SportsDaughter1 and I were discussing O.J. Simpson the other day.
She’s taking a class at USC, and they recently viewed ESPN’s O.J.: Made In America. She was marveling at the fact that once upon a time one of the most controversial and infamous criminals of our time gained fame for running through an airport in a TV commercial.
It was unfathomable to me that anyone in our society today would not have total recall of those famous Hertz commercials of the ’70’s. Juice, wearing street clothes and briefcase in hand, sprinting through airport corridors, hurdling luggage and other random barriers, while deftly avoiding other travelers with the same jukes and moves that helped him become the first running back to ever accumulate 2000 yards rushing in a single season (a 14-game season, no less).
That was the O.J. I identified with as a boy. Before his tragic fall from grace in June of 1994. Before the murders of his ex-wife and her dear friend, and the trial that mesmerized an entire country. A horrific incident that has seemingly placed the greatest halfback I ever saw on the fast track for one of Dante’s lowest circles of The Inferno.
I had O.J.’s poster on my wall growing up, and was beside myself with anticipation when The Towering Inferno came out in 1974, with O.J. as one of the blockbuster’s supporting actors (the star studded cast included a couple of guys named Paul Newman and Steve McQueen I could have cared less about — this was about The Juice, baby).
It got me to thinking why we don’t see those crossover actors today who got their start on the baseball diamond, or hardwood, or between the hash marks. I know, you’ll throw out The Rock, but I don’t count him. I view him as an entertainer first, initially as a pro wrestler, before transforming into the leading man we see today, who just happened to play college football at The U (I do happen to like the Rock, but he doesn’t make the cut in this conversation).
Part of the intrigue around O.J.’s transition to star of silver screen was that he wasn’t just playing O.J. He was an actor. He was portraying a character, even if it was the one-dimensional security officer in The Towering Inferno. He was trying, despite ultimately finding the right level for his modest-at-best thespian skills, when he settled into his simplistic, character actor roles on The Naked Gun series later on in the ’80’s.
So when I think about my Top 10 All-Time Crossover Actors, I want to see risk taking. I want to see them try. None of this Shaq playing a big, lovable guy named Shaq stuff, even if the big fella does happen to be eminently entertaining and likable.
Nope, this list is for those athletes who decided to “go for it.”
Thus, with apologies to Marion Morrison, the USC gridiron figure of the ’20’s, who went on to a fair amount of Hollywood notoriety after hurting his shoulder and ending his football career prematurely (USC’s coach at the time helped the big kid find a part-time job as a Hollywood prop man in 1927, where he would be discovered and ordered to change his name to John Wayne), here is my personal Top 10 of crossover faves (we will start at #9, since we are giving the #10 slot on my list to O.J.):
#9 — Alex Karras
Alex Karras makes my list because his overall body of work, first as a football player, and later as an actor, is flat out cool, and covers so many eras and reincarnations. He was an all-time NFL great with some under appreciated Lions teams of the ’50’s and ’60’s, suffered through a year-long suspension for gambling in 1963, and even did a season in the Monday Night Football booth in 1975. However, Karras nearly fell off this list, because his most noteworthy acting performance was as the Dad on the Webster sitcom of the ’80’s, which was an incredibly snooze-worthy role (others who fell victim to successful but boring roles keeping them off this list would include Merlin Olsen on Father Murphy, Ed Marinaro with Hill Street Blues and Rosey Grier, because I simply missed all of Rosey’s stuff). Karras sneaks in at #9 thanks to his being cast as Mongo in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles in 1974. If you never watched Blazing Saddles, watch it. Tonight. Nuff said.
#8 — Bob Uecker
“Ueck” has made a career out of his self-deprecating look back on his playing days as a minimally talented, backup catcher in the bigs. He’s one of these naturally funny men, who goes over big as a Brewers announcer to this day, just as he did as a Miller Lite pitchman back in the ’70’s. But we remember him most fondly as the Indians public address announcer, Harry Doyle (“juuuuuust a bit outside”), in the baseball cult classic, Major League. However, despite the fact that I love Major League as much as any self-respecting baseball fan does, Ueck wouldn’t make this list for that role, which was essentially Uecker playing Bob Uecker. Instead, Ueck gains inclusion at #8 on our list for his role as the Dad and straight man to Christopher Hewitt’s title character in the ’80’s sitcom, Mr. Belvedere. If you are around my age, here’s guessing you also found yourself stranded at home on a Friday night more than once during the high school years, with nothing on the tube but “Belvedere.” And Ueck killed it. The guy can act.
