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What makes a decorated actor any more of a celebrity than a decorated athlete? It turns out, it’s recognition. There are levels to fame, but what it really boils down to is how well-known one is. An “A-list” actor or celebrity is so heavily publicized and widespread that one does not even have to be familiar with their craft to iconize their talents and even their personal lives to the utmost degree. That being the case, the most talented professional athlete in the world will be recognized as such and held to a level of professional fame, but only from those who engage with their sport, right? Well, not so much anymore.
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Quite strikingly, with the cultural shift that was the NBA’s own Michael Jordan, the blending of the professional sports world with the world of Hollywood is slowly turning into blurs of grey. Whether it is professional athletes cameo-ing in Hollywood features or even going on to win the highest of awards and acclaim in both fields, or conversely, the advent of sporting matches made strictly for Hollywood celebrities, the intersection of sports and acting can easily meet at the apex of the Hollywood walk of fame.
How the Collision Changed Our Culture
Michael Jordan was by no means the first professional athlete to crossover to the world of Hollywood, but he was the driving force that made professional sporting matches that we see at home as culturally relevant as the filmed content we see on the big screen. The line between actors and athletes began to thin in terms of being a “celebrity,” and more so, the distance between Hollywood and where its audiences resigned thinned too. With his international fandom that took the world over, Jordan did what no other professional athlete had ever accomplished: became more than his game. From there, Hollywood and organizations like the NFL, MLB, NBA, WWE, MMA, the USA Olympic Team, and so on, saw the real value in blending the two together to encourage the cross-breeding of fans and make more money doing it.
Hollywood recognized the potential star power of Michael Jordan during his rise and took it upon themselves to cement his name as not just a basketball star, but a superstar. His many endorsements, including the signature McDonald’s meal and Gatorade spokesman, made him an international household name. Although, he did not fully blend into the realm of Hollywood until his collaboration with iconic director Spike Lee. Lee, coming off his film ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ directed and co-starred in Michael Jordan’s commercial representing his new shoe, “the Jordan.” In the commercial, Lee played his character from the aforementioned movie, Mars Blackmon, asking Jordan what makes him the best player in the world.
Intercut with shots of Jordan showing off his moves, the commercial was a funny and sweet advertisement that set off a domino effect for youth culture. From this commercial, Spike Lee went on to make ‘Do the Right Thing,’ in which his character, Mookie, wears a pair of Jordan 4s. One of the movie’s most famous scenes features a conversation revolving around the creasing of Mookie’s brand new Jordans. Lee couldn’t have known that the simple decision for Mookie to wear this shoe in the movie would change sneaker culture, clothing culture, and the broader culture of the way our country connects sports and entertainment with society.
Before this, basketball shoes were never worn off the court, and after this collaboration between Hollywood and the world of sports, these two businesses got a whole lot closer to our daily lives and grew ever-present in the way people immerse themselves with what they see on their screens. That is the raw power of the entertainment industry.
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The Shifting and Usage of Cameos
A crossover in a show or movie used to be a lot more than two superheroes from different movies showing up in the same scene. Back before the days of cinematic universes, cameos usually came from non-actors, playing themselves. Whether that was Bob Barker in ‘Happy Gilmore,’ Donald Trump in ‘Home Alone 2,’ or Chuck Norris in ‘Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story;’ but more times than not, the most surprising and showstopping cameos to see came from the goliaths of professional sports. For example, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in ‘Airplane!,’ LeBron James in ‘Trainwreck,’ or even the redemptive ark of Bill Buckner in one of the best episodes of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’
While many movies and shows at some point featured a cameo from an athlete once in their series run, one show made it an expectation throughout each season that we would see multiple guest spots from some of the world’s most decorated athletes; and that show was ‘Entourage.’ Even if just for a second, like one of the main characters bumping into Michael Phelps, who had one line, telling him to watch where he’s walking, was enough for the show, and then they just moved on with their plotline. It made so much sense for the storytelling, and it was always a fun treat for the audience.
