Famous Actors Who Also Starred as Athletes
There are plenty of actors and actresses with athletic abilities and chiseled bodies that look like they should really be out on the field or court rather than simply acting.
It doesn’t exactly take the most active of imaginations to guess that the likes of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Terry Crews and Carl Weathers (to name a few) actually spent some time in the trenches of the sports world.
Let’s dive in to see what other Hollywood hot shots stood in the sports spotlight.
1. Denzel Washington
Spike Lee’s 1998 film, He Got Game, starred NBA star and future first-ballot Hall of Famer Ray Allen. While Denzel Washington played the supporting role of Jesus Shuttlesworth’s (Allen) father, who tries to convince his son to attend a particular college, many may not be aware that this was not Washington’s first experience hooping.
Washington had some legit skills on the basketball court himself. In fact, when the New York native was attending Fordham University, he played for the Rams’ junior varsity basketball team under future Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo. Washington played two seasons (1972-74), boasting an 18-1 record in his sophomore season.
2. Emma Watson
Emma Watson stole all of our hearts as Hermione Granger in the big screen adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter literary series. Of course, Watson wasn’t just acting like a smarty pants on the screen. She demonstrated her brainiac abilities by earning her bachelor’s degree at the prestigious Ivy-League school, Brown University.
Not only did Watson pull off the impressive feat of earning a college degree between her various acting roles, she played collegiate field hockey! The thought of an international star like Watson even having time to attend a game as a fan seems improbable let alone competing with a one-sided hockey stick.
3. Jon Stewart
We can all agree that comic actor Jon Stewart is a good-looking dude who seemed to – aside from his eventually graying hair – defy the aging process.
Still, it’s hard to imagine the longtime host of The Daily Show being active, as he spent over a decade sitting behind a desk.
Daly’s fantastic flow was likely right at home in his younger years, as the Comedy Central icon spent his undergraduate years on the pitch College of William & Mary’s soccer team. In fact, Stewart even scored a game-winning goal against the NCAA powerhouse Connecticut Huskies to win the ECAC Championship.
4. Matthew Perry
Matthew Perry, one of the stars of the iconic sitcom, Friends, was often in the headlines during the show’s heyday due to prescription addictions that led to repeated fluctuations in his weight. These dramatic changes in appearance likely paint a picture of a far more sedentary life than Perry has far different than the man Perry is.
A younger Perry not only played tennis competitively, he was nationally ranked! Perry was ranked as high as No. 17 in junior singles and No. 3 in junior doubles. The Ottawa native would reportedly put in up to 10 hours of practice a day! But as a tennis pro, Perry never went the Whole Nine Yards.
5. Jason Lee
Jason Lee is known to many as the mustachioed star of the hit television series My Name is Earl, while others know him from roles in ‘90s and ‘00s cult classic films like Mallrats. And speaking of Mallrats, how about the classic Hartford Whalers reference?
Before any of that, Lee first made a name for himself shredding.
Lee’s passion for skateboarding is understandable, considering his Southern California roots. Skateboarding wasn’t just a passion, he was a legit pro skater through the ‘80s and early ‘90s with some serious moves.
His recurring roles in Kevin Smith’s “View Askewniverse” somehow makes much more sense knowing about his skater roots.
6. Jason Statham
What’s an action movie without our favorite Englishman anti-hero, Jason Statham?
Before Statham came to be known to adrenaline film junkies as the age-defying, shredded, best and baddest dude ever to appear on the silver screen, he was absolutely crushing it as an athlete … and as a model, shocker.
While it’s reasonable to assume that Statham competed in a martial art, Statham was discovered thanks to his time as a competitive diver.
Video of Statham competing as a diver (1 m, 3 m, 10 m) in the 1990 Commonwealth gave a telling glimpse into the acrobatics he’d come to flaunt in countless fight scenes. Most eye-opening of all is the impressive mop Statham sported.
7. Dolph Lundgren
Okay, so by no means should it come as any sort of surprise that Dolph Lundgren also has a history as an athlete. His iconic character as the larger-than-life Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky IV presents all the evidence we need. He must break you, because, let’s face it, he can.
Lundgren, who is also famously known to have master’s in chemical engineering — more brains and brawn than we can handle — is a third dan (sandan) black belt in Kyokushin karate. That’s not all. Lundgren set the bar in Kyokushin during his peak as a 2-time European champion (1980-81) and Australian champion (1982).
8. Ed O’Neill
Eat your heart out Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin, Ed O’Neill is the ultimate king of the couch TV dad. Before O’Neill’s fatherly role in Modern Family, he was the lovable loser living in his high school football glory days as Al Bundy on Married… with Children.
