Sweatbands For Scripts: 27+ Athletes Who Became Actors
| LAST UPDATE 10/18/2022
These talented athletes first rose to fame as basketball players, swimmers, wrestlers, and boxers. But, after a sudden change of heart, they took to the acting world instead.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnsson
According to the official WWE website, Dwayne Johnson wasn't just a beloved fighter. He was "The most charismatic superstar of all time." He joined the WWE world in 1996 under the name Rocky Maivia before becoming "The Rock."
By 2000, he became known as "The People's Champion" in the ring before 2001 brought a career path change. His first film appearance was in The Mummy Returns, which led to his roles in over 40 films since. According to Forbes, by June 2016, Johnson was named the highest-paid actor, having made about $64M in one single year.
In the WWE world, Hogan was originally known as Terry Gene Bollea before making his 1978 debut as Sterling Golden. Due to his size, charisma, and of course, his notable handlebar mustache, he quickly became known as "Hulk Hogan." His time in the ring would soon come to an end, as he debuted in the movie industry in 1982.
Hogan played Thunderlips in the film Rocky III before he made several more TV and movie appearances in titles such as Mr. Nanny, Thunder in Paradise, Texas Ranger, and Walker. In 2018, he was honored by being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Next is a gal who rose to fame about as quickly as she crossed the finish line.
Orange Is the New Black's star, known to many as Crazy Eyes, has played many roles in movies such as Candy Jar and Miss Virginia. What you might not have known about the lovely Uzo Aduba is that she was a 55, 100, and 200-meter dash sprinter, and one of Boston University's top talents on the track team!
According to BU records, she had a personal best of 7.07 seconds in the 55-meter dash, only .04 seconds shy of the school record. She not only received a track scholarship due to her talents, but she also managed to work running the Boston Marathon in 2015 into her schedule between filming in Hollywood.
The Big Lebowski actor, John Goodman, was well known for his baritone voice and dynamic facial expressions in high school when he dabbled in theater. When he wasn't at rehearsal, he was on the field playing football. Unfortunately, a bad injury during a game sat him on the bench but encouraged him to change his major to theater.
At the beginning of his acting career, Goodman worked odd jobs and did voice-over gigs for commercials. But, in 1988, he got his big break as an actor when he joined the cast of the ABC sitcom Roseanne. In a matter of years, he won a Golden Globe Award, elevating himself from former athlete to ultimate stardom.
In high school as a star quarterback, Forest Whitaker received a scholarship to play college football at California State Polytechnic University. He loved the game, but everything changed when he sustained a terrible back injury during one of his college games. This incident ended his athletic career about as fast as it began.
Forest found himself in his breakout role as a football player in the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He soon landed other roles and became widely known for his part in The Last King of Scotland, which made him an Academy Award-winning actor. Throughout the following years, he won a Golden Globe Award amongst others.
After receiving a football scholarship from Florida State University, Burt Reynolds was drafted to the NFL by the Baltimore Colts. Before he knew it, 2 knee injuries took him off the field for 2 years. After a short return, his football dreams ultimately came crashing down. But, the situation turned into a blessing in disguise.
Reynolds turned this setback into a success and soon became a familiar face to household TV throughout the late '50s- to '60s with roles on Riverboat, Gunsmoke, Hawk, and Dan August. Burt landed his breakthrough movie role as Lewis Medlock in the 1972 film, Deliverance. Since then, he's acted in nearly 80 movies and TV shows.
Ed O'Neill began as a high school athlete. After college in 1969, he tried out for the Pittsburgh Steelers but left disappointed, as he was cut during training camp. To keep himself busy, from 1972 to 1977 he auditioned for numerous theater productions, and although he rarely landed speaking parts, it didn't burst his morale.
It wasn't until 1979, 10 years after he had gotten cut from the Steelers tryouts, that O'Neill landed a lead role in his first Broadway play. He made his way to Hollywood and became widely known for his role as Jay Pritchett in the ABC hit series Modern Family and as ex-football star Al Bundy from Married...with Children.
