What performer was the best athlete?

I’m specifically putting this in CS and not the Game Room because I’m curious about performers who primarily became famous for acting, music etc but coincidentally were very good to great athletes. So no Caitlyn Jenner despite the fact that many who watched reality TV don’t remember the 1976 Olympics. No O.J. Simpson despite his Oscar worthy performance in The Naked Gun.

Bonus points if you were surprised to find out their hidden athletic prowess.

I can’t think of a better example than Paul Robeson. He was one of the best collegiate athletes of his time. The NFL was in its infancy so there wasn’t much opportunity there to make a living there. And he was black so there was no opportunity at all when he graduated. He became world famous because of his voice and activism.

Mark Harmon was the quarterback at UCLA but was more famous for being Tom Harmon’s son at the time.

Chuck Connors was not good enough to be a star pro athlete but was good enough to make it briefly to the big leagues in baseball and to be in the NBA. Acting made him famous.

Terry Crews?
Alex Karras?
Tony Danza?

Singer Johnny Mathis was a basketball and track star at San Francisco State University.


Mathis says, “My big claim to fame as a high jumper is that I broke (the record) of Bill Russell — the fabulous, great Bill Russell, the greatest basketball player, I think, who ever lived.

“I broke his high-jump record at a track meet that he and I went to in Reno. They made a big deal of it, because I was about half as tall as he was. Anyway, that was my big claim to fame in college as a high jumper. But I loved my athletics. It gave me a good start as far as keeping myself physically fit in order to sing.”

Mathis wasn’t at SF State for long before a record contract lured him away to New York, where he recorded a self-titled jazz album that was released in 1956.

Bud Spencer was an olympic swimming champion.
Johnny Weissmuller too, of course.

I’m pretty sure that George Thorogood was a baseball player at some more-than-high-school level. But since I can’t say how good he was, that probably answers the question of how good he was.

Actor Bernie Casey was a track star at Bowling Green State University – he was an All-American in the hurdles, and was a finalist in the 1960 Olympic trials. He was also a star football player at Bowling Green, and had an eight-year NFL career as a wide receiver, before turning to acting in the late '60s.

Alex Karras played for over a decade and is in the HOF if I’m not mistaken. I think he was more like an OJ.

Mark Harmon had a couple of good years at UCLA

Do Dick Butkus and Terry Bradshaw count as “performers” in this sense?

I was, for years, surprised that Karras was not in the Hall of Fame, but he did finally get elected last year. He was a three-time All-Pro for the Lions, and was on the All-Decade Team for the 1960s.

I agree, he’s more on the par of OJ, translating his fame in football into an acting career, though he was substantially more successful as an actor than Simpson was.

Honorable mention to Burt Lancaster, who had been a circus performer and did a lot of his own stunts in Trapeze.

Ed Marinaro was runner up for the Heisman trophy and had a long acting career. His fellow Hill Street Blues cast member, Michael Warren, won three national basketball championships with UCLA.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn’t do a lot of acting, but was memorable in Airplane! (where former teammate Warren was an extra).

He’s been mentioned, but I’ll add that Johnny Weismuller was considered the greatest swimmer of his era before moving into film.

Buster Crabbe won two Olympic medals before moving into being Flash Gordon.

He played semi-pro ball, so, no, not even on the level of Chuck Connors.

Canada Lee was considered the best Black actor on Broadway (after Robeson) after his careers as a jockey and a boxer were cut short. He grew to big for horseracing (and there was a movement to ban black jockeys) and had to quit boxing after suffering a detached retina. His best-known role was in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, but the blacklist ended his acting career.

Slapsy Maxie Rosenbloom was light heavyweight champion and retired to be a character actor.

Buddy Baer was another boxer turned actor. His brother, Max Baer was heavyweight champion and also became an actor (and father to Jethro Bodine).

Dolph Lundgren was a European karate champion in Kyokushin Karate for 1981-2 [not sure if that is one or successive titles]. He’s a 4th dan blackbelt in that style.

Harold Sakata (“Oddjob” in Goldfinger) won a Silver Medal for the US in Weightlifting at the 1948 Olympics in London.

Not sure if dancing counts, but Emmitt Smith won Dancing with the Stars.

Michael Jordan acted in that one Space Jam movie.

Does directing count? Kobe Bryant won an Oscar for directing a short film.

Jason Statham.

" Statham began practising Chinese martial arts, kickboxing, and karate recreationally in his youth while working at local market stalls. An avid footballer and diver, he was a member of Britain’s national diving team and competed for England in the 1990 Commonwealth Games."

Professional athletes have often done well on that show; in addition to Smith, former NFL players Donald Driver and Hines Ward have won, as well as auto racer Helio Castroneves and speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno. Three other NFL players (Jerry Rice, Warren Sapp, and Jason Taylor) have come in second.

No love for Chuck Norris? He has a black belt in Tang Soo Do, Brazilian jiu jitsu, and judo. After serving in the United States Air Force, he won many martial arts championships and later founded his own discipline, Chun Kuk Do. He’s also had one helluva film career.

Bruce Lee, of course.

Johnny Weissmuller was an Olympic swimmer who many world records and won five gold medals in 1924 and 1928, who made a bunch of Tarzan movies. His Tarzan yell is the one imitated by Carol Burnett.

Esther Williams was another star swimmer who set national and regional records before becoming an actor. She actually spent several months swimming with Weissmuller before being “discovered”.