On the Top Football Player/ Actors of the 1970s and 80s

Today, a brief survey of the many football player actors who dotted the pop cultural landscape of my youth in the 1970s. Footballers as thespians was not unprecedented in Hollywood prior to this period. Just the other day, for example, we wrote about Johnny Mack Brown, a star college halfback before becoming an MGM leading man and star of westerns. And ye gods! Let’s not forget Paul Robeson, although he was a long list of things besides a football star. But there seemed to be a flood of them in the ’70s. My theory as to why has to do with the growth of the league. The first Superbowl was in 1967. Stars began to be be groomed, with big salaries, endorsement deals, announcer gigs, public appearances, and finally movie contracts. Another factor is social change. Concurrent with the civil rights movement, African American talent was sought in film and television. These guys came with pre-existing marquee value; they were bankable stars before even reading a line of dialogue.

Naturally, action roles suited these bruisers and maulers best, although they often went against type as well for comic effect. Some were surprisingly good; more predictably, some were better at hitting tackle dummies than hitting their marks. Here are several of the major ones:

Jim Brown

Former Cleveland Browns fullback (often called the Greatest Player in NFL History) is one of the pioneers. His first film appearance was in the western Rio Conchos in 1964, although he made a bigger splash with his next film, box office smash The Dirty Dozen (1967). Ice Station Zebra (1968) was a big time snooze, but Brown played the lead in the interesting all-star Donald Westlake caper film The Split (1968) and was to remain a leading man through the early ’80s in such films as Riot (1969), 100 Rifles (1969), …tick…tick…tick (1970), Black Gunn (1972), Three the Hard Way (1974), Take a Hard Ride (1975), and tons of others. From the 80s and onwards the parts got smaller, but many prestige directors, honoring his historical significance continued to give him smaller roles in their pictures, such as Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks (1996) and Spike Lee, in the films He Got Game (1998) and She Hate Me (2004).

Rosey Grier

Likable Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier has many claims to fame besides his time playing for the Giants and Rams. He was a professional singer and recording artist starting in 1960 (one of his songs even charted). He was Bobby Kennedy’s bodyguard. He had his own public affairs TV talk show. He wrote a book about needle point. He’s a cousin of Pam Grier. And, starting in 1965, an actor in guest appearances in upwards of 70 episodes of network television, including recurring stints on Daniel Boone (1969-1970), Make Room for Grandaddy (1970-71), and Movin’ On (1975-76). He’s also in several films, including Skyjacked (1972), Rabbit Test (1978), and — most notoriously — the 1972 camp horror movie The Thing With Two Heads. After a 1983 episode of The Jeffersons, Grier has focused mostly on his latest career as a Protestant minister and conservative activist.

Fred Williamson

Defensive back Fred Williamson (of the Steelers, the Raiders, and the Chiefs) is often grouped with Jim Brown as one of the great trailblazing African Americans in cinema, with a voluminous track record as an actor, and a later one as producer and director. After TV roles on Ironside (1968) Star Trek (1969) and Diahann Carroll’s pathbreaking Julia, Williamson broke into films as “Spearchucker” Jones in Robert Altman’s MASH (1970), which made use of his football abilities as well as his acting skills. He is closely associated with both Blaxploitation vehicles and westerns, with films including The Legend of N–ger Charley (1972), The Soul of N–ger Charley (1973), Black Caesar (1973), Hell Up in Harlem (1973), Three the Hard Way (1974), Bucktown (1975), and the original Inglorious Bastards (1978). With the advent of the ’80s his career became narrowly focused on low-budget action films, a vineyard in which he still toils today.

Bernie Casey

Bernie Casey was so successful in his acting career (and so good at it) that I never knew until recently that he’d begun his professional life playing for the 49ers and the Rams. His first movie was Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969), and then came lots of Blaxploitation work: …tick…tick…tick…(1970), Black Chariot (1971), Black Gunn (1973), Cleopatra Jones (1973), and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (1974). He also had roles in the classic TV movie Brian’s Song (1972) and in the early Scorsese film Boxcar Bertha (1972). In addition to lots of TV work over the years, he had a really good chain of well known movie work starting in the second half of the ’70s, in movies like The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), The Martian Chronicles (1980), Sharkey’s Machine (1981), the Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983, as Felix Leiter), Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Spies Like Us (1985), Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Another 48 Hours (1990), and Under Seige (1992). His last film role was in Vegas Vampires (2007), directed by fellow ex-footballer Fred Williamson (see above). I was sad to hear Casey passed away just last year.

