MVP of Sports Acting
I was recently watching the Knicks/Celtics game on ESPN and the camera panned across the arena highlighting a Murderer' Row of celebrity actors attending the game. I got to thinking. What happens when celebrity actors and sports collide? Generally, a simple premise for a sports film. And no, I'm not going to drop a Kardashian Sister's name here because none of them can act. So other than an inane premise, where am I going with this? I asked the question and started furiously pondering in my head for answers: Who is the best sports movie actor of all time?
Here are my nominees, in no particular order:
1). Mark Wahlberg
2). Dennis Quaid
3). Wesley Snipes
4). Kevin Costner
5). Denzel Washington
6). Paul Newman
7). Chelcie Ross
8). Robert De Niro
9). Sylvester "Sly" Stallone
10). Woody Harrelson
- *Just missed the cut: Robert Redford (The Natural), Gene Hackman (Hoosiers, epitome of a sports movie coach), Bill Murray (Caddyshack and Space Jam), Jackie Gleason (The Hustler), and Burt Reynolds (The Longest Yard)...oh yeah I can't forget about Emilio Estevez in The Mighty Ducks Series of Films.
If I were to construct a list of the least talented sports movie actors of all-time, Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller would definitely near the top of my list. Both Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and Semi-Pro are hysterical (more so for Dodgeball), but either fail to elicit one iota or pretension of seriousness. And if I can't take ya serious, I can't put ya on my list. As true-to-genre comedies, such a premise would have been awkward anyway so I certainly do not begrudge Ferrel or Stiller as actors.
10). Mark Wahlberg
My reason's for this pick are identical to my reason's for putting Sly Stallone and Robbie D higher on my list and just barely neglecting Will Smith. Generally, I love boxing movies. And please do not get me wrong because I was absolutely enthralled by Smith's portrayal of Ali. I just cannot nominate you if you have no other meaningful sports work on your resume. This pick is also mostly the result of short term memory retention. I just watched Wahlberg's new film, The Fighter, and it delivers a supremely satisfying experience—it's prospects for Awards season are negligibly gleeful.
Wahlberg is a physical specimen to behold. He looks every bit the part of a dogged, tenacious boxer. The believability factor is instantly sowed with one Google image search of Wahlberg. The man's got an impressive physique. If one possesses athleticism in real life, then it is easier for me to take that leap of faith with them as an athlete in film.
Marky Mark's portrayal of professional football player, Vince Papale in Invincible—a real life underdog tale—is astonishingly believable and mostly just fun. Call me a sap but I tend to easily invest in characters that overcome tremendous odds. The commonly used trope of the tough, down on his luck protagonist often grabs my undivided attention for no other reason than I'm just a glutton for sentimentality and Horatio Alger style accounts.
Never taking himself too seriously but always putting forth a concerted effort to evoke emotion, Wahlberg has been genetically engineered to play an athlete in film. Thank genetics for your place on my list Mr.Wahlberg.
Noteworthy Wahlberg Sports Movies:
The Basketball Diaries
9). Woody Harrelson
What kills it for me with Harrelson is his decision to completely squander what was once destined for a Hall of Fame worthy sports career, as an actor, by playing a washed up point guard in Semi-Pro. Call me biased but White Men Can't Jump, for nostalgic and sentimental reasons, solidifies Harrelson's draft position on my list as a go-to basketball actor. It is one of my favorite sports movies of all-time. Bring on the flack.
By conventional standards, White Men Can't Jump does not turn any heads for being Oscar worthy. There are myriad conventional flaws with the film—overly contrived plot points, dull and stilted acting performances, a serious lack of emotional investment, and the list goes on and on. But despite these seemingly fatal flaws, I still watch this movie whenever TNT decides to fill a schedule block with a movie starring recent inductee to a three-year sentencing term in prison, Wesley Snipes. Snipes for conspicuous reasons is on my list and it is precisely because he can evade taxes as well as infielders while running the bases.
