A-List Actors Who Love to Do Sports Movies
No actor is in every sports movie, but there are a few whose faces have started to look familiar over the years through the bars of a facemask or the visor of a race car helmet.
From pool to fist fighting, boxing to football, poker to figure skating, we’re going to cover it all as we count down to No. 1, the best thing that ever happened to sports movies, Mr. Paul Newman.
Quantity is important here, but it’s not the only thing. You must also ask yourself, how good were the movies? And at what level of quality was the acting? All of the actors on this list also have two things in common: All have been in three or more sports movies, and any reasonable adult not living under a rock could name at least one of those movies.
Here we go—20 actors who are pretty comfortable in sports movies. An honorable mention goes to Ray Liotta, just because he’s awesome—and I’m pretty sure his rightful place in this world is the set of an old-time baseball movie.
Blue Chips, better known as "Shaq’s first movie," also starred Nick Nolte as a college basketball coach struggling with the—cough—challenges of athlete eligibility. Nolte starred as a football player in North Dallas Forty and former boxer in Warrior as well.
I know that when I think of Adam Sandler, I also think of The Wedding Singer, but as it were, the funnyman actually made three sports movies in between Drew Barrymore flicks—The Waterboy (college football), Happy Gilmore (golf) and the 2005 remake of The Longest Yard (prison football).
James Earl Jones
Who could forget James Earl Jones as the controversial writer/closet baseball fan Terence Mann in Field of Dreams? You probably did forget him as a Negro League catcher in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings and as a boxing champion in The Great White Hope, but he was in those too, I promise.
Tom Cruise and his, um, modest stature don’t exactly scream “athlete,” but his sports movies are no doubt memorable. He starred opposite Paul Newman in a 1986 film about pool hustling, The Color of Money, directed by Martin Scorsese. He also bolstered his fame with the 1990 NASCAR flick Days of Thunder.
But Cruise’s most famous sports role has to be that of a struggling sports agent in Jerry Maguire. It was this film, based loosely on the career of real-life agent Leigh Steinberg, that spawned one of the most-used catchphrases to ever come out of a sports movie. You know the one: “Show me the money!”
Cruise's co-star, Cuba Gooding Jr., won an Oscar for his role as Maguire's only client, Rod Tidwell.
Love and sports—how often they go together.
Al Pacino got his start in sports movies with Bobby Deerfield, a 1977 film about a race car driver who falls in love with a terminally ill woman. He also played a wealthy businessman/gambling ring boss in Two for the Money, and he was sort of believable as a football coach in Any Given Sunday.
But let’s be real: Ultimately, Pacino is at his best in gangster movies.
You probably recall seeing Clint Eastwood in such sports films as the incredible Million Dollar Baby and the less-than-incredible Trouble with the Curve. And you may also know that although he did not appear in Invictus (2009), the grizzled Hollywood veteran did direct the true story of the 1995 South African rugby team.
But since Eastwood is 100(ish) years old, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that he also starred in the earlier pseudo-sports movie Every Which Way But Loose in 1978 and its 1980 sequel, Any Which Way You Can. Fist fighting counts as a sport, right?
Before he was an Oscar winner, Matthew McConaughey was alternating between Kate Hudson romantic comedies and sports movies. He portrayed Marshall head football coach Jack Lengyel in the 2006 drama We Are Marshall. He also bet on football games with Al Pacino in Two for the Money and got depressed about an unfortunate lack of waves in Surfer, Dude.
Bonus! Did you know that he was also in Angels in the Outfield? He played, get this, an outfielder.
A comedian with even more sports movies under his belt than Adam Sandler? He does exist!
Will Ferrell has covered the bases (get it?) with movies about figure skating (Blades of Glory), stock car racing (Talladega Nights), basketball (Semi-Pro) and youth soccer (Kicking and Screaming). And while Old School isn’t exactly a sports movie, Frank the Tank did almost pull off a pretty killer mascot ring of fire stunt. Almost.
Jeff Bridges portrayed Seabiscuit’s owner, Charles Howard, in the 2003 film about the inspirational racehorse. He also played a boxer in Fat City (1972) and a retired baseball player in The Open Road (2009).
If animation counts (it does—I include Cars later on), Bridges voiced a retired surfing champion (who is also a penguin) in Surf’s Up (2007). And because The Big Lebowski is the freaking jam, it has to be included. The Dude plays on a bowling team—totally counts.
Speaking of The Longest Yard, your favorite fictional adult film director (Boogie Nights) had parts in both the original and the remake. Over the course of his career, Burt Reynolds has also played the following sports roles:
- Professional football player in Semi-Tough
- NASCAR driver in Stroker Ace
- Little League coach in The Man from Left Field
- Hockey town judge in Mystery, Alaska
- Racing team owner in Driven
If sports movies had a first lady, that lady would be Rene Russo. Russo played Kevin Costner’s love interest in Tin Cup, Al Pacino’s wife in Two for the Money and Tom Berenger's (aka Jake Taylor) lady in Major League and Major League II.
