From the sports scene to the screen: Athletes who scored in show business when their playing days were over
Their ranks include a Gold-Medal swimmer, a two-pro-sports guy and a notorious Heisman Trophy winner
Last week, we at BettorsInsider.com tried to lessen the sting of the shutting down of the NBA season due to coronavirus by offering a look at six motion pictures about basketball. One flick mentioned was a 1979 disaster called The Fish That Saved Pittsburg, about a struggling basketball team that turns to astrology to reverse its fortunes.
Among the lead actors was none other than Julius Erving, who played the team’s difficult and self-centered star. It was from this turn that the world learned that as an actor, Dr. J was a fabulous b-ball player.
That got us thinking about those athletes who were gifted enough to have played sports at the highest levels and then, when their playing days concluded, went on to achieve success as actors.
There are a number, and their body of work, while hardly legendary, is certainly impressive. Below is a look at some of those individuals:
One of the first athletic superstar to become a Hollywood fixture was this Austria-Hungary -born American swimmer. Between the 1924 Olympic Games in Amsterdam and the 1928 Paris Olympics, Weissmuller won five solo gold medals as well as a bronze with the USA’s water polo squad.
His movie-star looks and swimmer’s physique made him a natural for the movies, and in 1932, he made his first of 12 appearances as Tarzan the Ape Man, the jungle “swinger” with the famous yodel-like vocal trademark. While there were five celluloid Tarzans before Weissmuller and more after him, film experts and critics to this day consider his portrayal of the fictional Edgar Rice Burroughs character the gold-standard.
The man born Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors in Brooklyn in 1921 already claimed his slice of immortality when, in 1949, as a Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman, he became one of just 13 people to ever play in two major sports leagues (he was a Boston Celtic in 1947 and ’48 and the Chicago Cubs’ first baseman in 1951). But it was in 1958 when Connors became a household name as the star of a top-rated Western series called The Rifleman.
In an era when television was awash in sheriffs-versus-bank-robbers and cavalry-versus-Native-Americans “oaters,” The Rifleman stood out due to the program’s basic premise. Connors played Lucas McCain, a rancher and single dad of a young son (Johnny Crawford) whose prowess with a rifle helped him and his boy survive a seemingly endless parade of bad actors. Although there was plenty of violence, The Rifleman was, at its essence, a family drama based on the relationship between father and son.
The Rifleman ran for five seasons (during a time when a “season” consisted of as many as 39 weekly episodes a year). When its run concluded, Connors began a decades-long career as a character actor and worked alongside such 20th century Hollywood legends as Lucille Ball, Doris Day and Edward G. Robinson.
The greatest running back of his era (and, arguably, the greatest ever) first came to national prominence as an All-American at Syracuse University before beginning an astonishing nine-season career with the original Cleveland Browns (now Baltimore Ravens) that saw him make the Pro Bowl every year while leading the NFL in rushing yards in all but one of those seasons and winning three MVP Awards. Thus, it was hard to argue when, in 2002, The Sporting News proclaimed Brown the greatest player in professional football history.
In 1964, he made his film debut in a supporting role in a long-forgotten Western called Rio Conchos. But his next cinematic effort established him as a legitimate film actor: The movie was The Dirty Dozen, universally regarded as one of the best World War II films. In it, an Army major played by Lee Marvin is ordered to assemble a commando squad from soldiers being held in a military prison in England for various serious, and even capital, crimes. The 12 convicts are molded by Marvin into a crack force that pulls off a daring raid that disrupts the Nazis’ chain of command.
His Dirty Dozen turn led first to his appearing as a leading man in a series of late-1960s movies including 100 Rifles, in which he was billed above Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch, and in which he and Welch had a love scene—at a time when racially mixed relationships were just beginning to be addressed by Hollywood.
With the dawn of the ‘70s came the rise of so-called “blaxploitation” films epitomized by Shaft. Brown headlined several of these genre flicks, including Slaughter (and its sequel, Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off) and Black Gunn.
During his days at USC, Simpson, who won the 1968 Heisman Trophy, was hailed as the successor to Jim Brown, and, in 1969, he was the overall first pick in the NFL draft, being claimed by the Buffalo Bills, whose level of play in the ’68 season was awful enough to beat the Eagles out of the chance to draft Simpson.
Between his illustrious NFL career and the indelible June, 1994 police chase that led to his arrest and subsequent acquittal on charges he murdered his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, restaurant employee Ron Goldman, Simpson forged a legitimate, if not significant, career as an actor.
He made a number of TV guest appearances, and his film resume includes such major motion pictures as 1974’s The Towering Inferno, a star-studded disaster flick about a fire in a skyscraper, and the 1976 thriller, The Cassandra Crossing, about a European train whose passengers include a terrorist infected with plague-like disease.
However, Simpson may be best remembered as an actor for his portrayal of the injury-prone Officer Norberg in the three Naked Gun cop-movie parodies of the 1980s.
The journeyman catcher (he played for four NL teams in six seasons) has long proudly claimed the mantle of mediocrity as a ballplayer, but his post-baseball life made him a household name.
The Milwaukee native is a local icon there, having served as the Brewers’ radio play-by-play announcer since 1971. He came to national prominence in the 1980s via a series of humorous, self-deprecating TV spots for Miller Lite beer, and also as the co-star of the ABC-TV sitcom, Mr. Belvedere. He played the head of the family that employed the titular character (played by Christopher Hewitt). The series ran for five seasons.
One of the most fearsome—and feared—defensive lineman in NFL history, the Michigan State alum was the first overall pick in the 1966 draft and spent his entire nine-season career with the Baltimore Colts (now Indianapolis Colts). Smith, who died in 2011 from an overdose of a weight-loss drug, got his first acting role in 1977, but is best remembered for playing policeman Moses Hightower in six installments of the Police Academy film series.
As a Cornell University running back, Marinaro was the runner-up in the 1971 Heisman balloting (he won the Ambler, Pa.-based Maxwell Award that year). He was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, with whom he spent four seasons before playing one year each for the New York Jets and Seattle Seahawks.
Marinaro began his acting career in 1978, but found his greatest success beginning in 1981, spending five seasons as Officer Joe Coffey on the acclaimed NBC-TV cop drama, Hill Street Blues. He also appeared as convicted pedophile (and boyfriend of “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher) Joey Buttafuoco in the 1992 made-for-TV movie, Amy Fisher: My Story.
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