I love the relationship and rapport between Snipes and Harrelson in White Men Can't Jump. The dynamics of their coexistence on such diverse levels as both friend and teammate is completely enjoyable to watch. Their relationship journey starts as vitriolic enemies with predictable gripes and blossoms into the best of teammates and friends. Then their relationship reverts back to sworn enemy status, and ultimately concludes with a great payout as they become true friends with forgivable qualities. When executed with precision, this type of character interaction is pure movie gold.
I also love the fact that Harrelson looks like he can seriously ball. He does such a solid job of emulating that Larry Bird-esque quality of the great white hope basketball star that when I was kid, I thought Woody Harrelson was Larry Bird. Harrelson may not be Bird but he is a better baller than Sydney. The fact that Snipes dons such an over-the-top, flamboyant styled wardrobe, decked out in a tank top with really tight short-shorts and a rainbow colored hat ... well it just makes Harrelson the definitive winner on the basketball court.
Noteworthy Harrelson Sports Movies:
White Men Can't Jump
8). Chelcie Ross
Ross' placement on my list is signed, sealed and delivered due to his fantastic quote in Major League; "you tryin' to say Jesus Christ couldn't hit a curveball?" Aside from this epic accomplishment, Ross also garners significant points on my list because he owns the distinction of playing supporting roles in three of the best sports films of all-time. His roles as Coach Dan Devine in Rudy, Eddie Harris in Major League, and George in Hoosiers rank him among the zenith of sports actors in terms of great film exposure. Though none of these are starring roles, they are three of the highest grossing and most successful sports-themed movies of all-time.
I'll unload a baseball analogy to clarify my point. Derek Jeter may not put up prodigious numbers and never leads the league in the big statistical categories, but he is unquestionably a Hall of Famer. The reasons, like in Chelcie Ross' case, are similarly compelling. Jeter carries himself exceptionally well and at the end of the day, the man has more World Series rings on his fingers than any other current baseball 'star' save for three of his teammates. Ross, likewise, is fortunate to have exclusively played meaningful, though not legendary roles in World Series level films. Anytime you can be compared to the iconic Derek Jeter—I am a die-hard Yankees fan—without a great deal of hyperbole, then you deserve noteworthy recognition. Enough said.
Noteworthy Ross Sports Movies:
7). Dennis Quaid
A voluminous track record in sports film and a country boy sensibility is what earned Dennis Quaid a non-last place finish on my list. I liken his sports filming career to that of the stubborn journeyman athlete who refuses to call it quits. In other words, Dennis Quaid's career in sports cinema is identical to the real life football career of Brett Favre—they never quite know when to hang it up. If you question my logic, then you have never seen Any Given Sunday.
Quaid's character in Any Given Sunday is a fitting testament to his legacy as a sports actor. He play's the beat-up, once prolific athlete who's intestinal fortitude and inherent badass-ness clashes with the ever constant specter of a career ending injury. A refusal to face reality in sports is an essential trait of any sports fan of a losing franchise. I have been a fan of the lovable losers also known as the Detroit Lions my entire life and consequently, I can easily relate to Jack 'Cap' Rooney.
The fact that Quaid has been in so many sports films solidifies his standing. His memorably sincere role as Mike in Breaking Away—a coming of age tale with competitive bicycle racing as the driving force of the plot—also brings back good childhood memories. Whenever a movie causes me to longingly look back at my childhood, then I say job well done.
Noteworthy Quaid Sports Movies:
Any Given Sunday
6). Denzel Washington
"That's Denzel" is just one of the many songs of praise that adoring fans of the prolific A-lister shout out at a Rave Movie Theater in my neck of the woods. And believe me when I tell you, the manner and inflection of their quips are drawn from a state of pure euphoria. Denzel indeed walks down a glory road with his head held high when it comes to building an admiring fan base. When it comes to Washington's standing on my list, I have to follow the convincing chants of his fans and grant him a favorable position.
Although, Denzel does not have a voluminous library of sports films under his acting belt, the three roles he did play were all outstanding. Beginning with the role of Jake Shuttlesworth in the Spike Lee joint, He Got Game, Denzel vaults into prominence as an extremely believable sports actor. The scenes between him and real life, soon-to-be Hall of Fame baller Ray Allen are absolutely awesome. More so than just providing great choreographed basketball action; on a fundamental level, Denzel actually looks like he can ball. If he can hold his own against Ray Allen ... well then I'm sorry Woody, White Men Can't Jump.
