Watching Juancho Hernangomez and Anthony Edwards tear it up in Hustle got us all talking around SB Nation about the best and worst acting performances by an athlete. There have been some brilliant roles over the years held by athletes, and my god also some of the stinkiest trash imaginable.
I’ll explain why I feel qualified to take on this mantle. Firstly, I was a serious theater kid. I went to a special arts high school in Australia where I took classes in Stanislavski and Brecht. Both my parents were actors to varying degrees of success, my mom primarily in off-Broadway shows in the 1970s, my dad pivoted to the screen where his seminal role as “heavier customer” in Dawson’s Creek remains a staple of his IMDB page to this day. I moved to studying film in college, and after realizing I didn’t play well with pretentious film students I decided to start writing about sports.
A few notes before we begin: Firstly, this is subjective. You’d think we didn’t need to explain this, but people get irrationally angry at ranking lists as if we’re establishing the Plato’s forms. Secondly, we need to limit how we’re classifying an athlete actor. For the purposes of these rankings we’re limiting it to movies, so no random hostings of Saturday Night Live will count, and also this needs to be a significant pro athlete who appeared in a movie, rather than someone who played some college ball, or became an actor after it was clear they weren’t making a career out of athletics.
So, now that we have that established …
The 10 best acting performances by an athlete
No. 1: Dave Bautista — Guardians of the Galaxy
It’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing “Drax the Destroyer.” What began as a one dimensional role has morphed in the MCU to have a lot more depth, and every step of the way Bautista has risen to the occasion and shown his acting chops. There are a lot of good roles on his resume now, but Drax is the gold standard.
No. 2: Jason Lee — Almost Famous
Lee is best known for his huge TV hit My Name Is Earl, but the ex skateboarder’s crowning achievement is as paranoid, narcissistic frontman Jeff Bebe in Almost Famous. Lee really only has one character that he goes back to the well with, but in this role his whiny, high-energy plays perfectly against Billy Crudup’s quiet, reflective nature.
No. 3: Juancho Hernangomez — Hustle
I loved Hernangomez in Hustle so much that I strongly considered putting him at No. 1. The film’s story might not be groundbreaking, but Hernangomez’s portrayal of a complicated, flawed man navigating his personal issues and newfound fame is a revelation. Truly a wonderful performance.
No. 4: Ray Allen — He Got Game
There’s a reason people still refer to Allen as “Jesus Shuttlesworth.” It was a major risk for Spike Lee to put an untested, unproven NBA player on the screen to dramatically spar with Denzel Washington, but Allen was up to the test. Whether or not Shuttlesworth was based on Stephon Marbury or not, Allen knew what it was like to be a coveted college athlete and let his own experience help him with the role.
No. 5: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — Airplane!
Playing Roger Murdoch isn’t exactly a huge role, nor is it one that was particularly difficult — but Kareem was a pioneer in the megastar athlete taking on movie roles. His comedic style was understated, but suited the role perfectly
No. 6: Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson — Moana
As the father of a 5-year-old I can recite every single word of “You’re Welcome” at a moment’s notice. The Rock has been in dozens of movies, playing a variety of action roles — but Moana really forced him to stretch. Playing Maui required singing, comedy, and dramatic elements, as well as a vulnerability not often seen in a lot of his other roles.
No. 7: Andre the Giant — The Princess Bride
Andre in The Princess Bride is simply iconic. Literally nobody else could have filled those shoes, and he had such a beautiful understanding of the “Gentle Giant” trope, which shines through in every scene.
No. 8: LeBron James — Trainwreck
No, LeBron gets nothing for rebooting Space Jam. Instead we go back to 2015’s Trainwreck, where LeBron plays a heightened version of himself and steals almost every scene he’s in. That’s exceedingly difficult to do in a comedy across from Bill Hader, but the two have natural chemistry on screen and LeBron seems right at home.