Before Jason Statham played "tough guy" characters in primarily action-thriller movies, he was a professional diver on the British National Diving Team for 12 years. He even competed in the 1990 Commonwealth Games! After his diving days, Statham became a model for the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, Griffin, and Levi’s.
Statham landed an audition for Guy Ritchie's 1998 film, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. It apparently went well because since then, he dove into action and has become one of Hollywood's top earners. His movies have made a combined box-office total of about $1.5 billion according to Forbes.
Chuck Norris is widely known by many as a martial arts master turned actor. In his personal practice, he earned black belts in Tang Soo Do, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and Judo. Norris even founded his own school of fighting called Chun Kuk Do!
After he landed his breakout role in the 1972 Bruce Lee film, The Way of the Dragon, Chuck switched to acting. In 1993, he landed one of his most recognizable roles as the lead character in the television series Walker, Texas Ranger. This was followed by titles such as Good Guys Wear Black, Forced Vengeance, and Code of Silence.
In May 2002, Dave Bautista made his first televised debut on WWE SmackDown under the ring name Batista. Before long, he switched his name to The Animal, and as a self-described "muscle-headed goofball," became a 6-time World Heavyweight Champion before he left WWE in 2010.
Among many titles such as Wrong Side of Town, House of the Rising Sun, The Man with the Iron Fists, and Riddick, Bautista's claim to fame came in 2014. That year, he played Drax the Destroyer in the big hit, Guardians of the Galaxy. He actually got back in the ring to promote the film before he retired again.
Mike Tyson is considered by many to be one of the most frightening and intimidating boxers to ever step foot into the ring. He began his professional boxing career in 1985 at the young age of 19, and by 20, he became the youngest boxer to win the heavyweight title. He soon earned the nicknames Iron and Kid Dynamite.
Known at the time as "The baddest man on the planet" and world heavyweight champion, Tyson retired from WWE in 2005. He shifted gears and made cameo appearances in Rocky Baloba and The Hangover, followed by many films and TV shows where he primarily acts as fictional versions of himself.
The talented Mahershala Ali played division 1 basketball at St. Mary's College. According to school records, between 1992-1996, he played 97 games with the Gaels and scored a total of 348 points. He left the game when he graduated, but, Ali soon found a new passion that evolved into something even bigger.
Mahershala began his acting career on the 2001 TV series Crossing Jordan and Threat Matrix. A short 3 years later, he got his breakthrough role playing Richard Taylor in The 4400 series. He went on to win 2 Oscars in his career so far, 1 for 2016's Moonlight and the other for 2018's Green Book.
Tommy Lee Jones
In the infamous game known to many as Harvard's last-minute recovery against all odds, Tommy Lee Jones took the field for Harvard. He played hard against Yale before he hung up his jersey in 1969. At that time, it seemed that he felt ready for a different kind of game. After college, he moved to New York to pursue acting.
Jones began his career with a series of Broadway plays before getting married and moving to Los Angeles in 1971. It was in LA that he landed his first role in Charlie's Angels, and eventually went on to win an Oscar for his role in the 1993 movie, The Fugitive. He then took on the Men in Black series where he kicked alien butt.
The strong and talented Judo champion and UFC fighter, Ronda Rousey is known by many for helping to bring female mixed martial arts to mainstream audiences. Her first major success came in 2008 when she won a bronze medal at the Olympic games at the age of 21. Post Olympics, she fought to make the UFC more accessible.
In 2013 Rousey became the first UFC Women's Bantamweight Champion before she transitioned to film. She starred in Expendables 3 before zooming through Furious 7 in 2014. This was followed by cameos in Entourage and Total Divas. If we're learned anything about Ronda it's that she is a woman with many diverse talents.
Bruce Lee is considered by many to be one of the most influential martial artists of all time. He started as a child actor in Hong Kong before moving to the U.S. at the age of 18. There, he began teaching martial arts and starred in a whopping 5 martial arts films including 1972's Way of the Dragon and 1973's Enter the Dragon.
