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4 Olympic Athletes Who Became Movie Stars

Screen Shot At Pm
By  · Published on February 13th, 2014

Every four years, the Olympics happen in the summer, and the greatest athletes in the world gather and compete for glory, and sometimes they let Zhang Yimou or Danny Boyle do weird things with lots of money. They used to also have Olympics in the winter the same year, but because fewer people took notice, they moved those Olympics to the second year between every four for the real Olympics.

Now, even though alpine skiers are doing insane lactic acid-filled feats, and snowboarders show up higher than balls and still do things normal people can barely even describe when they’re that stoned, the Winter Olympics can’t catch a break.

So, since the Winter version gets the raw end of the deal, it’s not surprising that when researching for this listology concept, Summer Olympians were easier to find than their frozen counterparts. However, the sheer variety of films made by Olympians is fascinating.

Johnny Weissmuller

The ur-Olympian/actor, Weissmuller parlayed the fame from his dominant performance in the ’24 and ’28 Games – not to mention his reportedly having been undefeated as a competitive swimmer for his entire career – into a long-running and enormously popular stint as Tarzan in the 1930s and 40s.

He began swimming as a means of combating a childhood case of polio; suffice to say it worked, as Weissmuller’s movie career came about as the result of his physique being the ideal of his era. His first film role was as Adonis (only the Greek god of beauty and desire, no big deal), leading to his most famous role which famously featured him wearing little other than a loincloth.

More than just a body, Weissmuller was also responsible for the sui generis non-verbal vocalization that can only really be described as “the Tarzan yell,” frequently deployed when swinging from one tree to another on a hanging vine. However good the coming Tarzan remake is, there will be a sizable group of older moviegoers who’ll say of Alexander Skarsgård, “he’s no Johnny Weissmuller.”

Jesse Owens

Hitler’s rule in Germany was one of the purest periods of evil in history, and even seven decades after the Allied forces pre-empted Hitler’s thousand-year Reich by 988 years, it’s hard to look back on it with anything other than horror. With one exception: the 1936 Olympic Games, the one legitimately funny episode in Hitler’s reign, starring Der Fuhrer as a foolish, loudmouthed idiot.

In the run-up to the Games, hosted by Berlin that year, Hitler spent countless hours fulminating about the athletic superiority of Germany and the master race, and commissioned Leni Riefenstahl, the morally compromised but massively talented documentarian, to capture Germany’s athletic triumph on film.

To Riefenstahl’s credit, any attempts she made to mute the American Jesse Owens’ complete, magnificent triumph were subtle at best, because her resulting film, Olympia, ended up being the tale of how an American – a very dark-skinned American of African descent, no less – showed up and completely obliterated the so-called Master Race. And made an absolutely farcical figure of Hitler. While Jesse Owens may have been simply competing, not acting, he is nonetheless an unquestioned movie star solely on the basis of Olympia.

Esther Williams

Like Weissmuller, with whom she made her first screen appearance, Williams started as a competitive swimmer. She’d secured a spot on the US team, but her chance to compete in the Olympics fell through when the 1940 Games in Tokyo were canceled due to the outbreak of World War II. Williams proceeded undeterred to a career in film.

An enchanting, graceful physical presence, Williams would go on to decades of stardom, frequently centering on her swimming talents, and talents for filling out a swimsuit, but not exclusively. She had a charming, light touch as an actor, and it does bear remembering that one does not end up forging an entire genre of one’s own – as Esther Williams did; “Esther Williams” movies are not like anything else in the world – without being a performer of some merit.

(Although this has nothing to do with her acting, it is nonetheless a fun bit of Hollywood lore that in the late 1950s when Cary Grant was enthusiastically recruiting other film industry folk to take LSD trials, an intrigued Esther Williams contacted him and apparently quite enjoyed herself on it. That may be a new list altogether.)

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan was better at basketball than just about anyone ever was at anything. That’s not hyperbole. The game of basketball was a fundamentally different thing before Jordan, and it remains today the game he made it. His coming-out party, after three years of artificial restraints in his college career, was the 1984 Olympics; the first day of the trials for the team, Jordan’s mere existence immediately made him the focal point. In 1992, when professionals were allowed to compete, Jordan was once more the principal player in what may have been the greatest basketball team ever assembled. The only frame of reference in which talent like his even makes sense is the religious; Larry Bird (one of the half-dozen or so best players in the history of the sport himself) said, when Jordan was 23, “He’s God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

But can he make movies? This question was answered in fairly definitive form with the release of Space Jam, which teamed MJ up with Bugs Bunny and his Looney Tunes confreres to beat Martians at basketball with the help of Bill Murray, which is the rare plot description that serves perfectly as both a positive or negative review based on one’s perspective.

Jordan had the advantage of the entire movie being built around him by friendly collaborators (director Joe Pytka had even shot many of his famous Nike commercials), which means he doesn’t exactly have to push himself as an actor in Space Jam. That said, the mark of a successful performance is that it does what the film requires, and by that metric Jordan succeeds quite comfortably, unwaveringly projecting his warm, charismatic persona as a commercial pitchman for the entire film, and thus sells the product that is Space Jam.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all