The Hurricane illustrated in a more complete way, Denzel's unique ability to play both athlete and dramatic actor—and do so with great consistency and flair. The Hurricane helped manifest Washington's versatility. On a greater level, this film beautifully showcases his ability to meticulously play truthfully to the various human elements—the gamut of emotions from anger, hubris, and ultimately, sadness.
There is one film that my network of close friends and I can all agree is universally enjoyable as a sports film. And it just so happens that a meaningful theme -- the injustice of racial inequality—can also play a vital role. Remember the Titans is this film. All my friends may not be passionate filmgoers like myself, but they all value honest and good work. Denzel's portrayal of Coach Herman Boone is tremendously executed. Washington allows you to feel sympathy, anger, happiness, pride, and satisfaction beyond a Varsity Blues level of just being on the surface fun. The depths of emotion that stem from the central race theme and teammate interactions in Remember the Titans are superbly realized—and the payoff is a result only because Denzel's talent as a working man's actor led the way.
Noteworthy Washington Sports Movies:
He Got Game
Remember the Titans
5). Paul Newman
How can Newman not be on my list!? His breadth of achievements, which span from film directing, entrepreneurship, and humanitarianism signal an almost renaissance quality. In fact, Newman has been a successful race car driver in the Sports Car Club of America, which means not only can Newman hack it as an athlete on the silver screen but he can do so in real life with equal spates of success.
I'm sorry to digress for a moment, but if I were comprising a list just to recognize 'best actors,' there is no doubt that Newman would finish in the top two of this list as presently constituted. Other than Robert De Niro, Newman's acting chops dwarf every other name on this list. Maybe I am making this brash proclamation because it's Friday night and I feel so right—I mean, I just finished watching The Sting. For those who have not yet had the privilege to observe true genius in an actor, please watch this film immediately. Newman's on screen charisma will absolutely knock your socks off—truly mesmerizing. Like few actors, Newman always exudes a smart and calculating presence that results in brilliant character decisions. If you do not want to take my word for it, watch The Sting, specifically, the poker scene on the train and then come argue my point.
Now back to this list. Newman's early foray into sports film is the stuff of movie legend. The weighty role of real life boxer Rocky Graziano in the film, Somebody Up There Likes Me was originally slated to be played by James Dean, but wound up going to Paul Newman due to Dean's tragic death. This film would garner significance as an early starring role for the prodigious Newman, but more importantly, it would mark his sudden emergence as a force to be reckoned with in the sports film genre.
It would ultimately be a movie about pool hustling that would cement Newman's status as a vaunted sports actor. The Hustler, a film that explores the budding ambitions of real life pool shark "Fast" Eddie Felson, helped ignite a transformation of the classic sports film premise. Not simply a tale of winning and losing, The Hustler redefined the idea that a skill contest can be more about the humility and complexity of a hungry competitor than about the outcome. Newman's performance in the film nailed this human dynamic quotient to an absolute tee and became influential in expanding the popularity and fervor of pool.
Newman would reprise his role as Eddie Felson in The Color of Money and confirm his rank in the annals of great sports acting. He did so, quite simply, by winning the Oscar for Best Actor. Frankly, if an actor can win an Oscar in a sports film for playing a pool shark, then he is damn good.
I have a vivid memory as a kid that helps provide insight into my decision to cast Newman on my list. During my upbringing, when I was barely able to play sports outside my apartment past sundown, my mother would allow me to watch an R-rated movie—one in particular that she absolutely loved. That movie was Slap Shot. A true sports comedy—breaking one of my cardinal rules that a comedy can't be taken seriously—Slap Shot is absolutely hilarious, satirical, and overwhelmingly fun. Newman plays the offbeat, raunchy athlete with a short fuse and penchant for knocking fists with such a degree of conviction and ease that it is difficult to not take him seriously. Newman delivers a game winning Slap Shot on goal and skates his way into high respectability on my list.
