20+ Actors Who Were Once Incredible Athletes

These actors all started out playing a different game...

Kurt Russell, Burt Reynolds, and Denzel Washington are all well known for their acting roles. Think about it and you can probably name at least one movie or TV show you’ve seen them appear in, but they all have something else in common. Before making it big in the entertainment industry, they all started out playing a different game. How can one person have so much talent?!

It's extremely impressive that these people were able to dominate in the world of sports, and then dominate on the big screen. Many of these actors and actresses are people you had no idea were athletic! Check out the list and find out which actors and actresses are more than what they seem – finding success in the world of sports and Hollywood… Also, find out which sport is the most common to transition from athletics to the screen!

Sean Connery: Bodybuilding and Football

The beloved actor and original James Bond began bodybuilding at the age of 18, competing in Mr. universe contest between 1950 and 1953. Connery was an avid footballer in his younger days playing for Bonnyrigg Rose and even reportedly being offered a spot on Manchester United after their manager at the time, Matt Busby, saw him play while scouting for talent.

Connery recalls, “I realised that a top-class footballer could be over the hill by the age of 30, and I was already 23. I decided to become an actor and it turned out to be one of my more intelligent moves.” Including his legendary roles as James Bond, Sean Connery is most known for his roles in The Rock, The Untouchables, and The Hunt for Red October.

Andre the Giant: Wrestling

Known for: The Princess Bride

Standing tall at a whopping 7’4, the French born Andre The Giant gained worldwide fame as a professional wrestler and WWF champion.

Later in his career he transitioned into acting and is best-known for his iconic role in the cult classic: The Princess Bride.

Arnold Schwarzenegger: Body Building

Known for: The Terminator, Conan the Barbarian

Before gaining international acting success in the 80’s and 90’s in films such as The Terminator and Conan the Barbarian, the former governor of California was a professional body builder. The Austrian born Schwarzenegger became the youngest person ever to win the coveted Mr.

Olympia title at the age of 23 in 1970.

Emma Watson: Field Hockey

Known for: Harry Potter

Best known for her role as bookworm and studious Hermione Granger, it may surprise some to know that actress Emma Watson is also quite the athlete.

While attending Brown University, Watson played for the university’s field hockey team.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson: Wrestler

Known for: Be Cool, Fast and Furious

Dwayne Johnson skyrocketed to fame in the 90’s as a professional wrestler for the WWE under his persona “The Rock”. Before pursuing his wrestling career he was also a championship winning college football player for the University of Miami.

These days, Johnson is better known for his role in films including Be Cool, Fast & Furious, The Scorpion King, and The Other Guys.

Jon Stewart: Soccer

Known for: The Daily Show

Before becoming famous as the funny and satirical host of “The Daily Show”, Jon Stewart had a starting spot on the William & Mary men’s varsity soccer team while in college.

Denzel Washington: Basketball

Known for: Equalizer, Training Day, American Gangster, and Man on Fire

Did you know that before becoming the international acting sensation and Oscar winner that he’s known as today, Denzel Washington played guard for the Fordham University basketball team?

The highly acclaimed actor stars in some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters including The Equalizer, Training Day, American Gangster, and Man on Fire.

Bruce Lee: Martial Arts

Known for: Enter the Dragon

Before starring on the big screen, legendary martial arts fighter Bruce Lee was an avid student and teacher of various forms of karate and martial arts. Lee is credited with the creation of the martial arts style Jeet Kune Do.

He starred in Enter the Dragon, by Warner Brothers, which is widely known as the most successful martial arts movie of all time. Incredibly, his hand strikes were so fast the director had to adjust the speed of the film to accurately capture them.

Terry Bradshaw: Football

Terry Bradshaw is a legendary quarterback who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1970 through 1983. While with the Steelers he won four Super Bowl championships and was named Super Bowl MVP not once, but twice.

Since retiring, he has made several appearances in movies and TV including Hooper, Failure to Launch, and Malcolm in the Middle.

Jason Statham: Swimming and Diving

Known for: The Transporter, Crank

Statham has a passion for swimming and was a member of Britain’s National Diving Squad for 12 years and even competed for England at the 1990 Commonwealth Games. Statham has also studied Wing Chun kung fu, karate, and kickboxing and is known for doing his own stunts in films.

Statham stars in The Transporter and Crank series, as well as The Mechanic.

Burt Reynolds: Football

Known for: Smokey and the Bandit, Deliverance, Boogie Nights, The Longest Yard

Reynolds attended Florida State University on a football scholarship. The actor had dreams of playing professionally but an injury during his sophomore year put those plans to an end.

Fortunately his acting career took off appearing in many television series and feature films including Smokey and the Bandit, Deliverance, Boogie Nights, and The Longest Yard.

Carl Weathers: Football

Known for: Rocky, Predator, Happy Gilmore

Weathers played football as a linebacker in college and later played professionally for the Oakland Raiders and the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League.

After retiring from football in 1974 he pursued his true passion and has since appeared in several films including Rocky, Predator, and Happy Gilmore.

