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Outside the Lines

Playing the Part - Athletes as Actors

Action heroes: Why athletes get work in Hollywood

Your Oscars: Vote for favorite athlete-actor performances

A Fox in tinseltown: Lakers' veteran cases the joint


Trivia: Test your knowledge about athletes and Hollywood

Chat wrap: Brian Bosworth


 Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson searches his mind for great athlete-actor performances.
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 Samuel L. Jackson
Jackson says directors should not expect athletes to do characters with emotional depth.
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 Samuel L. Jackson
Jackson says too many athletes are getting into acting.
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Tuesday, June 3
Calling all action heroes
By Tom Farrey

One of the first films ever made was called The Strongman, by the inventor Thomas Edison. One of those original penny-arcade movies that required the viewer to crank the machine as cards flipped by, the star of the feature was a real-life strongman. Keep that in mind next time you wonder why Hollywood ever gave Dennis Rodman a job.

Steve Harris
Steve Harris of ABC's "The Practice" was a linebacker at Northern Illinois.
Since the film medium began, athletes have been actors. And no matter how many lines Rodman mumbles, they will continue to get work -- for good reasons.

"The most expensive thing about making a movie isn't how much the movie costs," entertainment critic Joel Siegel told Outside the Lines. "It's how much it costs to sell the movie. If you have a star, a name that everyone knows, you can save millions of dollars in advertising. You can save more money in advertising than Michael Jordan's (movie) salary."

And you thought Jordan was a comic genius. "They're not making these movies to create art," Siegel said. "They're making these movies to be entertaining and to make money."

Besides, motion pictures are all about motion and -- as Edison realized -- athletes move pretty well. They chase down terrorists fairly convincingly. They throw large objects great distances. They generally look good on horses, Wilt Chamberlain in "Conan the Destroyer" notwithstanding.

Audiences usually only wince when the athletes open their mouth for too long, which qualifies as anything beyond, say, one sentence.

"That's because athletes don't take acting seriously," said Jarrod Bunch, an actor and former running back with the New York Giants. "But it's not their fault. Producers say, 'I want to put you in my movie.' If someone says that to you, what are you going to do? You're going to say OK."

Bunch is among the few athletes to make it in the business on his abilities, rather than a celebrity name. After a knee injury ended his football career after three NFL seasons, he went to acting school. That led to work in commercials, soap operas and more recently, supporting roles in movies. His big break was playing the role of George Foreman in the acclaimed HBO movie, "Don King: Only in America."

On television and online, explore the world of athlete-actors this week in the latest Outside the Lines special. A three-part series on features articles, polls and a chat session with Brian Bosworth.

On ESPN, watch the half-hour show on the subject Friday at 7 p.m. ET. The show also re-airs five hours later at midnight ET and Mar. 16 at 4 a.m. ET.

If anything, Bunch said, his past as an athlete kept him from getting jobs. After not being invited to one too many auditions, he changed agents and ordered that his NFL career never again be mentioned.

"Until I booked Don King, I ran into that all the time," said Bunch, who has a role in the upcoming "Shaft Returns" movie, with Vanessa Williams. "The attitude was, 'Aw, he's a football player.' Even the Don King producer felt that way at first. But the director battled for me and said I was the best that he'd seen (for the role)."

Bunch said the producer later apologized to him.

Prejudices die hard in Hollywood, especially with a such a long history of athlete underperformances. As Siegel said, "Babe Ruth once made a movie (in 1920) called 'Headin' Home,' and it was truly terrible. Even though it's silent, it's the kind of movie that you can tell the dialogue stinks."

If the big screen survived Ruth, it will survive Rodman. In fact, the use of athletes likely will escalate as the worlds of sports and entertainment merge. In the synergistic, bigger-is-better business landscape of today, some of the companies that own movie studios and television networks -- including Fox, Time Warner and Disney (parent company of ESPN) -- also own sports teams or broadcast their games. At the very least, those companies have a greater awareness of the public appeal of athletes.

Hollywood talent agents are gearing up for this era. Already, such high-powered firms as International Creative Management and William Morris have gotten into the business, setting up divisions to represent athletes and their commercial, television and motion picture work.

Besides, athletes are occasionally marvelous on film. Who can forget Alex Karras punching the horse in "Blazing Saddles"? Or the credible cameos by Brett Favre in "There's Something About Mary" and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in "Airplane"? Or Lawrence Taylor, even if he was basically playing Lawrence Taylor, in the recent Oliver Stone film, "Any Given Sunday"?

Athletes do fine when directors understand their limitations, Siegel said.

"This really sounds condescending -- and I don't mean it to be, because it's just the way movies are crafted -- but it's like working with an animal," he said. "I mean, if you're working with a raccoon and you find out that, hey, the raccoon goes this way, you change the part so that the raccoon goes that way. Because it's easier to change your script and have the raccoon go this way than it is to train the raccoon to do (something else).

"If you have an athlete who's got good comic timing, you make the part a little bit funnier. If you find out he's just stone-faced, you change it around a little bit."

Casting an athlete in his movie may not have been the brightest idea of Edison's career. But when it came to forecasting the future, he certainly saw the light.

Tom Farrey is a senior writer for He can be reached at

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