Noteworthy Newman Sports Movies:
Somebody Up There Likes Me
The Color of Money
4). Sylvester Stallone
Call me biased, but fuck it, I'm Italian. I mean my ethnicity plays a ... ehhh small part in Stallone making my list, but I certainly carry more objectivity—it's not like Sly's getting top billing. The birth of Rocky is inspirational. Sly Stallone's unorthodox path towards getting Rocky made is a combination of sheer tenacity and fortuity. Anyone that can write a fantastic role for himself, sweep the Oscars—it won for Best Picture—and convincingly play a boxer deserves great adulation. Stallone took the real life underdog story of Chuck Wepner's near heroic defeat of Muhammad Ali and spun it into cinema gold.
As Eddie Murphy would joke, Rocky is a great fuckin' movie. It spawned six films—though some of them were terrible—do yourself a favor and avoid the sixth installment. Stallone's improbable career arc is owed entirely to the character of Rocky; therefore, the A-list status and his multi-million dollar payday's are direct by-product's of this one, uneducated, lovable club-fighter. If Hollywood gave Stallone the green-light on super stardom while fans across the world continue to fall in love with Rocky Balboa—I do not care if your Italian or not, Stallone deserves almost exclusive credit for this transformative development. Come on ... at one point in his life, the guy was living as a bum and even resorted to straight porn to make ends meet. True life rags to riches tales always get me. Call me a sucker.
I almost forgot to mention another Stallone classic Over the Top. I guarantee that there is going to be some accusations of blasphemy by calling this movie a classic but Over the Top was one of my favorite Stallone films during my youth. I always appreciate a story that gives a sincere telling of the father-son dynamic. Despite its myriad flaws, Over the Top delivers on every note of the emotional spectrum of a boy yearning for a better relationship with his father. Sentimentality is a close ally of good filmmaking.
Aaah right Rocko!!
Noteworthy Stallone Sports Movies:
The complete Rocky Series (I-V) & Rocky Balboa
Over the Top
3). Wesley Snipes
Though Woody Harrelson may narrowly edge out Snipes when it comes to fashion on the basketball court—Woody's White Men Can't Jump style was almost as ridiculous as Snipes colorful wardrobe—Wesley trumps Harrelson in every other aspect of sports film acting. Whether the guy is an athlete in real life or not, Snipes looks every bit the part of Willy Mays, Michael Jordan, and Bo Jackson on the big screen. For me, this quality is what establishes Wesley's very high showing on my list.
The most important level of criteria in judging an actor's sports film pedigree is their believability—and it has to be uniform across all playing fields. One bad performance as an athlete in film will diminish the distribution of praise for that actor's worth as a dominant sport's character. This all-important gauge is not a factor for Snipes and so he is afforded almost the highest degree of applause on my list.
The role that cements it for Wesley is without a doubt, the character of Willie 'Mays' Hays from Major League. This film can be critiqued to its death bed, but Wesley's exemplary performance as the cocky, superficial superstar—ya know, the T.Ochocinco predating reality TV—is utterly intoxicating. Snipes exudes a charisma that makes you want to see what he's gonna do next just like any superstar athlete in real life. The ability of an actor to create this almost unachievable, illusory quality is incredibly rare. Most of the time, I find it difficult to watch sports films because I just cannot envision the actor truly playing an athlete of any consequence. Jamie Foxx is an Academy Award Winning Actor, but he is not even a third string bench warmer on a real NFL team. Wesley Snipes; however, makes you believe—the word 'makes' here is the apt term—that he can gain a starting outfield role on any MLB team or starting point guard spot on an NBA team. In fact, Snipes shoots a bulls-eye on my list and unfortunately for the actor, he now has to share a cell block with criminals who's inability to not shoot lead them to prison.
Noteworthy Snipes Sports Movies:
White Men Can't Jump
2). Robert De Niro
Robert De Niro is in my top-5 list of favorite actors of all-time. So naturally, he is in my top-5 list of greatest sports movie actors of all-time. There is one performance especially that garners De Niro such high standing on my list. If you need to think about what that role is ... well then you obviously have never seen Raging Bull. De Niro could have retired from sports acting after playing Jake LaMotta; in fact, I liken his awe-inspiring performance as the detestable boxer, to the career of any big time athlete that delivered that one, legendary, leave it all on the table kind of performance.
