The world of sports and entertainment was saddened by today’s passing of former NFL player-turned-actor Alex Karras. Karras was a tough-as-nails defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions for 12 seasons before making the leap to Hollywood back in the 1970s. He was best known for playing George Papadapolis on the television series Webster, but comedy fans will also remember his turns as the hilarious Mongo in Blazing Saddles or as the sheriff in Porkys.
Karras was just one in a long line of former gridiron greats (and not so greats...) to make a career for himself in Hollywood. His passing at age 77 after a fight with kidney disease, heart disease, stomach cancer and dementia gave us a moment to reflect on some of the others that made the leap from field to screen. Here are a few of our favorites.
Fred “The Hammer” Williamson
Fred Williamson played for the Pittsburgh Steelers (here we go Steelers!) and the Oakland Raiders during his seven-year NFL career, but he found even more success on the silver screen. While younger film fans only remember the Hammer for his work in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (he’s the badass bar patron Frost), Williamson actually had a huge career during the blaxploitation era. Aside from working alongside fellow football player-turned-actor Jim Brown (in films like Three the Hard Way), the Hammer found time to write and star in the 1975 blaxploitation classic Boss Nigger. Williamson is still acting today – mostly in low-budget, direct-to-video B movies.
Speaking of Jim Brown, no list of footballers turned actors would be complete without mentioning the Cleveland Browns great. Brown was the NFL’s leading rusher for many years – amassing 12,312 yards during his career. What’s even more impressive is that he did that in only nine seasons. The acting bug bit Brown during his playing days (he retired while filming The Dirty Dozen) and once he hung up his cleats, he never looked back. Like Williamson, Brown made his mark in the blaxploitation cinema movement. Biographer Mike Freeman cites him as “the first black action star” – a title he solidified through work in films like Three the Hard Way. Brown wasn’t just a blaxploitation star, though – he appeared in 100 Rifles with Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch (one of the first movies to feature an interracial love scene) and Ice Station Zebra.
“The Juice” is sure to be the most controversial name on the list, but if we set aside his legal issues and look solely at his body of work, it’s hard to argue against his inclusion here – even if we’re unlikely to ever see him act in a Hollywood film again.
Before it all went off the rails, Simpson had a promising acting career that began while he was still playing in the league. Landing parts in titles like The Towering Inferno showed he was adept at more than just juking linebackers out of their cleats. Still, Simpson is probably best known to modern audiences for his portrayal of the hapless Nordberg in the Naked Gun films.
Terry Crews spent seven mostly forgettable seasons in the NFL playing for the Rams, Chargers and Redskins. When he retired back in the mid-1990s, Crews found his true calling: acting. In the years since, he’s shined in television (Everybody Hates Chris), commercials (for Old Spice) and film. His appearances in Sylvester Stallone’s two Expendables features have cemented his reputation as a rising star in action cinema, which isn’t hard to believe given his physique. Crews is one of the most gifted football players turned actors – a performer who can shine in stunt-heavy action roles, but also blessed with great comedic sensibilities.
Most people don’t realize it, but Carl Weathers spent one season with the Oakland Raiders and one season in the Canadian Football League before leaving the gridiron for the greener pastures of Hollywood. We think he made the right choice.
Weathers has had a rich and storied Hollywood career – including playing Apollo Creed in the first four Rocky films – to headlining his own action film, 1988’s Action Jackson, to costarring alongside Adam Sandler in Happy Gilmore. Weathers made his mark early in action-oriented roles, but over the years has shown that he possesses some genuine acting chops. He’s not only capable of throwing punches and shooting guns – the actor has good comedy instincts and can even pull off drama when called upon.
And there you have it – five of our favorite NFL stars turned actors. We could have probably added 10 to 20 more names to this piece (it hurts leaving out guys like Brian Bosworth, John Matuszak, Lyle Alzado and Bubba Smith), but we thought we’d keep it short so you guys could chime in and reminisce over your favorite athletes and roles. Share your choices with us in the comment section.