Merlin Olsen

A former defensive tackle for the L.A. Rams, Merlin Olsen did most of his acting work in television and only a scant handful of films. His debut was in the John Wayne western The Undefeated (1969) and he was also in the Dean Martin movie Something Big in 1971. His biggest claim to fame was his role as Jonathan on Little House on the Prairie from 1977 through 1981. After this he starred in his own sitcom Father Murphy (1981-83), produced, like Little House, by Michael Landon. His last TV series (and his last acting work) came in the short lived show, Aaron’s Way, in which he played an Amish patriarch. Olsen passed away of cancer in 2010. One of my favorite SCTV sketches had John Candy as slow-to-anger Olsen finally getting so pissed at an obnoxious Jamie Farr (Martin Short) that he finally hauls off and clobbers him.

Joe Namath

I’m just the right age to think of Broadway Joe as the biggest star of them all.  The former Jets (and Rams) quarterback wasn’t in many movies but he was ubiquitous in the early ’70s in TV commercials, print ads, and guest shots on variety shows, sitcoms, etc. He was known for his flamboyance. He owned a nightclub and often went around in what looked like a woman’s fur coat and other glam finery. But he did do a handful of movies, the best known of which were the biker flick C.C. and Company (1970) with Ann-Margret, and the western The Last Rebel (1971). He had his own sitcom in 1978, The Waverly Wonders. He also did summer stock productions of musicals like Damn Yankees, Li’l Abner and Fiddler on the Roof and appeared on Broadway in the 1983 revival of The Caine Mutiny Courtmartial. 

Timothy Brown

Timothy Brown a.k.a Timmy Brown (no relation to Jim Brown) played for the Eagles and the Colts. Unlike many of the others in this survey, Brown was a triple threat: he was a singer (he’d released several records starting in 1962) and even studied tap dancing. His best known acting credits are with Robert Altman: he played Judson in the film version of MASH (1970), and then took over Fred Williamson’s role as Spearchucker in the first season of the TV version. In 1975 he had a bigger role in Altman’s Nashville as “Tommy Brown” (Brown’s actual name), a part loosely based on Charley Pride which allowed him to showcase his singing abilities. Brown also appeared alongside fellow MASH vet John Schuck in an episode during the first season of Mary Tyler Moore, as well as an episode of Adam-12, as well as about a dozen other films. His last screen credit was in the 2000 sci fi film Frequency. 

John Amos 

Newark native Amos graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in sociology. But he was also a star of Colorado State’s football team, which led to a professional career after college. He played for the Denver Broncos for all of one day in 1964, but then pulled a hamstring, sending him down to the minor leagues for a few years. In the mid ’60s he played for such outfits as Cleveland Bulldogs, Joliet Explorers, Norfolk Neptunes, Wheeling Ironmen, Jersey City Jets, the Waterbury Orbits and the Victoria Steelers. By 1967 he briefly returned to the AFL, playing for the Kansas City Chiefs, before washing out again and returning to the minors. In 1970 he got his first acting role on The Bill Cosby Show (as you’ll recall, Cosby played a gym coach on his first sitcom). From here he went on to play Gordy the weather man on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1973-76), Then what was probably his high water mark in terms of visibility, his role as the dad on Good Times (1974-76). Then Kunta Kinte in Roots, and scores of other roles.

Deacon Jones

David D. “Deacon” Jones was a defensive end for the Rams, Chargers, and Redskins. He dabbled in acting at best, usually in cameo roles, often as himself, which he did memorably on The Brady Bunch (1971) and The Odd Couple (1972). His movies included Heaven Can Wait (1978) and The Norseman (1978). Of the Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome”, Jones comes behind Merlin Olsen and Rosie Grier in acting credits, but well in advance of Lamar Lundy, who had but one screen credit: as a giant in a 1965 episode of Lost in Space.

OJ Simpson

The events of 1994 were made all the more painful because Simpson was such a hero to people of my age. He was a running back for the Buffalo Bills (and later the 49s) when I was growing up, and like Namath, seemingly everywhere. (My thoughts about the murder are too complicated to unpack here. Another time and place). Today most people who know who his acting know him primarily from the Naked Gun movies. I sort of hate those. But I have fond (if now complicated) memories of him in The Towering Inferno (1974), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), the original version of Roots (1977), a buddy cop TV movie with Elizabeth Montgomery called A Killing Affair (1977), and Capricorn One (1978).