Lee co-starred with another arts master, Chuck Norris, and the pair gained fame quickly. According to some movie critics with knowledge of the nimble art, Lee's masculine behavior and martial arts mastery changed people's views of the power of the arts, both in martial arts and on the screen.
Degrassi's Nina Dobrev was a competitive gymnast and varsity volleyball, soccer, baseball, basketball, and flag football player in college before she hit Hollywood. When asked about it, she said, "We trained 5 days a week for 3-4 hours a day, my body just couldn't handle [the elite-level training], so I started acting."
After leaving college sports behind, Nina shifted her mindset and found other ways to stay involved while she entered the acting world. She promoted Puma's Project Pink, which supports breast cancer awareness and research. Dobrev had 20 movie appearances between 2006-2020 and appeared in 8 total years of Vampire Diaries.
16-Time world champion, John Cena, has been described by Fox Sports as "One of the most polarizing wrestlers in WWE history." He has taken down WWE figures such as Batista and The Rock, both mentioned earlier. It wasn't before long that he followed in his frienemies' footsteps and left the ring to take up acting.
In 2006, Cena landed a role in The Marine. This was followed by more success in comedy and thriller films such as Trainwreck, Blockers, and Fast and Furious 9. In 2018, Cena and The Rock even planned to star in a movie together, The Janson Directive. It's still in pre-production, but we know we'll be keeping an eye out!
Before Gaffigan took to comedy, he took over the field at Purdue University. He reportedly knew he wanted to be an actor by the age of 5, but his dad told him to find something more "financially stable" instead. But, he got the chance to pursue his passion when David Letterman asked him to perform stand up on his live show.
Letterman was so impressed by Gaffigan's skit that David asked Jim to be an actor on a sitcom that he wanted to create. Unfortunately, the sitcom never aired, but Jim went on to gain loads of fame as a stand-up comedian in later years. In fact, in 2020, he came out with his 7th comedy special via Netflix, called Quality Time.
According to an interview with NPR, Jennifer Lawrence and all of her siblings "had to be in sports" growing up. Following her parents' wishes, she played softball, basketball, field hockey and did cheerleading as well. But, per NPR, she said, "I've always had anxiety about being in a herd…I didn't like it… I hated team sports."
Lawrence soon left the sports world and as a young adult, became a star on the big screen. She is currently regarded by many as one of Hollywood's most successful actresses. In fact, according to Forbes, as of 2020 Jennifer's films have earned a worldwide box office total of almost $6 billion.
Terry Crews decided to play football at Western Michigan before becoming a skilled enough player to receive a football scholarship. In 1991, he gained the courage to try out for the NFL, and he made it! Crews was drafted to the Los Angeles Rams and played 6 games. Then, in 1993, he went on to play for the San Diego Chargers.
In 1997, Terry put down the ball and moved to Los Angeles to work as a security guard for rapper Ice Cube. Despite having no acting training or experience at all, he landed his 2002 break out role in Ice Cube's film Friday Night After. This was just the beginning for Crews, as he has made quite the impact on Hollywood since.
Featherweight MMA and Muay Thai fighter Gina Carano fought against her rival, Cris Cyborg, in 2009. The enemies' fight went down in history as the first time 2 women headlined a major MMA event and became the highest-rated ring match in Showtime history. Unfortunately, Carano lost the match, but this didn't stop her.
Gina entered the film world and landed her first cameo appearance in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 1. After being bitten by the acting bug, she had her first leading role in the 2011 spy thriller movie Haywire, followed by Deadpool. Like fellow athletes-turned-actors, she was in the Fast & Furious series, the 6th movie.
Before Kevin James took over the comedy world, he took over the mat. Actually, alongside the then-future-now-retired WWE wrestling star and Hall of Famer, Mick Foley. According to James, he said he would "Takedown Foley all the time," but, James and Foley are the only ones to know what their score truly was way back then.
When James gave up the mat and his playful rivalry with Foley, he managed to enter the Hollywood world in the CBS sitcom The King of Queens. After becoming a widely-known actor, Kevin went on to star in movies like Paul Blart Mall Cop, Grown Ups, and Hitch.
