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Many athletes have attempted an acting career, some have succeeded, some have failed and some failed miserably. Steven Soderbergh’s action thriller Haywire is about to be released in theaters and one of its main marketing points is it stars mixed martial artist Gina Carano as a betrayed gun for hire. Considering the cast around her, she has quite the opportunity to join the following list of some of the best to ever make the transition.
10. Chuck Connors
As a sportsman, Chuck Connors was a remarkable man, playing both professional basketball for the Boston Celtics and Major League Baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs. He was even drafted by the Chicago Bears but never made the cut to play football. He was also a decent supporting actor, having a long career with roles in projects that include Old Yeller, Flipper, Soylent Green and Roots. He was best known for playing Lucas McCain in the Western TV series The Rifleman from 1958 to 1963. He is certainly a man of many talents.
9. Jean Claude Van Damme
The Muscles from Brussels has his action fans, but his credentials came from a career as a kick boxer. As a professional he won 18 of his 19 bouts and he is a black belt in Shotokan karate. In the late ’80s/early ’90s he became an action star through films such as Universal Soldier (Roland Emmerich’s first Hollywood movie), Hard Target (John Woo’s first Hollywood movie), Time Cop, Street Fighter: The Movie (which I enjoy as a guilty pleasure) and Sudden Death. His career did suffer in direct-to-DVD hell for a bit, but he has had a comeback of sorts starring in the post-modern Belgian thriller JVCD, where he plays a fictionalized version of himself, and offering his voice in Kung Fu Panda 2. He will also play the villain in The Expendables 2.
8. Eric Cantona
To Manchester United fans, Eric Cantona is a legend, a fans favorite, even after his notorious karate kick. He shockingly retired as a soccer player at the age of 32 and has been a part-time actor ever since. One of his first roles was a supporting part in the 1998 historical drama Elizabeth, which was nominated for seven Oscars. Although his role was small, he earned a lot of respect. Cantona also co-starred in Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric. Strangely like Van Damme above, he played a fictionalized version of himself as the hallucination of a Man Utd fan. Looking for Eric was a hit in the UK.
7. Vinnie Jones
Known as a Hard-man in the English Premiership, Vinnie Jones set to turn that imagine into a movie career. Jones was famous for being a midfielder and captain of Wimbledon F.C., a.k.a the Crazy Gang, and was known for his physical style of play. Back in 1998 when Jones was cast in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels it was seen as publicity stunt, but it turned out to be a revelation. He played a gang enforcer, particularly that scene when Diamond Dog (Frank Harper) threatens his son. Jones carried on with Guy Ritchie in Snatch as a hitman with metal teeth before making it to Hollywood in Gone in 60 Seconds, Swordfish and X-Men: The Last Stand, which included his awful line, “I‘m the Juggernaut, bitch.“ But recently his career has been languishing in direct-to-DVD hell.
6. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Many wrestlers from the WWE have tried to make it as actors: Hulk Hogan and John Cena are major examples. But only Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been able to stay the course. Johnson started as a CGI version of himself as a monster in The Mummy Returns, which earned him the spin-off prequel The Scorpion King. His action credentials were enhanced by starring in The Rundown, a movie with a cult following, and it was predicted by Johnson would become the next Schwarzenegger. Sadly, he took that a bit literally and dove into family films including Tooth Fairy. His career is back on track thanks to a fun cameo role in The Other Guys (he deserves a spin-off with Samuel L. Jackson), the starring role in the revenge thriller Faster and a big part chasing Vin Diesel in Fast Five. This year he’ll star in family adventure film Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which comes out this summer.
5. Jim Brown
Jim Brown had a great career as a football player, winning eight NFL rushing titles and three MVPs in addition to being voted the second best player of all time by NFL.com in 2009. He has also had a decent career as an actor with roles in The Dirty Dozen and The Running Man, two movies that are looked upon fondly. He has also won roles in movies helmed by A-list directors such as Oliver Stone (Any Given Sunday), Spike Lee (Sucker Free City) and Tim Burton (Mars Attacks!).
4. Carl Weathers
Despite starting his career as a linebacker, Carl Weathers’ best-known role was as a boxer. Although Weathers’ career in professional sport was unremarkable, he won fans as Apollo Creed in the Rocky series, playing both Rocky Balboa’s rival then friend. There is nothing like having an entertaining series like Rocky under your belt. Weathers also had major role in the action-horror classic Predator, a movie that supplies two entrance on this list. You might also remember him as the acting coach of one Tobias Funkë in TV’s Arrested Development.
3. Jet Li
From a young age, Jet Li was destined for greatness. As a boy in his native China, Li was member of the Beijing Wushu Team and won 15 gold medals and one silver medal in the Chinese Wushu Championships, even competing against adults when he was young. Like other martial artists, Li moved into a film career, becoming a star in China before being a International Superstar. For fans of martial arts movies, Fist of Legend and Fearless are highly recommended. His global action star status was affirmed with his role in The Expendables.
2. Jason Statham
Jason “The Stath” Statham did a lot before he became an actor, from male modelling to martial arts. But before all that Statham was a member of the British National Diving Squad and was ranked 12th in 1992 World Championships. His former employers French Connection recommended Statham to Guy Ritchie for Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and he has finally found his calling. Statham is one of the few genuine action stars left, with The Transporter, The Expendables and Crank franchises being his biggest roles. He has fans the world over, including my brother. He’ll next appear in Safe, out this April, as well as The Expendables 2.
Dishonorable Mention: Shaquille O’Neal
Before we go on to the top of this list we need to acknowledge that many athletes fail to make it as actors and none have embarrassed themselves more then Shaquille O’Neal. O’Neal has starred in two notoriously awful movies: Kazaam and Steel. The kids movie Kazaam stars O’Neal as a genie who has a seemingly dodgy relationship with a small boy as he showcases his rapping “talents.” The superhero failure Steel tested O’Neal’s credentials as an action hero, but he was outdone by a woman in a rocket launching wheelchair. O’Neal reportedly wanted a role in X2: X-Men United, but fortunately the filmmakers ignored him. In his defense, being 7 ft. 1 in. means he will never be able to play a relatable everyman.
1. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the biggest stars in the world, starring in action classics including Conan the Barbarian, The “Terminator” series, Predator, The Running Man and True Lies to name a few. He knows how to use weapons and deliver a one liner better than anyone. Before he became an actor he was most famous as a bodybuilder, winning Mr. Universe four times (once as an amateur, three times as a pro) and won Mr. Olympia seven times. And if you think I am cheating, The Govenator was also a champion Weightlifter and Powerlifter in his native Austria, even being the International Powerlifting Champion in 1966. Most of Schwarzenegger’s films are very entertaining, whether good or bad.