A truly great example would be someone like Willis Reed of the New York Knicks famed past. For those who are not familiar, Reed became wildly famous—he even secured a spot on the Mt. Rushmore of awe-defining, single game athletic performances—by rejoining his team on the basketball court after suffering a substantial thigh injury during Game 7 of the 1970 NBA finals. As both a starting Center/Forward, Willis Reed orchestrated the single greatest one game feat of memory. As the Knicks battled the Los Angeles Lakers, Reed's superman like capture of the moment by returning to the court helped spur his team to their first NBA Championship. Voted the greatest moment in Madison Square Garden History -- indeed the Mecca of professional basketball—Reed single handily propelled his teammates, particularly, Walt Clyde Frazier to an emphatic victory. Moreover, Reed's entire season stands as a mirroring reminder to the incredible performance of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull—Reed won the Regular Season MVP Award just as De Niro won the MVP equivalent for actors, the Oscar.
If an actor's portrayal of an athlete and performance can garner comparison's to this legendary moment in sports history—as a Knicks fan, it's a moment that I place in high esteem—then said actor deserves the lion's share of my praise. So De Niro, congratulations, as you have earned a lofty spot on my list.
Noteworthy De Niro Sports Movies:
Bang the Drum Slowly
1). Kevin Costner
Aha, the inevitable build up to number one and already the accusations claiming an inferior selection mount. Even my roommate Vinny claims confidently that Kevin Costner possesses such a "douche bag" quality. Maybe so, but this list is not designed to highlight the greatest person's of Hollywood, and most great athletes effuse prima donna qualities anyway.
In the vein of every narcissistic, top-flight athlete, I select with great conviction, Kevin Costner, as number one on my list ... as the single greatest sports movie actor of all-time. The reasons are numerous and diverse. Chief among these reasons is the simple fact that Costner manages to incorporate in each of his sports roles, the best elements from the other actors reasons for inclusion on my list.
For instance, a huge component of my criteria is the believability factor, which justifies Wesley Snipes high placement. Well, I have yet to see one actor who looks, acts, and plays more like a professional baseball player than Kevin Costner. The GM of the woefully inept Pittsburgh Pirates should already have placed a call into Costner's agent about a starting infield roster spot, full-time catcher position, and a fill-in reliever role. Baseball is America's pastime and because Costner executes with such effortless flair, the intricate mechanics of a baseball player in so many films, he deserves to be top dog—just as many sports historians consider baseball to still be the preeminent American sport despite erratic television ratings.
Costner's role in Bull Durham as "Crash" Davis, which is widely considered to be the greatest sports movie of all-time helped lead to the imprint that baseball and Costner are synonymous entities. Indeed, Costner's exploits in both Bull Durham and Field of Dreams exude a quality of cinematic exceptionalism. Bull Durham hit such a no doubt-about-it home run in the commercial and critical ballparks that Sports Illustrated named it The Greatest Sports Movie Ever Made. Sports Illustrated is devoted to sports journalism. If their acute sense of sporting authenticity leads to such a lauded proclamation, then I must follow SI's grand wisdom.
Field of Dreams is a childhood favorite of mine. This film cemented the belief that Costner can enlist sentimentality in a world consumed by statistical achievements. Additionally, the surreal elements of Field of Dreams enhance the mysticism of baseball. Tin Cup illustrated Costner's aptitude for humor in a comedic setting whilst an ability to provide humility. Though Costner's sporting endeavors rely heavily upon a skillful propensity for America's Pastime, Tin Cup illustrated a glimmer of cross sport greatness. While Jim Thorpe does not have to fear competition from Costner in this multi-sports category, any actor certainly does. Yankee Stadium has it's monument park and the history of film has "Crash" Davis, Ray Kinsella and Roy McAvoy.
Noteworthy Costner Sports Movies:
Field of Dreams
For Love of the Game