According to Tony Danza, he used boxing as a way to give himself some direction as a teenager. In 1975, tony became "tough" Tony Danza and reportedly ended all of his matches (except one) in knockouts. Danza ended his boxing career with 9 wins and 3 losses before shifting gears to showtime.
While training in a boxing gym in 1978, Tony got an offer to play Tony Banta in the TV series called Taxi, which seemed to be a chance he couldn't pass up. After playing the role, he gave up his boxing gloves and traded them for scripts. Danza went on to win an Emmy and Golden Globe Awards for his many star roles.
The multi-talented Sheryl Crow hurdled through the track in high school as an all-state track star. (Literally, hurdling). She even won a medal for 75-meter low hurdles as a young student. After hanging up her running shoes, she became a musician, singer, songwriter, and actress.
She soon became an accomplished musician, won a whopping 9 Grammy Awards, and has sold over 50 million albums worldwide. Holy smokes! Crow even had the chance to accompany Michael Jackson as a backing vocalist during his Bad tour from 1987-1989.
By age 20, the up-and-coming Austrian-born star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had already become the youngest Mr. Universe winner ever before and helped turn bodybuilding into a worldwide competitive sport. Throughout the '70s- '80s, Schwarzenegger was already well known for his Hercules, Conan the Barbarian, and Terminator roles.
Many quotable moments have come from Arnold's movies. Aside from those listed earlier, he has starred in titles like Killing Gunther and Aftermath. Possibly shocking to you (or maybe not so much with all of his success) the former Mr. Universe's current net worth is estimated at around $400M.
Emma Watson is more than just a skilled quidditch player. She wasn't just a smarty pants on the screen either! As a young child, Emma hit the big screen as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series. After this fame and success as a teen, she wished for the "normal" life of schooling. This led her to embark on a different route.
After high school, she focused on acting and education. She enrolled in college at Brown University, and between her studies, she reverted back to her childhood activities in the sports world, and joined the collegiate field hockey team at Brown! She graduated with a Bachelor's degree that she eared between rehearsals and filming.
6'4" Jason Segel played basketball for his high school, Harvard Westlake in Los Angeles before becoming a star on the screen. On the court, he served as the backup center, with his springs earning him the title "Dr. Dunk" after he won a dunk contest. Segel's team won back-to-back state championships in his time there.
The man you see under the arrow on the right in this photo is his fellow Harvard-Westlake Wolverines teammate and future NBA player, Jason Collins! Segel soon traded in dribbling and shooting for the chance to make it in entertainment. He starred in How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Knocked Up, and more.
Here's something we bet you didn't know before! When Caitlyn Jenner started out as a high school football player, she probably didn't know that she would later become one of America's most successful decathlon athletes ever. The world-renowned Olympic athlete's most defining moment was at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games.
There, she won the Olympic gold medal in the decathlon with a world-record score of 8,616 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. She later entered the Hollywood scene through guest appearing on shows like Murder She Wrote and The Fall Guy before becoming a main focal point of Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
In high school, the Magic Mike star, Channing Tatum played football. After being voted the most athletic in his class, he went on to play college football at Glenville State College in West Virginia. He found interest in martial arts as well and even earned belts in Kung Fu and Gor-Chor Kung Fu.
The scholarship athlete soon dropped out to return home where he took on odd jobs including dancing and modeling. His modeling gigs snowballed into small acting roles, and soon enough Tatum was starring in Hollywood blockbusters such as Step Up, 21 Jump Street, and White House Down.
Skateboarding star Jason Lee was born in Huntington Beach, Southern California, the unofficial home of skateboarding heaven. For him, skateboarding wasn't just a passion. Lee was a legit pro-skater through the '80s and early '90s and picked up on some serious tricks throughout the years.
Lee is known by many as the star of the hit television series My Name is Earl, but now we know that he was skating it up before it all. We hope this list of athletes-turned-actors gives you the confidence boost you may have needed for the career shift you've been dreaming of. If they can do it, so can you!