No. 9: Jim Brown — Any Given Sunday
There are a lot of Jim Brown roles, and a lot of athlete roles in Any Given Sunday, but the limited scenes of Brown playing defensive coordinator (hilariously named) Montezuma Monroe takes the cake. He channels NFL intensity with Oliver Stone foulmouthery to embody the character and make him believable.
No. 10: Alex Karras — Blazing Saddles
I can’t share a clip of Karras in Blazing Saddles out of the film’s propensity to use racist language to make a point about modern society, but the Lions’ defensive tackle shines as the scourge of the town with an offensive name who loves to punch horses. It was the part he was born to play.
The 10 worst acting performances by an athlete
No. 1: Brett Favre — There’s Something About Mary
Brett Favre had one job: Play Brett Favre. He failed. Favre is so bad that Ben Stiller basically has to talk for him IN THE ONLY SCENE FAVRE HAS IN THE MOVIE. Then, when it’s finally time to open his mouth, he’s wooden as hell.
No. 2: Shaquille O’Neal — Steel
This is without a doubt the worst acting performance by an athlete when he’s the main star of his own movie. Steel is an abomination, and nobody should seek it out. But please watch the trailer because it tells you everything you need to know.
No. 3: Hulk Hogan — Santa With Muscles
This might be the stupidest movie of all time starring an absolute garbage human to boot. Hogan is a terrible actor in film, and everything you need to know about Santa With Muscles comes from this plot synopsis off Wikipedia.
“Blake Thorn (Hulk Hogan) is a conceited self-made millionaire who sells bodybuilding supplements and equipment that have his picture on them. One day, while recklessly playing paintball, he is targeted by police. He is chased to a shopping mall, where he hides by putting on a Santa costume. He slides down a garbage chute to escape the police and bangs his head, resulting in amnesia.”
No. 4: Shaquille O’Neal — Kazaam
Another Top 5 for Shaq. Kazaam was the attempt to make O’Neal a comedy star and it has no redeeming qualities. Blue Chips was decent, outside of that, Shaq needs to give up the whole scripted acting thing. Thank god he did.
No. 5: Dan Marino — Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
Much like Brett Favre, Dan Marino was asked to play himself in Ace Ventura and was awful at it. Please enjoy this clip, where Marino is supposed to act scared for his life, but instead just glances around like a kitty after snorting a bag of catnip.
No. 6: Dennis Rodman — Double Team
1997’s Double Team was an attempt to pivot Dennis Rodman’s bad boy NBA persona into an action movie with a floundering Jean Claude van Damme. The result is one of the worst movies you’ll see. Rodman cannot act, at all — but neither can JCVD, so I guess they were made for each other.
No. 7: Tom Brady — Stuck on You
I’m convinced Brady was only put in this movie so Matt Damon could hang out with him. This was back in 2003 when Brady hadn’t cemented his legacy yet, and he has every bit the charisma of a kid who was not yet accustomed to being in the spotlight, let alone star in a movie.
No. 8: Kareem Abdul Jabbar — Slam Dunk Ernest
Kareem becomes the first and only athlete to make both sides of this list. While he was brilliant in his limited role in Airplane! this atrocious piece of garbage never should have existed. I refuse to believe Kareem needed money badly enough to make this.
No. 9: Brian Bosworth — Stone Cold
One of the most overhyped NFL prospects in history tried to become an action star and we got this abomination. Stone Cold is such a bad movie that the entire thing has been uploaded to YouTube for seven years and nobody cares enough to make a copyright strike against it. Here’s the entire movie, because why not. Enjoy wasting 90 minutes of your life.
No. 10: Wilt Chamberlain — Conan the Destroyer
It’s extremely clear the makers of Conan the Destroyer wanted a Game of Death-like scene between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Wilt Chamberlain similar to Bruce Lee and Kareem back in 1978. Instead we get one of the weirdest, worst fight scenes of all time, where an aging Wilt moves around the room like a nutcracker that has come to life.