Actors Who Went For The Win, Portraying Real Athletes In Some Legendary Roles

Culture | 10/6/20

When it comes to film, Hollywood is very good at telling stories that are based in fact. We’re talking about the good old-fashioned biopic here. And, in this case, we’re talking about those biopics based on the lives of professional athletes. But going from modern-day actor to professional athlete from years past can’t be easy.

Emma Stone had to channel her inner tennis pro in Battle of the Sexes, while Will Smith had to act like a three-time Heavyweight Champion of the World in Ali — neither character a small feat to embody. But these actors took on the challenge, becoming some of the world’s most notable professional athletes on film.

Emma Stone As The Battle Of The Sexes Winner Billie Jean King

Emma Stone As The Battle Of The Sexes Winner Billie Jean King
Fox Searchlight Pictures; Bettmann/Getty Images
Fox Searchlight Pictures; Bettmann/Getty Images

In the 2017 film Battle of the Sexes, actress Emma Stone took on the role of professional tennis player Billie Jean King, aka the lady who took Bobby Riggs down a few pegs. The film was loosely based on their 1973 tennis match, one Riggs sanctioned because “no woman could beat him.”

As history goes, King wound up winning the match along with the cash prize. So, when it came to giving Stone advice on how to play her, she wasn’t going to leave anything out. During an interview with ESPN, the Oscar-winner said, “I don’t think there was a moment when Billie Jean wasn’t explaining something to me.”

Mark Wahlberg As Lightweight Champion Micky Ward

Mark Wahlberg As Lightweight Champion Micky Ward
Paramount Pictures; Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Paramount Pictures; Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Known by the nickname “Irish,” Micky Ward is a former lightweight boxer who was known for his pressure fighting style. Ward is famous for his trilogy of fights against Arturo Gatti in 2002, a fight later named the Fight of the Year by Time. Both men needed to visit the trauma center afterward!

Then, in 2010, a biographical movie (The Fighter) was made about Ward’s hectic life, with his tough mother being his boxing manager and his half-brother, who also happens to be a recovering addict, training him. In the film, Mark Wahlberg portrays Irish, the boxer who has something to prove.

Robert De Niro As Former Middleweight Champ Jake LaMotta

Robert De Niro As Former Middleweight Champ Jake LaMotta
United Artists; Keystone/Getty Image
United Artists; Keystone/Getty Image

Thought to have one of the greatest chins in boxer history, Jake LaMotta was one of the best middleweight champions to come out of the sport, winning 83 out of 106 matches. Due to his slugger and swarmer boxing style, LaMotta developed a bit of a reputation of being a bully. It’s his reputation, though, that had Martin Scorsese think his story would be great on the silver screen.

Played by the one and only Robert De Niro, Raging Bull was released back in 1980 to raving reviews with both the leading actor and director winning their own respective Academy Award for their work in and on the film/

Stephan James Sprints To The Finish As Jesse Owens

Stephan James Sprints To The Finish As Jesse Owens
Entertainment One Films
Entertainment One Films

In 1936, runner Jesse Owens made history by winning four gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. He came out of those games as the most successful athlete, and an African American to boot. Owens is now considered to be the greatest track and field athlete in history.

When Stephan James was asked about his experience playing Owens in the film 2016 Race, the actor said, “To have the opportunity to learn so much about him and then to be the person to teach a whole new generation about him has really been the greatest honour of my professional career.”

Margot Robbie In I, Tonya

Margot Robbie Is I, Tonya
Neon; David Madison/Getty Images
Neon; David Madison/Getty Images

Tonya Harding is arguably one of the most well-known names in figure skating, at least outside the community. This is mostly because of her 1994 feud with Nancy Kerrigan, which led Harding in front of the United States Figure Skating Association and banned from participating in further skating competitions.

Her story is a roller coaster ride, to say the least, and Academy Award-winner Margot Robbie did a stunning job depicting the rise, fall, and complex life of Harding in the 2017 biopic I, Tonya. The film is based on “true” and “contradictory” interviews by Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, showing they’re unreliable narrators.

Steve Carell As Battle Of The Sexes Loser Bobby Riggs

Steve Carell Battle Of The Sexes Loser Robby Riggs
Fox Searchlight Pictures; PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images
Fox Searchlight Pictures; PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

Steve Carell plays Bobby Riggs opposite Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King in the sports film Battle of the Sexes. Based on the 1973 tennis match between the two professionals, Carell embodies the self-described “chauvinistic pig” perfectly while really showing off his acting range.

Playing in the professional circuit from 1941 through 1959, Riggs retired with a starting reputation of being the number one male player in the world for three years running. Of course, he then gained the reputation of being a hustler and gambler, as shown by his invite to Billie Jean and the infamous Battle of the exes showdown.

