Before walking down the red carpet and appearing on the big screen, many actors and actresses started off in sports. This rare combination of athlete turned actor has produced some of Hollywood’s best, as evidenced by their numerous awards and accomplishments. Due to their current success, it’s surprising that many of these celebrities might’ve just as easily gone on a completely different career path. These are the most well-known in Hollywood whose athletic pasts helped make them so well-known today.
1. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
According to the official WWE website, Dwayne Johnson wasn’t just a beloved fighter, he was the most charismatic superstar of all time. Johnson joined the WWE in 1996 where he adopted the moniker of Rocky Maivia, a combination of his father’s and grandfather’s ring names, as they were also pro wrestlers. By the year 2000, Johnson, or The Rock, had already become known as “The People’s Champion.”
Following The Rock’s success in the ring, Johnson made a successful switch to film with an appearance in the 2001 feature, The Mummy Returns. The year after he had the leading role in The Scorpion King and has since acted in over 40 films. By June 2016 Johnson had been named the highest paid actor by Forbes, having made $64 million in a single year.
2. Hulk Hogan
One of the most recognizable WWE wrestlers, possibly due to his notable handlebar mustache, Hulk Hogan was originally known as Terry Gene Bollea before making his 1978 debut as “Sterling Golden.” Due to his size and charisma, Hogan quickly became known as “Hulk Hogan” and soon enough, his face was plastered on everything from magazines to lunch boxes.
Hogan made his first film appearance in the 1982 film Rocky III, playing the role of Thunderlips. This WWE wrestling star then went on to make additional television and movie appearances in titles such as Mr. Nanny, Thunder in Paradise, and Walker, Texas Ranger to name a few. On July 15, 2018 the athlete turned actor was honored by being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
3. John Goodman
Known for his baritone voice and dynamic facial expressions, this Hollywood star was initially interested in a football career. In high school Goodman only dabbled in theater, choosing instead to focus on football. By 1970 he had won a sports scholarship to Southwest Missouri State University. But an injury soon changed this future actor’s entire life trajectory.
Post-injury, Goodman changed his major to theater and by 1975, he had moved to New York to pursue his new dream of acting. Initially, Goodman struggled to make ends meet, working odd jobs and doing voice-over work for commercials. 1988 marked Goodman’s big break as an actor when he joined the cast of the ABC sitcom Roseanne, for which he won a Golden Globe Award, elevating this former athlete to stardom.
4. Forest Whitaker
Best known for his portrayal of dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, this Academy Award winning actor also had dream of playing professional football. In high school, Whitaker was a star quarterback who received a scholarship to play college football at California State Polytechnic University.
Sadly, the future actor sustained a back injury while playing college ball which ended his athletic career. Ironically, this athlete-turned-actor ended up in his breakout role playing football player Charles Jefferson in the 1982 film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Acting definitely seemed to be the right choice, since Whitaker went on to earn an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, and Screen Actors Guild Award amongst others for his many roles.
5. Burt Reynolds
Burt Reynolds is another example of an athlete turned actor who turned a setback into a success. Born in Lansing, Michigan, Reynolds left for Florida State University on a football scholarship and after graduation, was drafted to the NFL by the Baltimore Colts.
Reynolds became a familiar face to household TV audiences throughout the late ’50s and ’60s with roles on Riverboat, Gunsmoke, Hawk, and Dan August. This popular television actor eventually got his breakthrough movie role as Lewis Medlock in the 1972 film, Deliverance. Since then, Reynolds has acted in a combined total of nearly 80 movies and television shows throughout his career. Talk about a successful career shift!
6. Ed O’Neill
Known popularly for his most recent role as the dry and sarcastic Jay Pritchett in the ABC hit series Modern Family, Ed O’Neill began as a talented high school athlete. In 1969, post college, O’Neill went on to tryout for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He left disappointed when he was cut during training camp.
Things looked pretty hopeless for this almost NFL player, as from 1972 to 1977 he auditioned for numerous theater productions but rarely landed a speaking part. It wasn’t until 1979, 10 years after he had gotten cut from the Steelers, that O’Neill landed a lead role in a Broadway play. Today, this athlete turned actor is best known for his roles as Jay, and as ex-football star Al Bundy from the popular series, Married..with Children.
7. Jason Statham
Jason Statham is known for his tough guy characters in primarily action-thriller movies. Less well-known is that before hitting the big screen, this action star was a professional diver. Born in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, England, Statham was a diver on the British National Diving Team for 12 years and went on to compete in the 1990 Commonwealth Games.
