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With Michael Jordan Scoring Big in 'Space Jam,' Star Athletes With Hollywood Dreams Are... : Taking Their Shot

November 20, 1996|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Space Jam" starring Michael Jordan takes in $27.5 million last weekend, landing it atop Hollywood's box-office heap.

Jordan's Chicago Bulls teammate, Dennis Rodman, is reportedly being paid $2 million to co-star in an action film with Jean-Claude Van Damme. There's a movie project lined up for Oscar De La Hoya if the boxing champ can ever get time between training sessions. Former Raider Howie Long has a budding career in action films in the wake of the hit "Broken Arrow." Agents for Ricky Watters are actively looking for the right movie vehicle for the Philadelphia Eagles running back.

Is a new era of jock Hollywood upon us?

Anyone truly believing the public clamor to see athletes in movies need only remember two sobering words: "Stone Cold." That was the film that was supposed to make former rebellious Seattle Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth into a movie star. Instead, the film's title aptly describes how moviegoers received it.

Hollywood has a long history of putting athletes into movies, from champion swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon to champion bodybuilder-turned-Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger. An even smaller number have enjoyed consistent acting success, usually in roles unrelated to their former careers in sports, such as Fred Dryer in the TV cop show "Hunter" and former UCLA basketball star Mike Warren in the acclaimed police show "Hill Street Blues."

For the most part, hanging a movie or TV show on a sports star is usually a really bad idea. Think Joe Namath as a laughable biker in "C.C. & Co." or Jim Brown in "100 Rifles." Muhammad Ali's "The Greatest" wasn't--by a long shot. Even "Kazaam" with Shaquille O'Neal as a genie failed to generate any box-office magic.

There's no guarantee that a public saturated with sport stars on television wants to see them in feature-length movies or on a regular TV show. And athletes usually get hooked up with bad material because they aren't being hired for their acting skills. So most athletes-turned-actors end up in bit parts or cameos, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's stint as an airline pilot in the comedy "Airplane!"

Still, Jordan's success will no doubt prompt more athletes to try to leverage their celebrity into movie careers, pitching studio executives, agents and actors who are often as enamored with sports celebrities themselves as the athletes are with Hollywood's glitter.

"Just as every actor wants to play basketball, be a fighter, play baseball or play football, every athlete wants to be in the movie business," said Henry Holmes, a Beverly Hills sports and entertainment lawyer who represents such clients as boxer George Foreman.

Part of the appeal of athletes today to studios is that sports stars now enjoy the kind of celebrity status--often on a global scale--that few athletes in earlier eras did. Shaq's celebrity extends beyond Inglewood to Japan, Europe, virtually every continent.

"In today's atmosphere, sports celebrities are huge, huge icons," said Warner Bros. co-Chairman Robert Daly, whose studio released "Space Jam."'

Still, Daly cautions, only a handful of sports stars will ever prove to be true movie stars, and only if they are hooked up with the right material.

In the case of Jordan, he said, Warner didn't set out just to make a movie with the star, but rather found a way to link him with material--in this case a comedy featuring its classic animated Looney Tunes characters--that it believed was the right fit.

Holmes compares the plight of the athlete trying to break into movies to that of television stars, who often find it hard to translate their small-screen success into silver screen stardom.

"It's extremely difficult. It's hard to find one that hasn't been overexposed," he said.

Spend a Fortune, Save a Few Bucks

If the hundreds of "Space Jam" products aren't evidence enough that the days are long gone when all people bought was a poster, soundtrack or T-shirt from a favorite movie, here's more: Discount coupons on "Space Jam" merchandise are available provided you spend at least $50 on stuff from the movie.

Times staff writer James Bates can be reached via e-mail at james.bates@latimes.com or by fax at (213) 237-2686.

Thursday: Health

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