poor acting chops, he’s still arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.

27. Shaq

Speaking of athletes-turned-actors that didn’t quite have the acting chops, we come to Shaquille O’Neal. All you need to do is watch Kazaam or Blue Chips to figure this one out, but we still love Shaq for his basketball dominance. What can we say? Acting isn’t for every superstar athlete.

26. Terry Bradshaw

Terry Bradshaw is an NFL and Pittsburgh Steelers legend, having won an impressive four Super Bowls back in the day as a quarterback- when QBs called their own plays. He also held his own acting opposite Kathy Bates and Matthew McConaughey in Failure to Launch. That, of course, is in addition to numerous TV roles. Our favorite is his turn as a bounty hunter on the short-lived, but cult classic series “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.”

25. Terry Crews

Another professional NFL player-turned-actor, Crews has become a noted actor in comedy and action-adventure genres since hanging up his cleats as a member of the Los Angeles Rams. We loved him in White Chicks and was wowed by his work in The Expendables trilogy.

24. LeBron James

LeBron isn’t just a terrific basketball player, but he was a scene-stealer in 2015’s cliche romantic comedy Trainwreck, acting alongside Amy Schumer and Bill Hader. Perhaps there’s a future in acting for LeBron after he’s done winning NBA titles on the court?

23. Kevin Durant

Like the aforementioned LeBron James, Kevin Durant’s acting credits are slim. But the 2012 film Thunderstruck, in which he has a starring role, showed he might have some potential in acting. After signing with the Golden State Warriors in the off-season, we’re betting Durant has his sights set on something else right now.

22. O. J. Simpson

Despite O. J.’s past legal troubles spinning off into a TV series of its own, “the Juice”, actually had a successful acting career after his NFL days. He’s best known for his role in The Naked Gun series, though he has a total of 34 acting credits on his resume. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

21. Bubba Smith

After starring on the gridiron for Michigan State and then in the NFL, Bubba Smith transitioned into acting, starring in six Police Academy films. Smith passed away in 2011 at the age of 66.

20. Ronda Rousey

Rousey is one of many current athletes that also act on the side. She got into acting in 2014, when she had a prominent role in The Expendables 3 and followed that up with two feature film roles in 2015. She’s also slated to star in the Road House remake, though a release date is not yet set for that.

19. John Cena

Cena is another pro wrestler who also acts. His notable roles to date were headlining his own movie, The Marine, in 2006 and playing a hilarious small role in 2015’s Trainwreck.

18. Stone Cold Steve Austin

Austin was The Rock’s most common foe during the WWF’s “Attitude Era,” and when injuries forced his retirement from the ring, he ventured off into acting. He’s not nearly as popular as The Rock is in cinema, but he’s been in films like The Longest Yard, The Condemned and The Expendables.

17. Tony Danza

Before rising to fame on “Taxi” and “Who’s the Boss?” Danza was a professional boxer. But his 9-3 career record was no match for the success he achieved in his acting career.

16. Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan was an accomplished martial artist before breaking into show business. Now, he’s a popular action movie star, and best known for his role in the Rush Hour movies. He also famously does all his own stunts.

15. Hulk Hogan

Though he’s hit some personal turmoil recently, Hulk Hogan arguably paved the way for other pro wrestlers to have “second careers” after their days of battling in the ring. He famously starred in Mr. Nanny and Suburban Commando.

14. Fred Dryer

Before racking up 44 acting credits in TV shows and movies, Hunter was a standout defensive star for San Diego State University. He also amassed a nice NFL career before transitioning into acting.

13. Jean-Claude Van Damme

This so-called “muscles from Brussels” was an accomplished martial artist and kickboxer before breaking into showbiz. He’s perhaps best known for movies such as Sudden Death, Universal Soldier and The Expendables 2.

12. Dennis Rodman

Dennis Rodman went from airport janitor to NBA World Champion. And after a tumultuous NBA career, he eventually transitioned into acting. “The worm” has racked up 26 acting credits, is most notably 1997’s Double Team.

11. Fred Williamson

Before starring in films like Starsky and Hutch and From Dusk Till Dawn, Williamson was a star football player with the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs. In fact, he has over 120 acting credits to his resume.

10. Bob Uecker

Bob Uecker was a little bit of everything. Baseball player. Comedian. Sports announcer. And, yes, an actor. After a career playing catcher in the Big Leagues, Uecker is perhaps best known in Hollywood for his hilarious, scene-stealing role of Harry Doyle in the Major League movies.

9. Jim Brown

Arguably the greatest football player to ever don cleats, Jim Brown also has turned in a pretty nice acting career. The Running Man and The Dirty Dozen are a couple of his most well known movies.

8. Jason Sudekis

This funnyman is best known for his stints on “Saturday Night Live” as well as films like We’re the Millers and Horrible Bosses. But Sudekis was also quite the talented high school basketball player. He never played collegiately, like some others on this list, but he remains a big Kansas hoops fan.

7. Margot Robbie

This Aussie actress has turned heads for performances in The Wolf of Wall Street and, more recently, Suicide Squad. Another cool thing about Robbie – she can skate. Yes, Margot Robbie is a big hockey fan. She played on a rec team back in Australia and has been a big New York Rangers fan since coming state-side.

6. George Clooney

These days, the silver fox and king of the silver screen is known to play a lot of basketball in his spare time. But in his younger days, baseball was his sporting love. He was even close to making the Big Leagues on a tryout with the Cincinnati Reds.

5. Edward Norton

Here’s a fun fact: before Edward Norton starred alongside Brad Pitt in Fight Club, he attended Yale. And at Yale, he was a member of the school’s rowing team. Like others on this list, it was an injury that eventually led him out of the water and to the stage.

4. Steven Seagal

Seagal is another example of the martial arts expert-turned-actor. While many of his movies were never blockbusters, the action sure was spectacular.

3. Ed O’Neill

Before “Married… With Children” and “Modern Family,” O’Neill was a high school and college football star. In fact, he played collegiately for perennial power Youngstown State.

2. Caitlyn Jenner

Back when she was still Bruce, Jenner starred in the film Can’t Stop the Music. This, of course, was after gaining athletic fame for taking gold in track and field in the Summer Olympic Games.

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


This famous basketball player is also known for many of his cameos in popular movies. While not a great actor, his cameos are nothing short of funny and memorable.

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