What makes O’Neill’s role as a bitter shoe salesman, nostalgic of his “peak” years as an All-State quarterback for Polk High even better is that he was a legitimate stud on the gridiron!
O’Neill was talented enough at football in high school to earn a football scholarship to Ohio University.
After transferring to Youngstown State and finishing out his collegiate career as a defensive lineman, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed O’Neill as an undrafted free agent in 1969, though he was cut during training camp.
9. Gina Carano
Enjoying crazy fight scenes in action movies and actually participating in real life hand-to-hand combat are two very different things. For that reason, those less familiar with the whole “fighting for realsies” MMA thing may not know that Haywire and Deadpool star Gina Carano also professionally competed in combat sports.
Carano’s incredible 12-1-1 kickboxing record and 7-1 MMA record made her more than qualified to compete as the gladiator “Crush” on the TV series, American Gladiators. Whether it be in the octagon or on the big screen with Ryan Reynolds, Carano is a certified star wherever she takes her talents.
10. Joel McHale
Joel McHale developed into a big-time celebrity as the host of the wildly popular pop culture review show, The Soup, following in the footsteps of such stars as Greg Kinnear. As for his acting chops, adoring fans most notably know him for his star role as Jeff Winger in the NBC comedy Community.
McHale has shed his shirt in various scenes, showing that he’s not only tall, but pretty fit too. Well, it turns out he’s more than just “pretty fit,” as McHale was a talented enough rower to be recruited out of high school.
Instead, McHale chose to join his friends at the University of Washington and put his 6’4” frame to use as a walk-on tight end with the Huskies.
11. Tommy Lee Jones
Tommy Lee Jones has been in enough action and western movies for 10-15 lifetimes, but long before he was kicking alien butt Men in Black style with Will Smith, or tracking down the Fugitive, he was putting whooping human butt on the gridiron as a member of the Harvard Crimson football team.
Jones played offensive guard from 1966-69 and earned first team All-Ivy League for an outstanding 1968 season. 1968 was really something special – after winning the Ivy League championship two years prior, Jones and the Crimson earned an undefeated to claim another conference championship. Jones also played in the famous Harvard comeback “victory” vs. Yale in 1968 that ended in a 28-28 tie.
12. Joe Rogan
Joe Rogan is a stand-up comedian also known for his tenure as the UFC’s animated commentator. Others simply know Rogan as “the Fear Factor guy” or as Joe Garelli from the hit ‘90s sitcom, NewsRadio.
For those who only know Rogan’s body of work outside the UFC, there’s good reason that this comic commentates fights.
Before earning black belts in no-gi and gi jiu-jitsu as an adult, Rogan grew up training and competing in taekwondo competitions. He was a four-time Massachusetts state champion and winner of the 1987 taekwondo U.S. Open Championships at age 19!
After a brief run at amateur kickboxing, Rogan turned to metaphorically killing on stage rather than literally dropping bodies on floors.
13. David Duchovny
David Duchovny has starred in a plethora of great films and television shows, though he is most widely known for his Golden Globe performances as Fox Mulder on the out-of-this-world smash hit The X-Files and Californication’s Hank Moody. Duchovny was also in both the original Twin Peaks in 1990 and the remake of the cult classic in 2017.
Before Duchovny established himself as an acting phenom, he was flaunting his talents on the hardwood. Duchovny was the captain of his high school basketball team before playing for the JV team at Princeton.
Fun fact: Duchovny desperately wanted to play Woody Harrison’s character, Billy Hoyle, in White Men Can’t Jump and even auditioned for the part.
14. Uzo Aduba
Uzo Aduba may play her part as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on Orange is the New Black almost a little too well, because it’s just plain hard to picture her being, well, anything but crazy.
Before Aduba embarked on her career in theatre and film, however, her focus was on sports.
Aduba was an incredible sprinter and one of Boston University’s top talents, running the 55, 100 and 200-meter dash. For a little perspective on just how fantastic her time at BU was, she had a personal best of 7.07 seconds in the 55-meter dash– that’s only .04 seconds shy of the school record.
15. Tony Danza
Don’t let the unassuming stature and quiet demeanor of Brooklyn’s Tony Danza fool you. America’s beloved star of Taxi and Who’s the Boss? only broke out onto the acting scene after he was discovered …. fighting at a boxing gym.
Boxing wasn’t just Danza’s favorite hobby, it was his profession.
Hollywood’s 5’9” Italian Stallion was the real deal in the ring. Before turning to acting, Danza sported a 9-3 record as a pro with all but two of his wins coming in the first round!
