By Stacy Jenel Smith
It's a good time for jocks in Tinsel Town.\Thanks to the successes of current sports stars from wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens -- who earned great critical praise starring opposite Tobey Maguire
and Jeff Bridges as jockey George Woolf in "Seabiscuit" -- the industry is receptive right now to athletes with acting aspirations. Sports champs in today's entertainment milieu are being met with much more eager smiles than they were 10 or 20 years ago.
Ever since Olympic swimming star Johnny Weissmuller swung to success in 1932's "Tarzan, the Ape Man," Hollywood has had a complicated love affair with famous athletes. The town is enraptured by their renown and physical prowess -- but many are the professional players who've complained about facing preconceived notions that they probably can't act. To be sure, Johnny looked great in a loin cloth, but his lines were severely limited.
Burt Reynolds was tops at the box office in his heyday -- but has said that his jock image probably contributed to the difficulty he had in achieving respect for his acting. The one-time Baltimore Colts draftee (whose football career ended with a knee injury) was overlooked awards season after awards season, but eventually earned an Oscar nomination for "Boogie Nights." He has several movies on tap this year.
Sometimes, of course, the preconceived notions were right -- inciting jokes and derision. Long before he became a murder suspect, NFL Hall of Famer OJ Simpson committed bad acting in some bad movies.
Olympic decathlon winner Bruce Jenner turned down the title role in "Superman," but signed up for the bomb "Can't Stop the Music" about the Village People. He did several made-for-TV movies and appeared on "CHiPs."
Olympic gymnast Mitch Gaylord bombed on the big screen with "American Anthem."
For Dennis Rodman, even co-starring with Jean-Claude Van Damme couldn't help "Double Team," an action thriller that bombed. He tried again with the miserable "Simon Sez" and had a short-lived music career. Rodman returns to acting -- sort of -- on a new season of "Celebrity Mole."
Five gold medals in swimming couldn't keep Mark Spitz from sinking like a stone when he popped up in several performing attempts, including trying to do comedy on a Bob Hope special.
Today's jock-turned-actor is different from many of his or her predecessors in several respects. For one thing, they tend to be much more savvy about show business. For another, most no longer wait until the end of their sports careers to launch themselves as entertainers.
The Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal is just one example of a guy at the top of his game who moonlights cutting records and making movies. Of course, so far the evidence suggests he should hang on to his day job as long as possible. He starred as a genie in "Kazaam" but couldn't make magic at the box office. The movie flopped but he returned with "Steel," an action film that did even worse.
On the other hand, Ray Allen, now with the Seattle Supersonics, got good reviews opposite Denzel Washington in "He Got Game," then had a small part in "Harvard Man."
The Lakers' resident hunk, Rick Fox, actually majored in drama while playing basketball at UNC, then after several seasons with the Boston Celtics decided to sign with the Los Angeles team to be closer to Hollywood and his acting dream. He's been featured in such films as "He Got Game" and "Holes," had a recurring role in HBO's "OZ" and Lifetime's "1-800-Missing" that debuted last fall with Gloria Reuben in the lead. And, of course, his handsome countenance can't be missed in those Radio Shack commercials he does with his gorgeous actress wife, Vanessa Williams.
The No. 1 tennis player in the world, Serena Williams, has dabbled in television, appearing on episodes of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Street Time." She also has a part in the upcoming movie, "Beauty Shop."
In figure skating, gold medal winner Tara Lipinski appeared on "The Young and the Restless" and "7th Heaven" between competitions and ice shows. She now says that acting is her priority, and she's been immersed in acting classes.
Olympic track and field gold medalist Florence Griffith Joyner made TV appearances in "The Nanny" and "Santa Barbara."
In baseball, Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams recently released a well-received jazz album featuring Bela Fleck and Ruben Blades.
On the gridiron, Cincinnati Bengal All-Pro defensive tackle Mike Reid left for a music career in Nashville at the height of his football career. Reid became quite the accomplished singer, songwriter and composer, winning two Grammies and penning tunes for Bonnie Raitt, Anita Baker and Willie Nelson. Most recently he's written for Broadway.
And then there's Michael Jordan. When you're the greatest athlete of the 20th century, you really only have to play yourself. That's what Jordan did opposite Bugs Bunny in "Space Jam" which grossed more than $200 million. He went back to playing basketball after making the movie, which good-naturedly made light of his attempt to switch to a baseball career.
The Rock took time off from professional wrestling to appear in "The Mummy Returns." He returned in "The Scorpion King" and was soon dubbed Hollywood's hottest new action hero -- and was verbally anointed by none other than former champion bodybuilder Arnold Schwazenegger to take up where the California governor left off in the he-man movie realm. The Rock has four movies in the works including "Be Cool," the sequel to "Get Shorty," with John Travolta.
Although he makes an impressive $15 million per picture, the Rock says he'll never stop wrestling.
And who would dare to argue?<