I know what you’re thinking: The Rocky movies don’t all count as sports movies. True, but man, there were still six of them—well, four movies plus two jokes, anyway.
But he’ll always be Rocky to me.
Not only has Denzel Washington appeared in three sports movies, but he’s appeared in three great sports movies—not an easy feat.
Spike Lee’s He Got Game saw Washington playing the father of real-life baller Ray Allen, who played a top college basketball recruit. Washington also portrayed Rubin Carter in The Hurricane, the true story of a boxer wrongfully accused of murder. The performance earned him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination—rare occurrences in the world of sports movies.
And his award-winning performance in Remember the Titans brought to life another emotional true story, this one about racial integration on a Virginia high school football team.
Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez
Hollywood sibs Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez have combined to play some of the most memorable roles the world of fictional sports has ever seen—Sheen as the four-eyed flamethrower Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn in Major League and Major League II and of course Estevez as the legendary Gordon Bombay in The Mighty Ducks trilogy.
Sheen also depicted one of the Black Sox in Eight Men Out, and Estevez is currently working on a harness racing movie.
In addition to his role as an imprisoned boxer in Undisputed, Wesley Snipes has teamed up with other actors on this list in each of his sports flicks.
- Opposite Robert De Niro in The Fan
- Opposite Charlie Sheen in Major League
- Opposite Woody Harrelson in White Men Can’t Jump and Wildcats
It was close, but the Quaids beat out Sheen and Estevez for the title of "Best Brothers in Sports Cinema." That's going to be a new Oscar category soon, I can feel it.
Little brother Dennis has really run the gamut as far as sports roles are concerned, and he could easily hold a place on this list alone after roles like the following:
- Friend to a man obsessed with cycling in Breaking Away
- College and pro football player in Everybody’s All-American
- Aging quarterback in Any Given Sunday
- High school baseball coach-turned-major leaguer in The Rookie
- Ernie Davis’s football coach at Syracuse in The Express
But come on, tell me you don’t remember Randy Quaid as the irritating Indians fan in Major League II? He also had roles in Balls Out, Kingpin and Days of Thunder.
Robert De Niro
If it’s about boxing and not called Rocky, it’s a good bet that Robert De Niro is in it. The De Niro/Scorcese duo that brought you Taxi Driver also brought you the 1980 boxing drama Raging Bull. And oh, no big deal, but De Niro’s portrayal of embattled boxer Jake LaMotta won him an Oscar.
Sports movies are legit!
Since he hit a home run in his first attempt at playing a fighter, De Niro hung up the gloves and played a promoter in Night and the City and a trainer in the upcoming Hands of Stone.
This is Robert De Niro we’re talking about, though, and the man is no one-trick pony. He also played the part of an obsessed baseball spectator in The Fan and a terminally ill major league catcher in Bang the Drum Slowly.
At first, all I could think of was Kingpin, but on further examination, I remembered that everyone’s favorite drunken Hunger Games victor has actually been in a whole heap ton of sports movies. In fact, Harrelson’s first real film role was a high school football player in Wildcats.
He also played roles like:
- White man who can, in fact, jump in White Men Can’t Jump
- Boxer in Play it to the Bone
- Poker player in The Grand
- Point guard in Semi-Pro
- Surfer Dude’s friend in Surfer, Dude
If it’s about America’s pastime, it’s a good bet that Kevin Costner’s in it.
Probably best known for Field of Dreams, Costner also starred in baseball flicks For Love of the Game and Bull Durham. But we’re not done yet. See below for additional roles that make Costner worthy of a high place on this list:
- Bike riding doctor in American Flyers
- Golf pro in Tin Cup
- “Ringside fan” in Play it to the Bone
- NFL GM in Draft Day
No. 1. The actor who is in every sports movie—the late Paul Newman.
The dude was starring in sports movies as early as 1956, portraying an AWOL soldier-turned-boxer in Somebody Up There Likes Me.
He was nominated for an Oscar for his role as a pool player in The Hustler (1961) and later won one for his role in the 1986 follow-up The Color of Money. In 1977, Newman depicted a player-coach on a minor league hockey team in Slap Shot.
A real-life auto racing enthusiast, driver and owner, the actor brought his love of race cars to the big and small screens more than once. He played an IndyCar driver in Winning (1969) and appeared in two TV documentaries about auto racing, Once Upon a Wheel (1971) and Super Speedway (1977).
Finally, in Cars, Newman voiced retired race car and Piston Cup champ Doc Hudson in the Disney-Pixar masterpiece.