#7 — Fred Dryer
Building on the theme of stranded at home, alone or with a couple of bored buddies, watching TV on a pre-cable Friday night in the mid- to late-’80’s, do we have any other fans of the Hunter series out there? Fred Dryer, the good, not great D-lineman of Giants and Rams fame in the ’70’s, seemingly appeared out of nowhere as the no-nonsense cop with the catch phrase “works for me.” The show managed to stick around for eight seasons, despite never boasting strong ratings, or particularly interesting plot lines, sticking to the formulaic norm of the times. Yet for us twenty-somethings killing time and nursing six-packs of Old Milwaukee, there was always Dryer and his co-star, Stepfanie (yes, that’s how she spelled it) Kramer, to hold our attention (google her).
#6 — Bubba Smith
Another NFL all-time great, the legendary D-lineman of the ’60’s and ’70’s successfully transitioned to the big screen in the 1980’s. Smith and his fellow Hall of Famer, Dick Butkus, first entertained us with their appearance on those iconic Miller Lite ads in the ’70’s, and Bubba parlayed that popularity into the role of Hightower on the always-entertaining Police Academy series of slapstick films. It was interesting to me that Smith, who was borderline frightening as the 6’7 tackling machine for those great Colts teams I grew up disliking, would turn out to be the funny, gentle giant figure of those hysterical flicks. That’s the epitome of “crossing over” and earns him this solid #6.
#5 — Rick Fox
Hey, it’s my list, so I can include whoever I want, and Rick Fox belongs. The unremarkable NBA forward with the pretty boy looks and Jheri curls unexpectedly popped up on the 1990’s HBO prison drama, Oz. Playing the role of former NBA star Jackson Vahue, Fox does a tremendous job of inspiring the viewer to dislike his character, a complex, but in the final analysis, despicable inmate on one of the cable network’s most underrated series.
#4 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
As I compiled this list, Kareem’s inclusion was my toughest debate. Early on I decided to exclude any actors who simply portrayed themselves in a cameo-like appearance (Keith Hernandez on Seinfeld, as an example), or simply played on screen versions of themselves. However, when it comes to Kareem as co-pilot Roger Murdock (“Roger, Roger”) in Airplane!, he simply must be included. Kareem’s reaction when young Joey, visiting the cockpit, tells KAJ his dad says he doesn’t work hard enough on defense and only tries during the playoffs (grabbing the kid by the shirt and telling him to tell his Dad to try and carry Walton and Lanier up and down the court 48 minutes a night — YouTube this one, too) is absolutely priceless. It showed an ability to poke fun at himself that none of us expected from the notoriously humorless center. Had to include him.
#3 — Chuck Connors
I didn’t even like The Rifleman as a kid, but the fact that Connors had played first base for the Dodgers (he had one AB in 1949) and Cubs (.238 with 2 HR’s and 18 RBI’s in ’51) compelled me to suffer through reruns of the lame western every weekend growing up (I particularly couldn’t stand the kid that played Chuck’s son). Was it just me, or did it seem like every time it was raining on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and I was forced inside, if I tuned to either Channel 5 or 11 hoping to find an F-Troop episode, instead I could be certain to see Chuck’s grimace under that ten-gallon hat of his.
#2 — Joe Namath
He’s on this list for one movie, and two specific reasons within that movie. First, as a kid late one night in the early 1970’s, I happened to tune into C.C. & Company, and was immediately spellbound by the whole concept of the motorcycle club and its badass brotherhood. When it turned out Namath was one of the crew, I was all in. To this day, I can’t walk through a supermarket without smiling at the memory of the Jets QB strolling the aisles of a local market in full Hells Angels biker gear, pulling sandwich fixings from their packaged containers and making himself a snack, before replacing them back on the shelves. The scene culminates with Namath’s character asking the market’s checkout lady (flashing that “cat who just ate the canary” smirk he was famous for) where he could find the napkins. Awesome stuff. Oh yeah, and he got to pose with Ann-Margaret, too, which made watching it again as a teenager even more enjoyable.
#1 — Jim Brown
The whole Jim Brown story line is impressive. Easily the best player of his day in the NFL. Dominant. Retires at the height of his success and embarks on a career in Hollywood. But for me, this #1 ranking all comes down to one movie and one role. Brown as Robert Jefferson in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen. It was a long movie, and I caught it late one night when I was about ten years old, stunned that my Dad didn’t make me to go to bed as the hour grew late. Dad even let me come back out the following night to see the movie’s conclusion (the frequent commercial breaks required it to be aired on Channel 9 in two parts over two nights, each concluding well after midnight). That cast boasted Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Donald Sutherland and Telly Savalas, but the one I’ll always remember and identify with was the pro athlete turned actor — Jim Brown.
I find it interesting that included on my list are six football players but only two NBAers and two baseball players. That the guys who are hidden under helmets and the least identifiable to fans are the most likely to succeed in the world of crossover success is probably worth examining at some time. But for now, it’s just a fun trip back in time, when the knowledge that a former pro athlete was part of the cast made for a reason to pay extra attention.