Post-diving, Statham became a model for companies like Tommy Hilfiger, Griffin, and Levi’s. During this time the England-native was introduced to Guy Ritchie, an up and coming British director, who invited the former diver to audition for his 1998 film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Since then, Statham has become one of Hollywood’s top earners with his movies making a combined box-office total of $1.5 billion.
8. Chuck Norris
The man who inspired numerous Chuck Norris joke-facts like “Chuck Norris makes onions cry,” or “death once had a near-Chuck Norris experience,” is in fact a former martial artist turned actor. Norris’ accomplishments include black belts in Tang Soo Do, Brazilian jiu jitsu, and Judo and has even founded his own school of fighting called Chun Kuk Do.
This martial arts master switched to acting after his breakout role in the 1972 Bruce Lee film, The Way of the Dragon. He continued to deal out closed-fisted justice to bad guys in films like Good Guys Wear Black, Forced Vengeance, Code of Silence, and The Delta Force. In 1993 Norris landed one of his most recognizable roles as the lead character in the television series Walker, Texas Ranger.
9. Dave Bautista
When Dave Bautista went to train to become a WWE wrestler, he was told by everyone that he would never succeed. A few years later, in May 2002, Bautista made his first televised debut on WWE SmackDown using the ring name Batista. Shortly after, he switched his name to “The Animal,” and this self described “muscleheaded goofball” became a six-time World Heavyweight Champion.
Bautista left WWE in 2010 and began appearing in films like Wrong Side of Town, House of the Rising Sun, The Man with the Iron Fists, and Riddick. But this WWE champ turned Hollywood actor’s claim for fame was in 2014, when he played Drax the Destroyer in megahit Guardians of the Galaxy. As it turns out, Bautista got back in the ring to promote the film before choosing to retire once again.
10. Mike Tyson
Considered by many sports commentators to be one of the most frightening and intimidating boxers to ever step foot in the ring, Mike Tyson began his professional boxing career in 1985, at age 19. A year later he became the youngest boxer to win the heavyweight title, earning him the nicknames of “Iron” and “Kid Dynamite.” By the time Tyson retired in 2005 he was known as “The Baddest Man on the Planet” and the undisputed world heavyweight champion.
After boxing, “The Baddest Man on the Planet” made cameo appearances in Rocky Balboa and The Hangover. Since then, Tyson has appeared in numerous films and television series, primarily as fictional versions of himself. He isn’t the only actor to showcase his athleticism on the big screen, however.
11. Mahershala Ali
Before his Oscar wins, Mahershala Ali was a division one basketball player at St. Mary’s College. From 1992 to 1996, Ali played a total of 97 games with the Gaels. During those years, this future athlete turned actor scored a total of 348 points and by senior year was averaging seven points per game.
Post graduation, Ali began his acting career on the 2001 television series Crossing Jordan and later on Threat Matrix. His breakthrough roll occurred in 2004 when he played the character Richard Tyler in the series The 4400. This up-and-coming actor had further supporting roles in popular movies and television shows before eventually winning two Oscars, one for his work in 2016’s Moonlight and another for 2018’s Green Book.
12. Tommy Lee Jones
The son of an oil field laborer, Tommy Lee Jones attended Harvard University where he happened to be roommates with future Vice President Al Gore while also playing football. This college football star even played in the infamous 1968 Harvard vs. Yale game, known for Harvard’s last minute recovery against all odds. But in 1969, Jones hung up the jersey and moved to New York City to pursue acting instead.
In New York, this athlete turned actor began his career with a series of Broadway plays. After getting married in 1971, Jones moved with his new wife to Los Angeles. There, this Ivy-league football player landed his first part in Charlie’s Angels and eventually went on to win an Oscar for his role in the 1993 film, The Fugitive.
13. Ronda Rousey
Recognized primarily for helping to bring female mixed martial arts to a mainstream audience, Ronda Rousey is a judo champion and UFC fighter. Her first major success was in 2008, at the young age of 21, when she won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympic Games. After the Olympics, this fighting champion would fight to make the UFC accessible for women. By February 2013, Rousey became the first UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion.
After her incredible victory, this UFC champion transitioned into film with a role as Luna in The Expendables 3. Another year later, she appeared as Kara in Furious 7 along with cameos in Entourage and Total Divas, proving that nothing is too far out of reach for this champion fighter.