Dandy Don Meredith

Good-looking, charismatic former Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith took the occasional film and TV role over the years, and was kind of surprisingly good at it. Almost everything he did was in enjoyably cheesy TV movies: Terror on the 40th Floor (a Towering Inferno rip-off, 1974), Banjo Hackett: Roamin’ Free (1976), Mayday at 40,000 Feet (an Airport 1975 ripoff,1976), The Night the City Screamed (1980), and several more like this. he also did guest shots on TV series, most notably, 8 separate episodes of Police Story between 1973 and 1976. He retired from acting after Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone (1992), but came back for one last role in his son Michael Meredith’s first film as director Three Days of Rain (2002). Dandy Don died in 2010.

Alex Karras

Alex Karras was a professional wrestler and a defensive tackle with the Detroit Lions before beginning his acting career. I know I’ll raise hackles by saying this but he went much farther than one might have predicted given his modest acting abilities. As with many of the guys profiled here, he got a lot of comic mileage by playing a “big, dumb guy”, but he was also in dramas. He was extremely quiet and low-key, and could convey “concern” but was pretty unconvincing at delivering lines. Still, SO many high profile acting gigs. Naturally, he is much beloved for his bit as “Mongo” in Mel Brooks Blazing Saddles (1974). He played Hans Brumbaugh in the TV mini series Centennial (1978), a part very much akin to Merlin Olsen’s on Little House. Other movies included FM (1978), Irwin Allen’s When Time Ran Out (1980), Nobody’s Perfekt (1981), Porky’s (1981), Blake Edwards’ Victor Victoria (1982), and Against All Odds (1984). He is of course best remembered for his co-starring role on the hit sitcom Webster (1983-89), his biggest challenge of all. He only acted sporadically after that. Alex Karras passed away in 2012.

Carl Weathers

Before playing Apollo Creed in the Rocky films, Carl Weathers played for the Oakland Raiders and for teams in the Canadian football league. He’s so closely associated with Apollo, we are apt to neglect his other screen work, but there’s a lot of it. Early roles included the 1975 Blaxploitation films Friday Foster and Bucktown. His post-Rocky period saw him in many major mainstream movies: Semi-Tough (1977), Force 10 from Navarone (1978), Predator (1987), Action Jackson (1988), and the Adam Sandler comedies Happy Gilmore (1996) and Little Nicky (2000). He’s still acting in film and TV as of this writing; his most recent credit is an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit from earlier this year.

Dick Butkus

Bears linebacker Dick Butkus played himself in Brian’s Song (1971), but a few years later began appearing in TV guest shots in proper roles (although he often plays variations of himself in TV and films). He had recurring roles on the series Blue Thunder (1984), Half Nelson (1985), My Two Dads (1987-89) and Hang Time (1998-2000). In films he usually has bit parts. Some of these included Jerry Lewis’s Cracking up (1983), Johnny Dangerously (1984), and Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday (1999)

Ed Marinaro

Marino played for the Vikings, Jets and Seahawks before breaking into the film business in the 1978 mob film Fingers. He had a recurring role on Laverne and Shirley (1980-81), before landing his breakthrough role, Officer Joe Coffey on Hill Street Blues (1981-1986). There followed regular and recurring roles on Falcon Crest (1987-88), Dynasty (1989), Grand (1990), Sisters (1991-94), Champs (1996), and Blue Mountain State (2010-11), and numerous roles on other shows. He’s quite a decent actor!

Fred Dryer

Former player for the Giants and the Rams, Fred Dryer broke into the business playing a lifeguard on Laverne and Shirley in 1980. He auditioned for the role of Sam on Cheers, but lost out to Ted Danson, although he did get a recurring role on the show between 1982 and 1987. He had lots of other roles too but of course his best known association is as the title character in various iterations of Hunter: the original series, which ran 1984 through 1991, the TV movies The Return of Hunter:Everyone Walks in L.A. (1995), Hunter: Return to Justice (2002), Hunter: Back in Force (2003), and a new Hunter series in 2003. he also starred in the series Land’s End (1995-96). His most recent credit was a 2015 episode of Agent X. 

Bubba Smith

Charles Aaron “Bubba” Smith was a defensive end for the Colts, Oilers and Raiders, and one of only three NFL players whose jersey number has been retired. He only dabbled in acting, and is best remembered from his role as Hightower in the Police Academy comedies (1984-89), which constitute practically half of his movie credits. Other films included Stroker Ace (1983), Blue Thunder (1984), Gremlins 2 (1990) and The Silence of the Hams (1984). His last role was in the thriller Blood River (1910). He passed away the following year.

Mike Ditka

Ditka played for the Bears, Eagles and Cowboys and later made a name for himself as a coach. He’s not really an actor, he mostly just played himself or loose approximations on shows like Cheers and Coach, starting around 1990. His most recent such credit was on Entourage in 2011.