Chuck Norris: Martial Arts

Known for: Walker, Texas Ranger, The Way of the Dragon

Action star, Chuck Norris is equally celebrated for his martial arts career as he is his acting career. He made history in 1990 when he became the first Westerner in the history of Tae Kwon Do to earn an 8th degree black belt and in 1999 he was inducted into the Martial Arts History Museum’s Hall of Fame.

Norris has appeared in many TV series and movies including Walker, Texas Ranger, The Delta Force, and The Way of the Dragon.

Kurt Russell: Baseball

In the 1970s Kurt Russell signed with minor league baseball team the El Paso Sun Kings and was even scouted by major league teams such as the Cardinals and the Angels.

After sustaining an injury to his rotator cuff, Russell retired from baseball and turned back to his first love-acting.

Ed O'Neill: Football

Known for: Married With Children, Modern Family

Before starring in popular sitcoms such as Married With Children and Modern Family, O’Neil played football in college at Ohio University and later Youngstown State University.

He was later drafted and signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers but was cut from the team during training camp.

Lou Ferrigno: Bodybuilding

Ferrigno is best known for his role as The Hulk, however, before acting fame he had a very successful bodybuilding career. Ferrigno won two IFBB Mr. Universe titles and also an IFBB Mr.

America title. He trained alongside fellow famous bodybuilder turned actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Terry Crews: Football

Terry Crews began his professional football career in 1991 with the Los Angeles Rams and played for multiple teams in the NFL through 1996.

Since retiring from football, Crews has found major success in acting and is known for his comedic skills in such films as White Chicks, Friday After Next, The Longest Yard, and many more.

Steven Seagal: Martial Arts

Steven Seagal is yet another martial artist who was able to find success by combining his martial art skills with the big screen.

Seagal holds a 7th degree black belt in Aikido and was a martial arts instructor in Japan before making his acting debut in the 1980s.

Forest Whitaker: Football

Known for: Good Morning Vietnam

Whitaker attended California State Polytechnic University on a football scholarship, but after a back injury, he was forced to give up his sports dreams changing his degree to drama. It’s safe to say the degree change worked out well for this Oscar winner in the end.

Some of his most notable films include The Butler, The Last King of Scotland, and Good Morning Vietnam.

Howie Long: Football

Known for: Firestorm, Broken Arrow

Long made a name for himself professionally playing for the Oakland Raiders and has a Super Bowl ring to prove it. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

After retiring from the NFL in 1993, he pursued acting and has appeared in several action films including Firestorm and Broken Arrow.

Jackie Chan: Martial Arts

Known for: his own cartoon, Rush Hour, Karate Kid

Jackie Chan excels in not only acting but in martial arts and acrobats. He earned a black belt in Hapkido and is also professionally trained in karate, judo, taekwondo and more.

He is known for doing the majority of his own stunts in his films. Aside from having his own cartoon, check him out in the Rush Hour series and Karate Kid reboot.

Jason Lee: Skateboarding

Known for: My Name Is Earl

Before shooting to fame in the TV show My Name is Earl, Lee made a name for himself as a professional skateboarder in the 80s and 90s. In the early 1990’s, Lee decided to give acting a try.

He was quickly discovered by Kevin Smith who gave him the lead role in the 1995 comedy, Mallrats.

Jeane-Claude Van Damme: Kickboxing

Known for: Lionheart, Expendables, Universal Soldier

Nicknamed “The Muscles from Brussels” Van Damme has made a lucrative career out of his action films. He is as famous for his kickboxing as he is his movies.

He holds a 2nd degree black belt in Shotokan and during his kickboxing career he earned a record 18 knockouts with only one loss.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Basketball

Known for: Game of Death, Airplane!

Abdul-Jabbar is an NBA All Star who played center for the Milwaukee Bucks and later the Los Angeles Lakers. He was a record six-time NBA Most Valuable Player.

He made his film debut in 1972 in Game of Death and has since starred in other films such as Airplane! and Fletch.

LeBron James: Basketball

James is currently one of the most formidable players in the NBA as power forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers and has two NBA championships under his belt.

Off the court, however, James has begun expanding his resume, recently starring in his first film, Trainwreck, alongside comedic heavyweights Amy Schumer and Bill Hader.

Mark Harmon: Football

Harmon was a big deal on the college football scene when he was the starting quarterback for the UCLA Bruins in 1972 and 1973. Harmon was inducted into the Pierce College Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010.

Harmon is well known for a handful of TV series including NCIS, Chicago Hope, and St. Elsewhere.

Michael Jordan: Basketball

No one will argue with you that Michael Jordan is one of the greatest basketball players the NBA has ever seen, however, his starring role in the 90s hit film Space Jam has earned him a place in cinematic history as well. Space Jam 2 is slated for a 2017 release.

It’d be awesome to see MJ step into the limelight again.

Ronda Rousey: Judo

Ronda Rousey is a currently a big name in the UFC. She is the former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion and she was the first U.S.

woman to earn an Olympic medal in judo. In the past few years, Rousey has been dipping her toes into the world of acting with roles in The Expendables 3, Furious 7, and more.