14. Bruce Lee
Born in the hour of the Dragon (between 6 and 8 a.m.) in the year of the Dragon, on November 27, 1940, Bruce Lee channeled his Chinese heritage and became widely considered to be one of the most influential martial artists of all time. A child actor in Hong Kong, Lee moved to the U.S. at age 18 and began teaching martial arts.
Lee is particularly noted for appearing in five popular martial arts movies in the United States, including 1972’s Way of the Dragon and 1973’s Enter the Dragon. In addition to starring roles, this athlete turned actor was recently credited with changing how Americans perceived Asian-Americans in film. Whereas before Asian-Americans had been viewed as weak and cowardly, Lee’s masculine behavior and martial arts mastery completely changed this stereotype.
15. Avril Lavigne
Avril Lavigne’s breakthrough single, “Complicated,” made her an international pop sensation and the youngest female soloist to have a number-one album in the United Kingdom. Long before she was playing guitar though, the Ontario, Canada native was skating across the ice. In an interview with ESPN, this future pop star talked about how her dad had on her skates by age two.
Throughout her childhood, Lavigne described how she was often playing hockey, and was even awarded two MVPs. During her music career she reported that she took her rollerblades with her to play street hockey. After the “Pop Punk Queen” found success with her albums, 2002’s Let Go and 2004’s Under My Skin, Lavigne took roles in the animated film, Over the Hedge, and the Richard Linklater directed comedy-drama, Fast Food Nation.
16. John Cena
Described by Fox Sports as being one of the most polarizing wrestlers in WWE history, John Cena had chants of “Let’s go Cena!” and “Cena sucks!” echoing around him during every match. It seems like the positive cheers won out though, as Cena is a 16 time world champion and has taken down figures like Batista and The Rock.
Between his success in the ring and his overall positive public image, this athlete decided to channel his inner movie star with a starring role in the 2006 film The Marine. Since then, Cena found success in comedy films such as Trainwreck and Blockers, with an upcoming role in Fast and Furious 9.
17. Jim Gaffigan
By age five, Jim Gaffigan knew he wanted to be an actor. However his father, a banker, encouraged him to find a more financially secure job. So, he went to Purdue college to play football. Considering Purdue is part of the Big Ten Conference, this is no small feat.
Eventually this athlete turned actor decided to pursue his passion for entertainment. Gaffiagan got an opportunity to perform stand up for David Letterman live on his show, and Letterman was so impressed that he handpicked the soon-to-be star to develop a sitcom for him. The sitcom never aired, but Gaffigan’s career was far from over. Since then, this former boilermaker made numerous TV and film appearances, but is best known for his stand-up comedy.
18. Jennifer Lawrence
When Jennifer Lawrence was in school, her parents had one rule for her. According to an interview with NPR, her and all her siblings “had to be in sports.” Per her parents’ demands, the future film star played softball, basketball, field hockey and did cheerleading as well.
Apparently, JLaw hated it. In her own words, “I’ve always had anxiety about being in a herd…There’s something about team sports, classes, I didn’t take well to it. I didn’t like it… I hated team sports.” Her choice to avoid sports seems to have paid off, since she is currently regarded as one of Hollywood’s most successful actresses. As a matter of fact, Lawrence’s films have earned a worldwide box office total of almost $6 billion.
19. Terry Crews
For Terry Crews, football in the NFL was nothing more than a means to an end. His true passion was art, and after being unable to afford the tuition at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, Crews decided to play football at Western Michigan. By sophomore year, Crews became skilled enough to be awarded with a football scholarship.
In 1991, he tried out for the NFL and was drafted to the Los Angeles Rams, playing in six games. In 1993, Crews moved on to play for the San Diego Chargers. Four years later, in 1997, Crews moved back to Los Angeles, this time working security for rapper Ice Cube. By 2002 he had gotten his breakout role in Ice Cube’s film Friday After Next, in spite of never having taken an acting class.
20. Gina Carano
This featherweight MMA and Muay Thai fighter has had success both in the ring and on screen. In 2009, Carano had pitted herself against rival Cris Cyborg, a fight which went down in history as the first time two women headlined a major MMA event. This became the highest rated fight in Showtime history at the time. Shortly after, Carano decided to make the transition to film.
