Richard Martin

Football Players Not Typically Cut Out For Hollywood

Created on Aug. 07, 2014 5:52 AM EST

Part 2 of 2 ...

Many ex-NFL players make it to the broadcast booth with mixed success but only a few achieve more than cameo roles in movies or TV shows. 

It’s no surprise. How many guys in high school acted in plays and were on the football team? Not many.

Actors need youthful looks to break through, just as actresses do. Athletes and actors alike have a short window to make it big. Athletes making the move into acting after a full sports career will be doing so in their 30s. And buff bods are enough to get some gigs but not to secure a career — just as hot actresses are so plentiful that you need a lot more than looks.

First on the list has to be Alex Karras. He had a long, successful career in both TV and movies, and had some memorable moments that movie fans will never forget.

The same is true of his football career. He was a great player for the Iowa Hawkeyes, leading them to their first Rose Bowl win in 1957. He won the Outland Trophy and was runner-up in voting for the Heisman.

He went on to have a successful career with the Detroit Lions. Yes, that’s right, the Lions had some good teams when Karras and Roger Brown were the defensive tackles. They chased around Bart Starr for a Thanksgiving thrashing in 1962. The Lions have had few shining moments since.

He was colorful. He hated his coach at Iowa, Forest Evashevski, throwing his shoe at him once. During one season in the NFL he and Green Bay’s Paul Hornung were suspended a year for gambling on NFL games.

As a broadcaster, he’s remembered for saying Otis Sistrunk graduated from the University of Mars.

Mel Brooks fans, on the other hand, know him as Mongo, the dim-witted lout who knocked down a horse with one punch. And you had to love his line: “Mongo just pawn in game of life.”

Karras played plenty of tough guys, but that wasn’t all. He was on movies and TV shows and had a long run on “Webster.” He had prominent roles in “Porky’s,” “Victor Victoria” and had a turn as a nasty thug in “Against All Odds.” He had a great role as a potato farmer in the miniseries “Centennial.” He proved himself to be a character actor not dependent on good looks.

He was one of the more notable guests on Johnny Carson’s late-night show, which is unsurpassed.

Not too far behind is Jim Brown. His career in the NFL needs no embellishment. He was the running back ever (so far at least) and the hardest running back to bring down. He’s in three sports hall of fames, the NFL, college football and lacrosse.

In his second life, he was a very good tough guy in two very good movies and in plenty of fun but not great movies. 

His best movie by far was “The Dirty Dozen,” a true classic and the ultimate guy’s action movie headlined by Lee Marvin, who for my money was better than John Wayne. Among those in the film were Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, George Kennedy, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland. Wow. 

But he was also in “Ice Station Zebra,” a good action flick with Borgnine, Rock Hudson and Patrick McGoohan. That was the movie that turned on gazillionaire wacko Howard Hughes, who watched it hundreds of times in his home movie theater.

Brown played a killer in “The Running Man,” a decent movie with Arnold Scharzenegger and Richard Dawson.

Brown was also in “Any Given Sunday,” “Mars Attacks!,” “She Hate Me” and “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.” 

Another running back who made his mark in entertainment is Ed Marinaro. He was not nearly as good on the field as Brown, but was at least as good an actor. If not better.

Marinaro is best-known for playing Joe Coffey in “Hill Street Blues,” a classic TV show from the 1980s. His work is almost exclusively TV, with none of it as well-known as “Blues.” Still, he played Joey Buttafuoco in a TV movie. Haha!

Those are the top three. Here’s a roundup of the rest:

Am I forgetting a famous jailbird? No, indeed, I am not. O.J. Simpson (yet another running back -- notice a trend here?) was in a hilarious comedy from the 1980s, “Naked Gun.” (Sports fans remember plenty of broadcasters and jocks in that movie, with Reggie Jackson the would-be assassin who plotted to kill the British queen in Anaheim.)

There are two great scenes with Simpson. He runs the gantlet of suffering in the two scenes. My favorite is at the hospital, where Leslie Nielsen talks to his wife. “Who would do such a thing?” she asks. “It’s hard to tell. A roving gang of thugs, a blackmailer, an angry husband, a gay lover.”

Simpson was in the second “Naked Gun” movie but missed the third. We all know why. 

He was also in “Capricorn One” and “Towering Inferno,” both good movies. I never thought much of his acting, but he wasn’t terrible.

John Matuszak had a decent career, highlighted by performances in “North Dallas Forty” and the excellent “Goonies.” He played tough guys well and had some talent. He died at age 38 of heart failure. 

Fred Williamson has been in plenty of movies, though none of them is very good. The Hammer was a terrific player.

Bubba Smith was in “Police Academy.” Lovable big guy without a whole lot of talent.

Howie Long had a few roles, but like Williamson and some others mentioned, too often he resembled a wooden statue. Still, he was OK in “Broken Arrow” with John Travolta. He’s a good broadcaster.

Brian Bosworth had to retire from the NFL after three seasons. He was hyped for “Stone Cold,” but didn’t light the world on fire.

I have one more figure to mention. Last but not least, there’s Don Meredith. Like the others mentioned, he had some credits. None of those roles compared with his NFL broadcasting.

But he had a lot more than that. The casting of Meredith and Howard Cosell was perfect. It made “Monday Night Football” the giant that it would become. You won’t find better casting this side of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting.”

Watching the game each Monday night became an event that had nothing to do with the quality of the matchup. You just loved to see the repartee between those two guys. 

Lots of people hated Cosell. That’s what he was there for. He was playing a role, and he was ideal.

Meredith, on the other hand, was the fun-loving country boy. That’s who he was, so it was no stretch.

I have many great memories of Meredith. There was one awful game, with the home team getting massacred. Most everyone had left. The camera focused on a disgruntled hometown fan who flashed the middle-finger salute.

Dandy Don was all over it. “We’re number one!” He also referred to President Nixon as Tricky Dick. It’s possible he originated that moniker.

There was also the night he was broadcasting a Cleveland Browns game. The Browns had a receiver named Fair Hooker. Dandy Don came up with a dandy one: “Fair Hooker ... well, I haven’t met one yet.”

Here’s the movie I’d like to see: one about Meredith and Cosell. 

Let’s see. Dandy Don’s played by Matthew McConaughey, who was great in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Cosell? Well, I have several possibilities: Christian Bale (great in “American Hustle”), Liev Schreiber (“Donovan,” and a solid overall career) and Hugh Jackman, who’s shown a lot of range lately, with “Prisoners” and “Les Miserables” among his recent efforts.

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