When Athletes Go Hollywood

With Tom Brady appearing in the comedy “80 for Brady,” a look at other sports figures who have made their way to the big screen.

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By Ty Burr

When is a famous athlete not a famous athlete? When they’re appearing as themselves in a Hollywood movie — then they’re a movie star. Or are they? Despite more than a century of sports legends appearing in films, very few have brought the stardust of their exploits on the field to the very different arena of the big screen. The latest to try is the football godhead Tom Brady.

Not only does the ex-New England Patriot/current Tampa Bay Buccaneer (who recently announced his retirement) appear as himself in the new comedy “80 For Brady,” but the mythos surrounding him forms the basis of the plot, with four senior Patriots fans — played by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Rita Moreno and Sally Field — road-tripping to the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston. Brady appears in the final scenes, getting pep-talked by Tomlin’s character, and let’s just say that he should probably hold onto his day job. But audiences aren’t really expecting the 45-year-old quarterback to suddenly reveal his inner Christian Bale. They just want — well, what do they want? What’s the appeal of a jock out of water?

The movies have been wrestling with this conundrum from the start, when Thomas Edison filmed an 1894 match between the boxers Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing and sold it to the public on Kinetoscope at 10 cents a round. The silent era, once it got going, was a heyday for sports stars onscreen, both since it gave audiences a chance to see their heroes up close, and because the lack of dialogue obviated any need for trained acting.

The Detroit Tigers slugger Ty Cobb appeared in a 1917 drama called “Somewhere in Georgia,” now lost, that cast him as a baseball-playing bank clerk who rescues his girl from kidnappers and wins the big game. The Bambino himself, Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees, starred as a fictionalized small-town Babe in the 1920 film “Headin’ Home.” Available on YouTube, that century-old film is amusingly of its time and Ruth is an amiably persuasive screen presence — a movie star.

With the coming of sound in the mid-1920s, athletes reverted to being found objects onscreen, making cameos and called upon to speak one or two lines to show that they were, in fact, human. Even those Olympians who carved out bona fide screen careers — the swimmers Johnny Weissmuller (“Tarzan”) and Esther Williams, the skater Sonja Henie — weren’t taken seriously as actors. More typical was the 1952 Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn comedy “Pat and Mike,” which brought on a raft of real-life names to give its sports-centric story line background credibility: the tennis stars Gussie Moran and Don Budge; the golfers Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Helen Dettweiler. None of them were called upon to do any dialogue heavy lifting.

The exception here is “The Jackie Robinson Story,” a 1950 feature that cast the Brooklyn Dodger as himself in a dramatically softened version of how he broke the color barrier in professional baseball. Robinson is clearly an amateur actor but is believable even in fictionalized romantic scenes involving his co-star, a very young Ruby Dee. The performance is really the first to tease out a fundamental difference between two types of stardom — sports and film — that continues to play out on screens today when players like Brady ascend the stage.

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