8 former NFL players who became television stars

By: H&I Staff    Posted: September 18, 2019, 3:44PM

Image: AP Photo / Wally Fong

Football players have many opportunities to hone their acting skills, whether its intimidation tactics on the field or acting in television commercials. A handful of gridiron stars make the permanent leap to the screen, especially those fortunate to play in Los Angeles. Some made a natural transition to muscle and henchmen, but others showed their range as comedians and tender father figures.

Here is a formidable team of former NFL stars who became television pros.


Bubba Smith

Teams: Baltimore Colts, Oakland Raiders, Houston Oilers
Notable TV shows: Blue Thunder, Half Nelson, Open All Night

Smith is best known for his reoccurring role in the Police Academy movies, but he had many television gigs as well. He was with Butkus in both Blue Thunder and Half Nelson. His sitcom about a convenience store, Open All Night, last just a season. Prior to that, he popped up in an episode of Wonder Woman, as you can see in the photo, playing "Rojak" — not to be confused with Kojak.


Fred Williamson

Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers, Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs
Notable TV shows: Star Trek, Julia, Half Nelson

Like Smith, Williamson is mostly a star of the silver screen, a legend of Blaxplotation cinema and regular cool presence in action flicks. He also might be the only former NFL player to appear on Star Trek, in the season three episode "The Cloud Minders." That's him as the Troglyte named Anka. Also, who wasn't in Half Nelson? Did anyone see that show?


Dick Butkus

Team: Chicago Bears
Notable TV shows: Blue Thunder, Half Nelson, My Two Dads

The erstwhile Monster of the Midway got his acting start in 1974 as a guest on Emergency! and later that decade appeared in episodes of The Rockford Files, Wonder Woman (pictured), Taxi, Fantasy Island and more. In the '80s, he became a lead, as "Ski" Butkowski on the helicopter action hour Blue Thunder and later in a Joe Pesci comedy called Half Nelson, alongside another ex-NFLer, Bubba Smith.


Rosey Grier

Teams: Giants, Rams
Notable TV shows: Daniel Boone, Make Room for Grandaddy

Another standout for the Giants and Rams — perhaps there is a benefit for aspiring actors playing in NYC and L.A. — Grier, brother to actress Pam Grier, started with bit parts on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Dream of Jeannie and The Wild Wild West. He became a regular on Daniel Boone as Gabe Cooper in the sixth season, and later teamed with Danny Thomas as a piano player in the sequel series Make Room for Grandaddy.


Fred Dryer

Team: Los Angeles Rams, New York Giants
Notable TV shows: Hunter, Land's End

Perhaps no former player become a bigger TV lead than the Ram. After starting his career on the Giants, Dryer played most of his years in L.A., which perhaps gave him a shorter road to Hollywood stardom. He appeared in a backdoor pilot on CHiPs about ninja cops, "Force Seven," but that show was not picked up. No worries. He became an action star shortly thereafter as renegade cop Rick Hunter. In the '90s, he lead another series, Land's End. You can also catch him on a handful of Cheers.


Alex Karras

Team: Detroit Lions
Notable TV show: Webster

Karras appeared on both big screen and boob tube. You might remember him as Mongo in Blazing Saddles. On TV, he began on Daniel Boone, joining the cast for one episode alongside Rosey Grier. He also popped up on an Odd Couple and M*A*S*H, but most know him as George Papadapolis, the dad on 150 episodes of Webster.


Ed Marinaro

Teams: Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks
Notable TV shows: Laverne & Shirley, Hill Street Blues

After America's two favorite beer bottlers relocated from Milwaukee to Burbank, the producers of Laverne & Shirley attempted to write a love interest for Laverne. Enter Marinaro as stuntman Sonny St. Jacques. Often showing off his upper body, the former running back left the sitcom after a season for a major role on Hill Street Blues. Later, he could be seen on Falcon Crest, Blue Mountain State and more.


Merlin Olsen

Team: Rams
Notable TV shows: Little House on the Prairie, Father Murphy

The former fearsome defensive tackle became a kind soul on frontier shows. On the latter seasons of Little House, he portrayed farmer Jonathan Garvey. In one memorable moment, his onscreen son proclaims, "My pa doesn't know anything about football!" Later, he was the lead role on Michael Landon's Father Murphy, sheltering orphans and pretending to be a priest.