Chris Hemsworth And Daniel Bruhl As James Hunt And Niki Lauda

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Universal Pictures; Bernard Cahier/Getty Images
Universal Pictures; Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Based on the six-year Hunt-Lauda rivalry, Rush brought Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl in to embody Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, respectively. While the two men’s rivalry went on for many years, the film takes place during the 1976 season, leading up to the Japanese Grand Prix.

If you’re not familiar, both James Hunt and Niki Lauda are F1 World Champion drivers, the latter a three-time winner! After retiring from driving, Hunt went on to be a sports commentator while Lauda decided to piolet private planes. Interestingly, Lauda says Hunt is one of the few people he respected and the only one he envied.

Matt Damon As World Cup Rugby Champion Francois Pienaar

Matt Damon As World Cup Rugby Champion Francois Pienaar
Warner Bros.; Jamie McDonald/Allsport
Warner Bros.; Jamie McDonald/Allsport

Former South African Springbok rugby captain Francois Pienaar is best known for leading the team to victory during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The feat didn’t seem possible in the years following apartheid, considering the team had not played on the world stage during the years of racial segregation in the country.

It was a big deal that the South African hosts were able to come out victorious. So, it makes sense that Clint Eastwood would want to direct a film commemorating the historical event and the men who made it happen: captain Francois Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, and former President Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman. The 2009 film is called Invictus.

Rob Brown Playing Heisman Trophy Winner Ernie Davis

Rob Brown Playing The First Black Heisman Winner Ernie Davis
Universal Pictures; Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images
Universal Pictures; Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Becoming the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy was just the start of fullback Ernie Davis’ story. After high school, Davis went on to play football for Syracuse University, becoming the first-round pick in the 1962 NFL Draft. Picked up by the former Washington Redskins, Davis was almost immediately traded to the Cleveland Browns.

Unfortunately, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia that summer and never saw the professional field. With Rob Brown playing the title character, The Express: The Ernie Davis Story tells the story of the former football player’s life while exploring important topics such as civil rights, racism, and discrimination throughout athletics.

Will Smith As Three-Time Heavyweight Champ Muhammad Ali

Will Smith As Three-Time Heavyweight Champ Muhammad Ali
Columbia Pictures; Bettmann/Getty Images
Columbia Pictures; Bettmann/Getty Images

Will Smith transformed into the heavyweight boxing icon Muhammad Ali for the 2001 biographical sports drama Ali. The movie follows the life of Ali, from 1964 to 1974, illustrating his claiming of the title from Sonny Liston, his conversion to Islam, his banishment from the sport, his dislike of the Vietnam War, and his return to boxing to fight Joe Frazier.

Oh, and, of course, the film wouldn’t be complete without showcasing Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle fight against George Foreman in 9174. Smith wound up earning an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance of the champion.

Ben Foster As Cyclist Lance Armstrong In The Program

Ben Foster As Cyclist Lance Armstrong
StudioCanal
StudioCanal

In 2015, actor Ben Foster sported more than one cycling outfit as he took on the role of Lance Armstrong in The Program. The film is based on journalist David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins, where he goes into detail about his manhunt for evidence to expose Armstrong’s use of banned substances to win the Tour de France.

The film not only takes information about what happened during those races from the book but also from the affidavits of other cyclists. As most people know, Armstrong is known for winning seven consecutive Tour de France races, only to be stripped of his titles after a scandal.

Quinton Aaron As Michael Oher In The Blind Side

Quinton Aaron As Michael Oher In The Blind Side
Warner Bros. Pictures; Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Warner Bros. Pictures; Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Michael Oher’s story is one of hardship and redemption. Growing up in a bad part of town, Oher never realized his potential until the Tuohy family adopted him. They encouraged him to play football at his private high school, becoming one of the biggest prospects during his senior year.

Oher went on to become a first-round pick at the 2009 draft, going to play for the Baltimore Ravens. That same year, The Blind Side was released, with Quinton Aaron taking on the role of the football star. Oher has since played with the Tennessee Titans and Carolina Panthers.

Russell Crowe As James J. Braddock, AKA Cinderella Man

Russell Crowe As Heavyweight Champion James J. Braddock
Touchstone Pictures; The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images
Touchstone Pictures; The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

From 1935 to 1937, James J. Braddock was the heavyweight champion of the world. During his time in the ring, Braddock was known for his iron chin, counter-punching style, strong right hand, and his spoiling. But due to chronic hand injuries, Braddock was forced to work on the docks during the Great Depression.

Of course, that didn’t earn him the nickname “Cinderella Man,” a title which was used for a film starring Russell Crowe. The nickname came about when Braddock returned to the sport, fighting Max Baer for the heavyweight title, and winning — an unlikely feat.