The only tough part about playing a taxi driver and boxer in Taxi was that his character wasn’t very good.
16. Kurt Russell
Like many of us did growing up, Kurt Russell took after his father, Bing, in creating a similar career path. Except Russell followed his pops down two particularly unique professions that we could only dream.
Russell’s acting career has blossomed from a heartthrob hero to a transcendent action star. He also played professional baseball just like pops.
Russell already had plenty of acting roles under his belt by the time he decided to give professional baseball a try. His Minor League run, which began in 1971, was no gimmick, however, as he lasted a few years playing at the Class A and Double-A level as a switch hitter.
17. Chuck Norris
The quickest way to a man’s heart is with Chuck Norris’s first.
Watching anything involving the high-kicking martial artist – the star of the Walker, Texas Ranger series amongst a list of action movies – without dropping a Chuck Norris “facts” is borderline unacceptable.
These jokes aren’t simply rooted in his various acting roles, however.
Norris isn’t just some martial arts practitioner, he is a full-on guru. Earning a black belt in any discipline is a remarkable accomplishment. Norris has a collection: 9th degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, 8th degree black belt in taekwondo, 5th degree black belt in karate, 3rd degree black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and black belt in judo.
Oh yeah, he also invented the martial art Chun Kuk Do.
18. Burt Reynolds
Smokey and the Bandit, Deliverance, The Longest Yard, Boogie Nights …. yeah, Burt Reynolds is a legend.
The craziest part about this Hollywood hunk’s unbelievable career is that it may have never even existed had it not been an unfortunate twist of fate during his playing days in college with the Florida State Seminoles.
Reynolds was a star football player in growing up in Florida. An outstanding high school career earned him numerous scholarships, but he chose to play at Florida State.
A standout halfback, Reynolds aspired to go pro until a knee injury in his sophomore season and car accident later that year left him with the difficult decision to pursue another passion.
19. Joonas Suotamo
Only the most loyal of basketball fan in Happy Valley can tell you about the performances of Joonas Suotamo on the court for the Penn State Nittany Lions. He played in just 34 games over three seasons and averaged about five minutes per game. But the pride of Espoo, Finland was no slouch off the court, twice being named Academic All-Big Ten and graduating in 3½ years to pursue a film career.
Because of his vocational choice, everyone knows Suotamo now, even if they don’t actually see him on screen. You certainly know his recurring film role: Suotamo is Chewbacca in three Star Wars films: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” and in his biggest star turn to date, “Solo.”
Suomato replaced Peter Mayhew, who had retired from portraying the furry big man. Mayhew coached Suotamo through “Wookie Boot Camp,” and for the agile former center, standing 7-feet, the rest was history.
20. Tom Selleck
Tom Selleck’s acting career is about as diverse as it gets, as the heart throb acted in widely popular shows and movies like Magnum, P.I. to Friends to Three Men and a Baby.
Selleck’s 6’4” frame also served him well on the court as a basketball player at the University of Southern California.
Selleck’s high school play was good enough to earn him a scholarship to USC where he would go on to play two seasons with the Trojans.
Though he didn’t much playing time, the fact that he managed to balance playing basketball, joining a fraternity and working as a model while earning a business degree is just plain ridiculous.
21. Jim Gaffigan
Jim Gaffigan is first and foremost a stand-up comedian. His countless film cameos and television appearances make him more than qualified to make the cut as an actor. But we cannot believe this funny man had his fair share of success as a college football player in the Big Ten.
Gaffigan first attended Purdue and was talented enough to get a spot on the Boilermakers roster as a walk-on. After one year, Gaffigan transferred to Georgetown where he finished his collegiate football career with the Hoyas.
How Hot Pockets never signed him as their faux Wheaties spokesman is truly a mystery.
22. Vinnie Jones
Those outside the U.K. may not know that Vinnie Jones has been a bad boy since long before appearing on the big screen.
The Englishman’s signature tough guy character has made for classic roles like as the Juggernaut featured on classics like the Juggernaut in X-Men: The Last Stand and his legendary role as the crazy soccer firm leader in EuroTrip.
Jones had the perfect experiencer to play the role of a crazed British soccer hooligan in EuroTrip, as he was a hard man on one of Britain’s most notoriously tough teams, Wimbledon FC’s “Crazy Gang.”
From bad boy on the pitch to bad boy in the pictures, Jones keeps on crushing it.
23. Carl Weathers
Carl Weathers dazzled on one of the biggest stages in boxing history as Apollo Creed in the classic Rocky series. He also had star turns in Predator and Happy Gilmore. It should be no surprise that the man who made up half of the manliest handshake in history has his own history as an athlete.