Set in LA and revolving around an actor on his path to the A-list, the show pulled off an outrageous number of cameos while brilliantly treating them like they were no big deal, even in its early seasons. Alex Rodriguez, Steve Nash, LeBron James, Mark Teixeira, Drew Brees, Chuck Liddell, just to name a few. And that is not to mention those who were in the movie ‘Entourage:’ Ronda Rousey, Russel Wilson, Rob Gronkowski, and so many more. Cameos are one of the most fun surprises in TV or movies. The blending of worlds adds realism to the content, solidifying the universe on screen and adding a bridge from theirs to yours.
The Blending of Professional Sports and Hollywood
Why isn’t a professional athlete in the same rank of celebrity as a professional musician, a professional actor, or someone who is just considered famous? It seems like for the longest time, Hollywood’s fame churning system had no room for athletes. Even though those who make their profession in sports are not held to the same star power as those who reside in la-la land, Hollywood has recently been more than gracious in letting athletes transform their careers to take over the town and become the biggest in the game; no pun intended. With the fast pace and dense echelon of Hollywood’s most famous, it is easy to forget that some of its biggest and brightest began their careers in the world of sports.
Starting off with a bang, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was not always the fast driving, action hero, Demi-God we know him and his famous characters as today. People tend to forget that he started his career as a fighter in WWE (in fact, he played himself acknowledging his former career in the 2019 film ‘Fighting With My Family’). After a successful wrestling career, he chose to dip his toe into the world of acting, his first role in ‘The Mummy Returns’ in 2001. His venture as an actor was not all big budgets and starring roles; Johnson paid his dues and worked his way up the latter, not only becoming the highest-paid actor in as of 2020 as named by Forbes, but also ushering a new wave of bodybuilding craze, being named People’s sexiest man alive in 2016.
Before Dwayne Johnson, it was not out of the ordinary to see athletes dabble into the world of film. Kobe Bryant, after retiring from the NBA, won an Oscar for the creation of his animated short film, ‘Dear Basketball.’ And, of course, who could forget the blockbuster that was ‘Space Jam,’ which highlighted Michael Jordan in a starring role alongside the Looney Tunes. Although, it was not quite until Johnson’s steady and consistent success as an actor that athletes saw the job as a viable career option.
Since then, a solid amount of former and even current professional athletes have had substantial roles in films, some even making a full-on employment change. These include Dave Bautista, former WWE wrestler, who now stars in the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ franchise, Kevin Garnett, NBA Hall of Famer, who starred in ‘Uncut Gems,’ Gina Carano, former MMA fighter, who starred in Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Haywire’ and now a part of ‘The Mandalorian’ series, Kyrie Irving, NBA All-Star, who starred in ‘Uncle Drew,’ of course, LeBron James who will be starring in ‘Space Jame: A New Legacy,’ and so many more.
The blending of these two behemothic industries is growing, with them becoming more connected: the showmanship of sports taking on more of Hollywood’s style, with each game filmed with movie-like production value, and Hollywood accepted athletes as their own, letting them make a name for themselves in the bright lights of LA. Sometimes, the combination of the two can feel unexpected, but being able to see an athlete you look up to show a diversity of skill sets in multiple fields, is priceless in terms of inspiring the next generation of professional sports players, actors, and even audiences who enjoy them both.
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Samuel James Parven is an avid fan of all things entertainment and pop culture, who shines in reviewing the hidden gems of Hollywood. Samuel is fascinated by the direct correlation between media and culture. If art imitates life and vice versa, Samuel focuses on highlighting the ways that the entertainment industry and their consumers alike can improve our interpersonal world through the content with which we engage. With the aligned values of Hollywood Insider to focus on positivity and growth, Samuel is a passionate writer hoping to pen his takes on how to add more substance and inclusivity to the industry we love so much.