Sean Astin As The One And Only Rudy

Sean Astin As The One And Only Rudy
Sony Pictures; Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Sony Pictures; Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Unlike the other athletes on this list, Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger wasn’t your typical athlete. In all honesty, he hardly made it to the collegiate level! In 1974, Rudy was accepted to Notre Dame, where his dream was to play football for The Fighting Irish. It was a long shot, as he was way smaller than your average college football player.

Regardless, he persisted, earning a place on the scout team and making his way to the actual stadium in 1975, where he played defensive end and had a sack. Rudy’s story is shown on the big screen by lead actor Sean Astin in the 1993 film Rudy.

Ray Liotta As “Shoeless” Joe Jackson

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Universal Pictures; Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images
Universal Pictures; Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Shoeless Joe Jackson was a former professional baseball player from the early 1900s, most notable for playing left field for the Chicago White Sox during the 1919 Black Sox Sandal. Of course, people kind of overlook that little smudge in Jackson’s history after Babe Ruth said he styled his batting technique off him since he has the third-highest batting average in MLB history.

So, actor Ray Liotta had some big shoes to fill when he played Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams. According to the filmmakers, Jackson trained with the University of Southern California’s baseball coach to hone his skills, becoming a fair batter in his own right!

Mark Wahlberg Playing Philly Eagle Vince Papale

Mark Wahlberg Playing Phili Eagle Vince Papale
Walt Disney Pictures; George Gojkovich/Getty Images
Walt Disney Pictures; George Gojkovich/Getty Images

In 1976, Vince Papale earned a spot on the Philadelphia Eagles, becoming the oldest rookie in the history of the NFL without any college experience, at the age of 30. Papale went on to play three seasons with the Birds, as a wide receiver, and on special teams.

His story from “just another Philadelphia resident” to one of the 1978 “Man of the Year” for the Eagles football organization is fictionalized in the Disney film Invincible, with Mark Wahlberg portraying Papale. A Boston man playing an Eagle? Blasphemous!

John Goodman As The Babe

John Goodman As The Babe
Universal Pictures; Louis Van Oeyen/Western Reserve Historical Society/Getty Images
Universal Pictures; Louis Van Oeyen/Western Reserve Historical Society/Getty Images

The Great Bambino Babe Ruth had a 21-year-long career in the MLB, playing for the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. During his career, Babe achieved many records, including career home runs, bases on balls, runs batted in, and more. Babe was also one of the five players inaugurated into the Baseball Hall of Fame during its first year, 1936.

As Babe is considered the greatest player of all time, only a true star could be cast to tell the story of his life, of course. The honor was given to the actor John Goodman, who, in 1993, portrayed Babe Ruth in the historical sports drama The Babe.

AnnaSophia Robb Surfs Into Her Role As Bethany Hamilton

AnnaSophia Robb Surfers Into Her Role As Bethany Hamilton
TriStar Pictures; Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
TriStar Pictures; Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Bethany Hamilton lived through something people only experience in their nightmares. At the age of 13, surfer Bethany Hamilton was attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark, losing her left arm. But the attack didn’t stop her. Only a month later, Hamilton hopped back on her board, re-teaching herself how to swim and surf in order to compete once again.

Her first competition post-2003 attack was the following year, the NSSA National Competition, and she placed first. Hamilton’s incredible story was portrayed in the 2011 biopic film Soul Surfer, with actress AnnaSophia Robb playing ocean-loving surfer Hamilton.

Shia LaBeouf As Amateur Golfer Francis Ouimet

Shia LaBeouf As Amateur Golfer Francis Ouimet
Walt Disney Pictures; PGA of America via Getty Images
Walt Disney Pictures; PGA of America via Getty Images

Francis Ouimet, the father of amateur golf, never made it to the professional level, even though he won the United States Open in 1913, his sole professional win. But he didn’t start as a player on the course; he actually learned the game from caddying throughout his childhood and adolescence.

In the 2005 Disney film The Greatest Game Ever Played, Shia LaBeou portrays the amateur golfer, showcasing him growing up, learning the game, and, finally, winning the 1913 U.S. Open. The actor has said that performing in the film has given him a new appreciation for the sport of golf.

Gary Cooper As Lou Gehrig

gary cooper gehrig
RKO; Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images
RKO; Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

Lou Gehrig is one of the most iconic MLB stars of all-time, and in Pride of the Yankees, he was portrayed perfectly by Gary Cooper. The movie was made as a tribute to the New York legend whose life was cut short by ALS.

The story follows Cooper as Gehris, who becomes a star, then benches himself when he notices his strength is starting to dwindle. It ends with Gerhig’s iconic retirement speech and the words, “People all say that I’ve had a bad break. But today … today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”