En español | This month, LeBron James and the Looney Tunes star in Space Jam: A New Legacy, which hit theaters and HBO Max on July 16. The live-action/animated hybrid is a sequel to the 1996 Michael Jordan vehicle, but Hollywood has been casting professional athletes for much longer than that — all the way back to its Golden Age in the 1930s and ‘40s. While some of these athlete-actors offer little more than one-note cameos, a surprising number of them have transcended these boundaries to become bonafide movie stars. From the synchronized-swimmer stylings of Esther Williams to the megawatt charm of Dwayne Johnson, these 10 performers have made gold-medal-worthy transitions to the big screen. We count them down from No. 10 to No. 1.
10. Ronda Rousey
Sports: Wrestling, mixed martial arts, judo
Her acting career: The only female fighter to win both a UFC and a WWE championship, Rousey nabbed a bronze medal in judo at the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008. Her burgeoning acting career leans hard on her reputation for being an extremely tough cookie, with roles as CIA operative Sam Snow in Mile 22 (2018), bodyguard Kara in Furious 7 (2015) and a fight instructor in the 2019 Charlie's Angels reboot. Are you sensing a pattern here?
Her best role: Luna, a fierce nightclub bouncer in The Expendables 3 (2014)
Watch it: The Expendables 3, on Hulu
9. Shaquille O'Neal
His acting career: Michael Jordan, 58, may have raked in $250.2 million worldwide for Space Jam (1996), but for our money, his acting doesn't hold a candle to the 7-foot-1 center's. O'Neal is always having a blast, whether he's playing a college basketball star in Blue Chips (1994) or a 5,000-year-old genie in Kazaam (1996). He also broke ground with the DC Comics film Steel (1997), as one of the first Black actors to star in a superhero film — even though said movie took a critical and box-office drubbing.
His best role: Himself in a Season 2 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which Larry David (74) accidentally trips him on the court at a Lakers game
Watch it: Curb Your Enthusiasm, on HBO Max
8. Sonja Henie
Sport: Figure skating
Her acting career: With three Olympic gold medals and 10 world championships under her belt, the Norwegian figure skater was signed to a film contract with Twentieth Century Fox in 1936 by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. She quickly became one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood by doing what she did best: She skated in One in a Million (1936), Thin Ice (1937), Happy Landing (1938), Second Fiddle (1939) and more, and she even earned a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Her best role: Karen Benson in Sun Valley Serenade (1941), an Oscar-nominated musical that also features Dorothy Dandridge, Glenn Miller and Milton Berle
Watch it: Sun Valley Serenade, on Amazon Prime
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7. Johnny Weissmuller
Sport: Swimming, water polo
His acting career: At the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games, the legendary athlete earned a combined five gold medals in swimming and a bronze in water polo for good measure. Weissmuller made his film debut in 1929's pre-Code musical comedy Glorifying the American Girl, playing a nonspeaking Adonis and wearing only a fig leaf. He'd trade in the leaf for a loincloth in his most iconic role as Tarzan (1932-48), followed by a turn as the comic strip adventurer Jungle Jim in 16 films (1948-55) and 26 television episodes (1955-56).
His best role: Tarzan in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), though his most famous gig was almost derailed by a BVD advertising contract — executives didn't want him to be photographed in anything but their underwear
Watch it: Tarzan the Ape Man, on Amazon Prime
6. John Cena
His acting career: Much like Dwayne Johnson before him, the WWE wrestler has parlayed his considerable charm in the ring into a surprisingly diverse acting career. Sure, he's mastered the expected acting roles in films like the Transformers sequel Bumblebee (2018) and F9 (2021), but he also earned raves as Amy Schumer's fitness-obsessed boyfriend in the romantic comedy Trainwreck (2015). And even your grandkids might recognize him: He has voiced a polar bear named Yoshi in 2020's Dolittle and the famous flower-loving bull in the computer-animated Ferdinand (2017).
His best role: Mitchell Mannes, an against-type overprotective suburban dad in the raunchy but sweet 2018 comedy Blockers (2018)
Watch it: Blockers, on Amazon Prime
5. Terry Crews
His acting career: After being drafted by the L.A. Rams in 1991, the defensive end and linebacker, 52, had a decidedly unremarkable tenure in the NFL, playing 32 games over his five-year, five-team career. With breakout acting roles in Friday After Next (2002) and the 2005 remake of The Longest Yard, Crews fared much better in Hollywood. He's also become a sitcom mainstay, first as Chris Rock's fictionalized father in the critically acclaimed Everybody Hates Chris (2005-09), then as a new stepdad in Are We There Yet? (2010-13), and finally as an NYPD lieutenant on Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013-).
His best role: Terry Jeffords, the gentle-giant, yogurt-loving cop on Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Watch it: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, on Hulu
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4. Jim Brown
His acting career: The 85-year-old former Cleveland Browns running back is often ranked among the best football players of all time, and his foray into Hollywood was equally impressive. He seamlessly fit into any genre he tried his hand at, including neo-noir (1968's The Split), espionage (1968's Ice Station Zebra), blaxploitation (1972's Slaughter) and spaghetti Western (1975's Take a Hard Ride). In the 1969 Western 100 Rifles, he and Raquel Welch (80) shared the first-ever interracial love scene.
His best role: Robert Jefferson, a convict sent to France to assassinate Nazi officers, in The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Watch it: The Dirty Dozen, on HBO Max
3. Esther Williams
Her acting career: Following the success of Sonja Henie's acting career, Louis B. Mayer wanted a female athlete to join the MGM roster, and he signed the competitive swimmer in 1941. Soon, the studio was churning out a slew of “aquamusicals” — many of which included elaborate synchronized swimming routines — such as Bathing Beauty (1944), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) and Easy to Love (1953), in which she swam in a pool shaped like the state of Florida and performed her own water-skiing stunts (while pregnant). In Dangerous When Wet (1953), she famously shared the pool with Tom and Jerry.
Her best role: Aquatic ballet dancer Eve Barrett in Neptune's Daughter (1949), in which she and Ricardo Montalban debuted the song “Baby, It's Cold Outside"
Watch it: Neptune's Daughter, on Amazon Prime
2. Arnold Schwarzenegger, 73
The sport: Bodybuilding
His acting career: Following a star-making turn in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, the seven-time Mr. Olympia, 73, set his sights on Hollywood, where he became one of the most bankable stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. His string of action hits — including the Terminator franchise, Predator (1987), Total Recall (1987) and True Lies (1994) — was impressive, but what was more unexpected was his considerable comedic talent, showcased in films like Twins (1988) and Kindergarten Cop (1990).
His best role: The “good” Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), one of the few sequels that may be better than its predecessor
Watch it: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, on Netflix
1. Dwayne Johnson
Sports: Wrestling, football
His acting career: After winning the 1991 national championship with the University of Miami football team and then going undrafted with the NFL, Johnson pivoted to the family business: professional wrestling, where he was known by his ring name “The Rock.” Since his first acting role as the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns (2001), Johnson has pulled in nearly $12 billion (with a B!) at the global box office. You might expect his hulking size to have limited the kinds of roles he can play, but he's proven that he can do almost anything: TV comedies like Ballers (2015-19), Disney cartoons like Moana (2016), disaster flicks like San Andreas (2015) and family adventure films like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017). In his most personal role yet, he stars as a fictionalized version of himself in the NBC sitcom Young Rock (2021), in which a future Johnson is running for president in 2032. Don't count him out.
His best role: Federal agent and bounty hunter Luke Hobbs in the Fast & Furious franchise, including his own spinoff Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.