While the MMA star’s first film experience had been in a small cameo appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1, her first leading role was in the 2011 spy thriller movie Haywire, directed by Steven Soderbergh. After that first film, Carano went on to take roles in films like Fast & Furious 6 and Deadpool.
21. Kevin James
Paul Blart Mall Cop may not have featured actor Kevin James as all that athletically able, but in actuality, he’s more than able to hold his own in the ring. Before becoming Doug Heffernan on the long-running CBS sitcom The King of Queens, James was a high school wrestling star — alongside another notable name.
Back before taking his comedic chops to the screen, James was on his high school wrestling team. Sure a high school sports star doesn’t sound like much, but James was wrestling with none other than pro wrestling star Mick Foley. When asked in an interview, James said he would take Foley down “all the time.”
22. Tony Danza
Before he became known as Tony Micelli on the ABC hit show, Who’s the Boss? Tony Danza was known to his childhood friends as a bit of a troublemaker. He discovered wrestling as a way to give himself some direction and in 1975, after some turbulent college years, turned to Golden Gloves boxing.
Danza ended his boxing career with nine wins and three losses. He even got the nickname of “Tough” Tony Danza, since all his fights ended in knockouts (with one exception). While training in a boxing gym in 1978, “Tough” Tony Danza got an offer to play Tony Banta in the television series Taxi. Afterwards this athlete turned actor went on to win an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his many star roles.
23. Vinnie Jones
Known for his boisterous and macho personality, Vinnie Jones was initially a professional soccer player who made more than 500 appearances during his career, lasting from 1984 to 1999. At the end of his time on the field, Jones had hoped to get promoted to the coaching staff for the Queens Park Rangers Football Club. After Jones was passed up, the former player turned to acting.
Jones made his first acting appearance at age 33 in the British comedy-thriller Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Since then, this athlete turned actor, already recognized for his intensity, was cast generally in tough guy or gangster rolls. His most notable appearance was in 2006, in the blockbuster film X-Men: The Last Stand, playing the role of Juggernaut.
24. Lou Ferrigno
Shy and bullied in school, young Lou Ferrigno started weight training at age 13. By age 18 he had already won his first major bodybuilding title, IFBB Mr. America. Four years later, in 1973, Mr. America became Mr. Universe and started training with fellow future actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The two men appeared together in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, which evidently made Ferrigno a star.
After the success of the documentary, Ferrigno went on to star as the Incredible Hulk, in a television series of the same name. This role became what the former bodybuilding champion is best known for. Most recently, this athlete turned actor worked on a voice collaboration as the Hulk in the recent Avengers movies.
25. Jason Lee
Born and raised in Orange County, California, Jason Lee was a professional skateboarder long before he became an actor. This star, best known for his leading role in My Name Is Earl, founded Stereo Skateboards in 1992, which manufactures and distributes skateboard equipment and apparel.
By 1995, Lee had retired from skateboarding, sold most of his company, and moved on to acting. He appeared in the Kevin Smith movie, Mallrats which became a cult classic. Additional films included Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Clerks II. Recently, Lee has moved towards photography while also working with fellow professional skateboarder Tony Hawk on various projects and philanthropies.
26. Arnold Schwarzenegger
Known globally for numerous successes, Arnold Schwarzenegger started from humble beginnings in his home village of Thal, Austria. By the age of 20, the up-and-coming Schwarzenegger had already become the youngest Mr. Universe winner ever and helped turn bodybuilding in to a worldwide competitive sport. But that was only the beginning.
This athlete turned actor quickly made a name for himself in Hollywood. By the 1970s and throughout the ’80s, this former Mr. Universe champion was already well known for roles in Hercules, Conan the Barbarian, and Terminator, a role he has since reprised in each of the film’s five sequels.
27. Matthew Perry
Fast forward to the days before Matthew Perry played Chandler in the beloved sitcom, Friends. Long before his bluntness as Chandler made all of America laugh, Chandler was a nationally ranked tennis player in Canada. His ranking was in both singles and doubles.
While he excelled on the court in Canada, he couldn’t say the same once he left his hometown. In an interview with Men’s Health he said, “I was pretty great in Canada. Not so much in Los Angeles. It was insane. I realized I wouldn’t be playing tennis for a living, so I went for acting.” We all know what path he ended up taking next.
28. Dean Cain
Best known for his role as Superman on the TV series, Lois & Clark, it turns out Dean Cain was also a hero in real life too. Starting out as a baseball player in high school, he later went on to play college football at Princeton.