Before putting up some big hits in his acting career, Weathers was laying down some big hits on the gridiron. No only did he play Division I football at for the San Diego State Aztecs, Weathers played a pair of NFL seasons with the Oakland Raiders and spent a season in the Canadian Football League.
24. Lou Ferrigno
Okay, this one really doesn’t require an active imagination in any sense of the of word. Lou Ferrigno, who is quite literally built like the Hulk, took over our televisions playing just that in the 1970s on CBS’s The Incredible Hulk series. You wouldn’t like him when he was angry. You’d LOVE him!
Before he was tearing off his shirt and turning green, well, he was still tearing of his shirt as a professional body builder. The biggest difference from bodybuilding to acting as the Hulk for Ferrigno – who famously starred in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Pumping Iron – was swapping tanning lotion out for green paint.
25. Phil Robertson
Phil Robertson’s name did not become a household one until his later years thanks to the success of his A&E reality show, Duck Dynasty.
It’s remarkable how full circle Robertson’s journey came, as the eccentric hunter’s decision to not pursue his shot at fame to continue hunting eventually led to his success.
The lifelong Louisianan played quarterback for Louisiana Tech on scholarship. Better yet, the starting QB was playing ahead of Steelers legend and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw.
Craziest of all, Robertson was reportedly offered a shot at playing for the Washington Redskins, but chose not to because it’d get in the way of his hunting!
26. Forest Whitaker
Forest Whitaker has been spitting words of wisdom in countless classics on the silver screen for decades, but it was his second gig ever that gives us a glimpse into his past life.
Whitaker’s role as a high school football player on Fast Times at Ridgemont High made for a seamless transition from his former reality.
Whitaker was a standout defensive tackle at Palisades Charter High School (Los Angeles, CA), enough so that he earned a scholarship from nearby California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
Had it not been for an apparent back injury that led to a change in university, we may never have been gifted one of our favorite wiseman of the movies.
27. Terry Crews
Terry Crews and his titanium armor-looking body makes for a sight that evokes the same thought in all of us on his athletic endeavors, “It’d be a real shame if he didn’t use that destroy some opponents.” And before he turned to acting, Crews definitely got some serious shots in on the football field.
Before Crews was laying down the law in blockbusters like The Expendables series and hit sitcoms like Everybody Hates Chris and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, he was laying out running backs and quarterbacks at the college and pro level.
Crews won a MAC championship during his time at Western Michigan before seeing action at the NFL level with the Rams, Chargers and Redskins.
28. Sean Connery
The one fact easiest to associate with Sean Connery is that he likes his martinis shaken, not stirred. Okay, that was his James Bond character. So, what do we know about the human and not just actor Sean Connery?
Turns out he’s pretty much an action hero in real life too.
A young Connery was making the world swoon for more than his Bond-like charm, quick wit and good looks. He was a competitive bodybuilder! That’s right, Connery’s physique was so impressive that he competed in the famous Mr. Universe competition. That piece of personal information leaves us shaken, not stirred.
29. Jason Segel
Jason Segel’s various comedic roles on sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother and Freaks and Geeks to his ridiculous character in films like I Love You, Man have made him a lovable teddy that we can’t get enough of.
Turns out he was pulling on heart strings in high school too.
The 6’4” Segel was a fan favorite on Harvard-Westlake School’s (Los Angeles, CA) basketball team. Although he served as the backup center, his springs earned him the title “Dr. Dunk” after winning a dunk contest. Segel’s team won back-to-back state championships in his time there.
Oh yeah, and the player he was backing up was former NBA center Jason Collins.
30. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
If there was a human version of the Swiss Army knife, the prototype would be Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Whatever Dwayne Johnson (the actor) touches turns to gold, which is like sitting through a full movie credits’ worth of just his name. But he was fast and furious on the football field, as well.
Johnson got his big break wrestling in the WWF/WWE as “The Rock,” but his resume as an athlete dates back further. The Rock first began tossing bodies around as a football player and was a part of the iconic Miami Hurricanes 1991 national championship team before a very brief stint in the CFL.
31. Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon has been a staple of hit dramas, starring in such series as West Wing, NCIS and JAG. He even made Summer School fun in the 1980s. But before Harmon became a regular in Hollywood on the Red Carpet — and married the adorable Pam Dawber of Mork and Mindy fame — he was strutting his stuff elsewhere in Los Angeles.
After completing his associate degree at Pierce College in Los Angeles, Harmon transferred to nearby UCLA where he was the Bruins’ starting quarterback for two years. Harmon took a team coming off a dismal 2-7-1 season in 1971 and led the Bruins to an 8-3 and 9-2 record in the following years.