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From the NFL to playing in Hollywood

February 01, 2009|Glenn Whipp

Not all that long ago (OK, it was back when Los Angeles had a pro football team, but still. . .) when Hollywood needed a TV tough guy or a B-movie action star or a lunkhead to liven up a sitcom with a "Very Special guest appearance," casting agents would turn on a football game, look for a player with a little charisma and presence and pick up the phone.

These days, instead of Jim Brown blowing up bad guys or Carl Weathers, wearing those red, white and blue boxing trunks, dancing rings around Rocky Balboa, or, yes, even O.J. Simpson running through the airport on his way to working in another "Naked Gun" movie, we have the sorry spectacle of tough guy Warren Sapp on "Dancing With the Stars." Or ball-hog wide receiver Terrell Owens ogling "Desperate Housewives" actress Nicollette Sheridan in a lame skit before "Monday Night Football." Or worse: Deion Sanders riding a motorized scooter around his 40,000-square-foot house in a reality TV series on (gulp) the Oxygen Channel.

Is this the level to which football players have sunk to partake in our popular culture? Does it make us sound a little old and a little peeved to lament this sad state of affairs and plaintively ask: Where have all the Bubbas (as in Smith) gone? And how do we get them back?

More than any other sport, football has produced players who have made the leap from the playing field to Hollywood and have gone on to sustain second careers as actors. New York Giants star Frank Gifford (pre-pre-Kathie Lee) paved the way as pro football caught on nationally in the 1950s, but it wasn't until Jim Brown joined up with "The Dirty Dozen" in 1967 that a gridiron hero scored a touchdown at the box office.

"Jim Brown in 'The Dirty Dozen' . . . that was the best when I was a kid," Spike Lee tells The Times. "It was: 'Don't kill Jim Brown! Run, Jim! Run! But, alas, he got it."

Brown, a Cleveland Browns running back known for inflicting punishment on any defender trying to tackle him, had no trouble translating his intimidating style to the screen, making a succession of low-budget action movies, including one ("100 Rifles") that had him -- shirtless, no less -- in the trenches with Raquel Welch. (Fans of fine corsets and bad accents can find the early interracial love scene on YouTube.)

Brown's on-screen exploits opened the floodgates for bruisers like Fred "The Hammer" Williamson and media darlings like New York Jets quarterback "Broadway" Joe Namath. Suddenly, football players were everywhere. Former Detroit Lions lineman Alex Karras punched out a horse in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" and then turned into a softie on "Webster." Chicago Bears defensive terror Dick Butkus turned up on sitcoms and police procedurals. Fred Dryer got his own cop show ("Hunter"), and Rams teammate Merlin Olsen became Michael Landon's sidekick on "Little House on the Prairie."

OK, so none of these guys was keeping Newman and Redford up at nights. But for a decade and a half, you couldn't miss NFL players plying their trade on TV and the movies, tapping into their heavy-duty, hard-hitting image or broadly subverting it. Dialogue was kept to a minimum. Gimmicks ruled the day. When Butkus got a gig on "Emergency!" he played a wuss complaining that his son tackled him too hard.

Sure, it was corny. But charisma sold it. And if you didn't see these guys on a series, you couldn't miss them on a commercial break, arguing the finer points of light beer in a long-running series of commercials.

Many of the players -- Smith, Williamson, Weathers, Ben Davidson, John Matuszak, Lyle Alzado and, later, Howie Long -- logged time with the Raiders, then an organization known for both for its commitment to excellence and penchant for signing renegade oddballs whose outlaw appeal translated nicely to Hollywood.

"We were just selling the Raiders' image to the public," says Williamson, who starred in a series of blaxploitation films in the 1970s and probably sports the deepest Hollywood resume of any former football player. "You wear that black uniform with pirate logo and it's not that much of a reach for someone to think, 'Hey, that's who that guy is.' "

That the Raiders haven't been those Raiders for a long time explains their relative absence today in movies and TV. But why haven't 21st century head-bangers like Ray Lewis and Michael Strahan shown up on the screen? Why can't Peyton or Eli Manning appear on, say, "The Office," instead of a lame walk-on with "American Idol"?

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