Shaquile O'Neal: Basketball

Legendary retired NBA star Shaq has 4 NBA championships under his belt, is a 3 time NBA Finals MVP, was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1993, and much more. He played center for several formidable teams including the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat.

In the midst of all of this, the athlete somehow found the time to star in several films and television shows including Kazaam, Grown Ups 2, and Blue Chips.

"Broadway" Joe Namath: Football

Joe Namath, nicknamed “Broadway Joe” by the New York press while playing for the Jets, was an NFL quarterback who threw a record 4,007 yards in his third season playing professionally. Namath also acted in several movies, including C.C.

and Company, and he starred in the 1978 television series, The Waverly Wonders. He also had numerous guest-star appearances on many television shows including The Love Boat, Here’s Lucy, The Flip Wilson Show, Married… with Children, The Brady Bunch, The Dean Martin Show, The A-Team, The Simpsons, ALF, The John Larroquette Show, and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

Ed Marinaro: Football

Marinaro played NCAA football at Cornell University where he set over 16 college football records. Being the first running back in history to run for 4,000 career rusing yards, Marinaro was runner-up to Pat Sullivan for the Heisman Trophy in 1971.

After leaving football, Marinaro became a cast member on a handful of television shows includeing Laverne & Shirley, Sisters, and Hill Street Blues. He also starred as the head football coach in Spike TV’s 3 season comedy, Blue Mountain State (2010).

Chuck Connors: Baseball and Basketball

Kevin Joseph “Chuck” Connors is one of only 12 athletes in the history of American professional sports to have played both Major League Baseball and in the National Basketball Association. After his athletic career, Connors enjoyed a 40 year film and television career being best known for his five-year role as Lucas McCain in the ABC television series, The Rifleman.

Connors can also be seen films such as South Sea Women, Trouble Along the Way, and Old Yeller.

Jim Brown: Football

Brown is best known for his record-setting nine-year career as a fullback for the Cleveland Browns of the NFL from 1957 to 1965. In 2002, Brown was named the “greatest professional football player ever” by Sporting News.

In 1964, Brown began his acting career playing a Bufallo Soldier in a western film called Rio Conchos. He went on to star and guest-star in many movies and tv shows including The Dirty Dozen, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, The Running Man, Sucker Free City, and Mars Attacks!

Merlin Olsen: Football

A former NFL player, Olsen is best known for being part of the Los Angeles Ram’s “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line. Being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982, Olsen made the Pro Bowl a record 14 times.

After football, Olsen enjoyed considerable success on the big screen and television with acting roles in Something Big, Father Murphy, Highway to Heaven, and Aaron’s Way.

Alex Karras: Football

Nicknamed “The Mad Duck”, Karras Alexander George “Alex” Karras played NFL for the Detroit Lions from 1958-1962 and 1964-1970. Before his NFL career took off, Karras had a brief stint as a professional wrestler.

As an actor, “The Mad Duck” is best known for his role as Mongo in the 1974 comedy, Blazing Saddles, and for starring in the ABC television sitcom, Webster, alongside his wife Susan Clark.

Ray Allen: Basketball

Walter Ray Allen, Jr. is an American professional basketball player who has played for the Milwaukee Bucks, Seattle SuperSonics, Boston Celtics, and Miami Heat of the NBA.

He also won a gold medal in 2000 as a member of the United States men’s basketball team. Allen has also acted in two films: He Got Game and Harvard Man.

O.J. Simpson: Football

Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson, nicknamed “the Juice” is a retired NFL player, actor, and convicted felon. Simpson played as running back for 11 seasons, with the Buffalo Bills from 1969 to 1977 and with the San Francisco 49ers from 1978 to 1979.

Even before his retirement from the NFL, Simpson began acting in both tv shows and movies where he’s best known for his roles in The Naked Gun series, Roots, and the Towering Inferno. Simpson is currently serving a 33 year prison sentence after being found guilty for numerous felonies in 2007 including armed robbery and kidnapping.

Johnny Weissmuller: Swimming

Weissmuller was an American competition swimmer who holds one of the best competitive swimming records of the 20th century. Being one of the fastest swimmers in the 1920’s, Weissmuller won five Olympic gold medals for swimming and one bronze medal for water polo.

After retiring from swimming, Weissmuller became the sixth actor to portray Edgar Ric Burrough’s Tarzan – a role he played in twelve motion pictures becoming far and away the most recognizable actor playing the character. His distinctive Tarzan yell is still often used in films today.

Bruce Jenner: Runner

This former U.S. track and field Olympian is now a reality TV star.

However, he has also had a few more on-screen roels that do don't always consider. Jenner played Officer Steve McLeigh in the TV series 'ChiPs' and also had guest appearances on 'The Love Boat' and 'Murder, She Wrote.'

Esther Williams: Swimming

She's known much more widely for her acting career, but Williams was also a world-class swimmer before she hit the silver screen.