Some of the best — and worst — movie performances by athletes

Updated June 27, 2018 - 8:47 pm

Some films adapt classic works of literature. Others stem from original ideas fashioned by revered auteurs.

“Uncle Drew” stars basketball player Kyrie Irving and is based on a series of Pepsi commercials.

Then again, a similar formula worked for 1996’s “Space Jam”: Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes characters who appeared in his Nike ads.

With “Uncle Drew” hitting theaters this weekend, here’s a look back at a few — but most certainly not all — other notable performances by athletes who dabbled in movies:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Airplane!” (1980)

The master of the skyhook took to the skies as co-pilot Roger Murdock, who is absolutely not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, no matter what that little snot Joey says during his visit to the cockpit.

O.J. Simpson, “The Naked Gun” trilogy (1988-1994)

Ever since that night in Brentwood 24 years ago it hasn’t felt quite right to laugh about anything involving Simpson. Still, it’s nearly impossible to keep a straight face while watching him as the accident-prone Officer Nordberg, thanks to the lunacy created by “Airplane!” writers Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker. It’s also the best acting Simpson ever displayed outside of a courtroom.

Alex Karras, “Blazing Saddles” (1974)

Following a 12-year NFL career, the defensive tackle would go on to star as Squash Bernstein in “Victor/Victoria,” Sheriff Wallace in “Porky’s” and George Papadapolis on the “Diff’rent Strokes” knockoff “Webster.” But Karras forever will be remembered by comedy fans as Mongo, the hulking brute who rides into Rock Ridge on an ox and immediately punches out a horse.

Ray Allen, “He Got Game” (1998)

Putting Allen, then a young guard with the Milwaukee Bucks, on a movie set opposite Denzel Washington sounds like every bit as much of a mismatch as putting Washington on a basketball court with one of the best pure shooters ever to play in the Association. Both proved to be surprisingly versatile, as hoops phenom Jesus Shuttlesworth and his estranged father, and delivered one of writer-director Spike Lee’s best movies.

Mike Tyson, “The Hangover” (2009)

Is it a big part? Nope. Is it a pivotal one? Not really. But is the longtime Las Vegan’s role as a tiger-owning, Phil Collins-loving, Zach Galifianakis-punching version of himself forgettable? Not even close.

Bob Uecker, “Major League” (1989)

The light-hitting catcher had been a regular in Miller Lite commercials and was wrapping up his fourth season on TV’s “Mr. Belvedere” when he hit movie screens as hard-drinking play-by-play man Harry Doyle. Uecker’s take on the Cleveland Indians’ radio voice helped pave the way for countless forgettable ESPN anchors with an announcing style that was juuuuust a bit outside of normal.

LeBron James, “Trainwreck” (2015)

King James faced stiff competition from wrestler John Cena to stand out as the funniest athlete in the Amy Schumer comedy. But his role as Bill Hader’s character’s best friend, who just happens to be LeBron James, is so downright weird — from his penny-pinching to his “Downton Abbey” obsession to his near maniacal devotion to Cleveland — it almost makes up for his performance in “The Decision.” Almost.

Gina Carano, “Haywire” (2012)

Plenty of mixed martial arts stars have gone the acting route, from Randy Couture in the “Expendables” movies to Ronda Rousey in “Furious 7.” But only the Trinity Christian graduate has worked with a director the caliber of Steven Soderbergh — and a cast including the likes of Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor — in her first starring role.

Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier, “The Thing With Two Heads” (1972)

What happens when a black death-row inmate (NFL Pro Bowler Grier) has the head of a dying racist surgeon (Oscar winner Ray Milland) grafted onto his shoulder? Awfulness. Legendary, delightful, amazing awfulness.

Kurt Thomas, “Gymkata” (1985)

The gold medal won by the 1984 U.S. men’s gymnastics team was a triumph for the sport but terrible for movies. Mitch Gaylord went on to star in 1986’s lousy “American Anthem.” His teammate Thomas fared even worse in this martial arts mistake that combined gymnastics with karate to produce something no one wanted to see. In a movie filled with more unnecessary flipping than the mixology scenes in “Cocktail,” few moments are as silly as the one in which Thomas’ character defeats an entire village full of menacing types armed with pitchforks, spears and scythes by — wait for it — spinning around on the town’s randomly placed pommel horse.

Dennis Rodman, “Double Team” (1997)

A year after his then-teammate Michael Jordan starred in “Space Jam,” Rodman portrayed a rainbow-haired arms dealer alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme. It did not go well. “Who does your hair?” Van Damme asks him. “Siegfried or Roy?” Whaaa? At one point, Van Damme wonders if Rodman’s character can fly a plane. His response? “Like a bird.” So, badly then? Because a bird would make a horrible pilot. Almost as horrible as “Double Team.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence @reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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