LeBron James, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, is acting in “Trainwreck” right now with Amy Schumer and Bill Hader, and giving as good as he gets with A-list comedy pros.
Lots of pro athletes act in Hollywood movies. One type of exposure begets another type of fame. A quick list of athletes who’ve acted: Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Hulk Hogan, Dwayne Johnson, Shaq, Charles Barkley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Muhammad Ali.
You could argue that pro wrestling and bodybuilding are more showbiz than sport, but most of the NASCAR crowd in America (a sizeable crowd) will vehemently disagree with you, and Dwayne (wrestler) and Arnold (bodybuilder) are two of the most successful action stars in the history of action, so who cares?
But what do athletes-turned-actors primarily contribute to show business? Action and comedy, of course. They do these things fair-to-middling well, not being trained actors, with a select few having enough charisma to carry whole franchises.
However, the majority contribute cameo roles, the main draw of which is the American pop-culture reference opportunities and inside-joke spinoffs, since we Americans love our pop culture. U.S. pop culture feeds off itself; pop song titles and TV lines spawn entire movies and vice versa.
For example, when “Sex and the City” character Jack Berger explained to Miranda the concept of “He’s just not that into you,” the line immediately entered the vernacular and became its own movie, as well as a cultural bit of learning for those of us interested in dating. Which meant most Americans, since nobody’s getting married anymore—but that’s another article.
Why No Dramatic Actor Athletes?
It’s logical that the martial arts sports stars (Bruce Lee, Steven Seagal, Jean Claude Van Damme, and so on), bodybuilders, NFL football players, and WWF wrestlers primarily do action—they’ve got the impressive physical skill sets and the impressive bodies.
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You don’t get many serious dramatic actors who were former athletes. There is Liam Neeson, who was once a professional heavyweight boxer, but once Hollywood remembered that fact—now all Neeson does are action films.
So what do pro basketball players bring to showbiz? Comedy. Why? It’s built right into the game. Football is mean, serious business. Can you imagine a traveling circus-type show like The Harlem Globetrotters involving a gridiron team? The logistics alone …
What about baseball? It’s conceivable; Abbott & Costello’s legendary “Who’s on First?” dialogue is baseball-based. But why are there no baseball stars-turned-actors?
Baseball’s more of a laid-back, slow-paced, stately kind of a game. It produces more of a laid-back, stately kind of guy (exceptions: Yogi Berra and Bob Newkirk). Derek Jeter’s not known for antics. He’s known for dating actresses. That’s another article.
Basketball is fast-paced and, since around the late 1970s, inexorably tied with American inner-city culture. Muhammad Ali arguably single-handedly founded sports trash talk, but it blossomed in basketball; an extension of “playing the dozens,” and a disenfranchised culture’s need to be versed in verbal warfare to maintain dignity.
Basketball trivia fact: B-ball was once very white, Jewish even, and highly rule-laden. As mentioned, the rules and team-play concept morphed into more of a fun, spectacle-oriented mentality, which arrived at its logical, painful conclusion (in terms of effectiveness) in the 2004 Olympics, when America’s “Dream Team” (in name only by that time) was beaten by Puerto Rico. PR’s stellar teamwork relentlessly mowed down the USA’s flashy but useless tomahawk dunks.
So this all gets into the very-dangerous-in-the-USA territory of race and minstrelsy in basketball. The Harlem Globetrotters was a late-era minstrel show. Goofing, cheating, and clowning were rewarded; straight (and white) play was square, unfunny, and lost every game.
There’s no doubt these days in anyone’s mind that America’s got the best basketball players on the planet, and that they, like Michael Jordan, are talented and work hard to be king of the global basketball mountain—we’re just discussing here the roots of the comedic tendencies that come out of the NBA, and why basketball players bring comedy and not classic leading man roles to Hollywood.
Showbusiness is all about looks and casting. It’s Hollywood. It’s showbiz. Retired L.A. Laker Rick Fox might be the stand-alone NBA player to achieve some consistency in a dramatic acting career, but he also has movie star looks.
Comedy is the most difficult thing to pull off in acting. It calls for precise timing, a deep sense of the ridiculous, and an ability to “take the hit,” meaning the largess of soul and lack of ego to allow oneself to look foolish for the sake of the laugh. LeBron James clearly has all that.
There are, however, big differences between stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, and comedic acting talents. They are of the same species but very different animals. A true stand-up often doesn’t carry the gravitas to be a dramatic actor. Eddie Murphy is an exception to that rule. Jim Carey can almost pull it off. So at this point, we don’t know which category LeBron James really falls into.
Could LeBron James become a leading man in Hollywood à la Will Smith? While ruggedly handsome, he doesn’t have “classic” leading man looks. But then, neither does Dwayne Johnson. Maybe Dwayne’s a little prettier.
Muhammed Ali was prettiest (according to himself) and Jim Brown’s hyper-ruggedness was challenging to recently post-Jim Crow America. Sidney Poitier had classic leading man looks, but he didn’t have Jim Brown’s threatening sexuality.
What about a 6-foot-8-inch, non-classically attractive black leading man in America in 2016? Maybe it could happen. Chances are, if LeBron is that funny, with that much charisma—he could pull off a leading man role. Times are changing.
Well, we started off on the topic of comedy and NBA stars and ended up on the challenges of black actors, but there’s enough overlap there for the topics to merge neatly.
Chances are, LeBron’ll focus on a championship ring and leave all this fun conjecture to the journalists and not give it too much thought. The world is King James’s oyster right now.