As a defender for the football team, Cain had a total of 12 interceptions during the 1987 season, which was a record among the Football Championship Subdivision. His success on the field helped him sign with the New York Buffalo Bills after college. However, he sustained a bad knee injury during training camp and this put an end to his future in football.
29. Kurt Russell
Golden Globe and Emmy Award-nominated actor, Kurt Russell got his start to acting in the series, The Travels of Jamie McPheeters at just 12 years old. And by the late 1960s, he became a top star for the Disney franchise.
But when he turned 20, he decided to pursue another dream of his: becoming a professional baseball player. He eventually signed with the California Angels, although after playing as an infielder for two minor league divisions, he suffered from a rotator cuff injury in his throwing arm and was forced to hang up his bat. Fortunately, Hollywood welcomed him back with open arms.
30. Emma Watson
As it turns out, Emma Watson is more than just a skilled quidditch player. She is also a stellar field hockey player. With a knack for sports, it was no surprise when the beloved Harry Potter star joined the club field hockey team while studying at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Following her time at Brown, Watson has continued pursuing her passion in field hockey. In 2018, she started a charity foundation called the Hockey Futures, which aims to encourage girls to take part in the sport. She hopes this will help them develop a sense of community all the while growing their inner self-confidence.
31. Uzo Aduba
Before actress Uzo Aduba was known as “Crazy Eyes” from Netflix’s hit series, Orange is the New Black, she was recognized for being a star college athlete. In fact, as a student at Boston University, she was on a track scholarship.
Running as a sprinter, Aduba competed in the 200 meter, 100 meter, and 55 meter races. She was even awarded by the school’s athletic department for her strong leadership. Though she hung up her running shoes for a shot to be in front of Hollywood’s cameras, it seems she still runs. In the photo above, she’s shown running in the 2015 Boston Marathon.
32. Channing Tatum
Acclaimed actor and Magic Mike sensation, Channing Tatum credits his famous dance moves to his background in martial arts. And even though he’s considered a martial arts expert – having earned belts in both Kung Fu and Gor-Chor Kung Fu – his athleticism spans far beyond just the mat.
Growing up, Channing Tatum was a superstar athlete who excelled in a number of sports like football, track and field, baseball, and soccer. In fact, he earned a football scholarship in high school to attend Glenville State College in Glenville, West Virginia. Despite dropping out of school, Tatum was still one of those jocks you see in ‘90s films.
33. Jason Segel
One look at the How I Met Your Mother star, Jason Segel, and it makes sense that with a height of 6’4, the acclaimed Hollywood actor has at some point dabbled his feet in the world of sports. Indeed, back in high school, Segel played basketball for his school (Harvard Westlake)’s team in Los Angeles.
He apparently shared the high school court with some well-known future NBA players like Jaron and Jason Collins. While the Collins brothers went pro, Segel traded in dribbling and shooting for the chance to make it in entertainment. He went on to star in films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Knocked Up.
34. Joel McHale
Most recognized for his role on the sitcom Community and for being the former host of The Soup, Joel McHale also has quite an athletic background. While he was recruited by the University of Washington to row crew, he ended up representing the Huskies in a different sport: football.
McHale was a walk-on for the university’s football team in 1992 and played for two seasons as a tight end, although he never ended up playing in a game. According to one of his teammates, “he had everything he needed: desire and want-to. He was tough, he could catch the ball and he wasn’t afraid to put his body on the line.”
35. Mark Harmon
Before starring in the hit television series NCIS, Mark Harmon was the starting quarterback for the UCLA Bruins football team for two years. Considering the fact that his father was Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon, it’s no surprise the St. Elsewhere star also has football talent running through his veins.
Playing between 1972 and 1973, the Hollywood actor helped bring the Bruins out of being an underdog team. He led the team to a 17-5 record and helped them beat the two-time national champion, Nebraska. During his last year, he was awarded for his excellence by the National Football Foundation.
36. Caitlyn Jenner
Before Caitlyn Jenner was known as a Hollywood star for landing a recurring role on the TV series, CHiPs and appearing on Keeping Up with the Kardashians, she was a world renowned Olympic athlete. Starting out as a high school football player, she later became one of America’s most successful decathlon athletes – ever.
Her most defining moment at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. With a world-record-setting victory, she took home the gold in decathlon. She then went on to trade a favelin for a mic and entered Hollywood through guest appearing on shows like Murder She Wrote and THe Fall Guy.
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