Like John Wayne with westerns, several actors have established themselves as champions of the sports genre. Franchises such as Rocky and Major League won’t count, as their respective stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charlie Sheen only really appeared in those sports movies. That’s basically cheating as far as this list is concerned. Those that qualify will be consistently cast in sports movies by different directors either coincidentally or intentionally, based on their acumen for portraying specific sports-based archetypes.
There are two obvious character types that these thespians manage to fill in each respective appearance: the athlete, or the coach. However, some of these actors and actresses will occasionally show up as a friend or family member to the primary character. Those roles count as well even if they aren’t of the athletic variety. All that said, these are ten actors who frequently appear in sports films.
10 Denzel Washington
In terms of critical acclaim, the actual quality of each performance, Denzel Washington would likely come out on top of the list. However, roles in three sports films — about basketball, boxing, and football — doesn’t quite stack up to the top picks.
That said: each of those films are some of the highest-quality that their three disparate sports have to offer. With He Got Game (1998), director Spike Lee kicked things off and showed Denzel the ropes as a portrayer of athletes. Revolving around basketball, the film garnered decent reviews, but Norman Jewison took things to another level in the following year with The Hurricane (1998). Finally, and perhaps most famously, Denzel starred in the football film Remember the Titans (2000), solidifying himself as a titleholder of the genre.
9 James Earl Jones
For modern audiences unfamiliar with the entries of sports movies past, two of these films are among the most popular the genre has to offer, while the others fall on the more underappreciated side of the spectrum. As for the latter two: The Great White Hope (1970) starred James Earl Jones in a biographical boxing story, while The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976) marked his first foray into baseball films.
That’s where the more iconic projects come into play. Field of Dreams (1986) and The Sandlot (1993) are as well-known as sports movies come for recent American audiences, defining their childhoods in ways cartoons and animated films couldn’t quite encompass. In the end, these two films alone rendered James Earl Jones an absolute veteran of the genre, let alone the first two that were touched on.
8 Adam Sandler
Though most of his movies are comedies that get ravaged by critics and fans alike, Adam Sandler seems to shine when it’s time to get competitive. He’s starred in two football comedies, and they’re easily the worst of the bunch. However well-known The Waterboy (1998) and The Longest Yard (2005) may be, there’s no denying the two other sports films starring Adam Sandler vastly outweigh them in terms of quality.
Of course, Happy Gilmore from 1995 — which, really, covers two sports (hockey and golf) instead of the standard one — is just as popular as his two football outings. But Sandler also starred in Hustle (2022), a basketball movie. And from a standpoint of objectivity, it’s easily the best of the bunch.
7 Robert De Niro
For starters, Robert De Niro has appeared in two movies about baseball throughout his tenured career: Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), and The Fan (1996). However, thanks to his Oscar-winning role as Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), most film fans know that De Niro truly shines with a pair of 16-ounce Everlast gloves wrapped around his fists.
In Hands of Stone (2016), he plays Ray Arcel, the legendary American boxing trainer of Roberto Duran (also known as Hands of Stone). But then, there’s Grudge Match (2013) — one of the most poorly-reviewed films throughout the entire list. He stars opposite Sylvester Stallone as a callback to their two famous portrayals of boxers in film: Stallone as Rocky Balboa, and De Niro as Jake LaMotta. And the latter will always be among the seminal roles of De Niro’s career.
6 Woody Harrelson
An interesting entry on the list, the sports films Woody Harrelson appeared in throughout the years undoubtedly ran the gamut of popularity. For example: White Men Can’t Jump (1992), Kingpin (1996), and Semi-Pro (2008) are among the more popular films of Harrelson’s career, let alone of the genre at hand.
However: Wildcats (1986), Play It to the Bone (1999), and Surfer, Dude (2008) never got much traction in terms of audience attraction, they never money made at the box office, or anything on the positive end of the spectrum, really. Those three films hold approval ratings of 26%, 11%, and 0% respectively on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating an almost unprecedented number of negative reviews. Luckily for Harrelson, the top three sports films of his perfectly evened out the quality.
5 Rene Russo
Spoiler alert for the remainder of the list, but Rene Russo is the only featured female herein. And unfortunately for the sake of trite archetype conventions, she exclusively played the role of the love interest. The first is example was opposite Tom Berenger in both Major League (1989) and Major League II (1994), two sports comedies about baseball in which she played Lynn Wells. The first of which was her debut film role, too.
Next up was Tin Cup (1996), the story of a golf prodigy played by Kevin Costner. This is perhaps the most prominent Russo role of the bunch, but there is one more worth mentioning: Two for the Money (2005) with Al Pacino. She played the wife of his character in this film about sports gambling, but everyone’s efforts were for naught as the film bombed both in theaters and with critics.
4 Robert Duvall
For five decades at this point, Robert Duvall has delivered consistently impressive performances in sports films. Most of his efforts were of the supporting variety, such as with The Natural (1984), Days of Thunder (1990), Kicking and Screaming (2005), and Hustle (2022). However, he also provided a minor performance in 12 Mighty Orphans (2021), and over a decade ago played the lead in Seven Days in Utopia (2011).
With roles in movies about football, racing, soccer, golf, football and basketball (respectively), Robert Duvall could easily be considered the most diverse actor of sports movies. But ultimately, he came up just short to the top two picks — two performers who consistently appeared in lead roles with their respective sports films.
3 Wesley Snipes
Widely remembered today for his portrayal of the darkly-inspired superhero Blade, Wesley Snipes is equally well-known for his performances within sports films. He’s appeared in six athletic-based movies — the most obvious being White Men Can’t Jump (1992), a basketball film costarring Woody Harrelson. But it’s also worth noting that several years prior the two appeared together in a football movie called Wildcats (1986). And it was their on-screen debuts, too.
Snipes also made appearances in Major League (1989) and Play It to the Bone (1999) about baseball and boxing, respectively. But there are two other major roles of Wesley’s that are without a doubt worth mentioning: The Fan (1996) with Robert De Niro, and Undisputed (2002) with Ving Rhames. Both films were flops with audiences and critics alike upon release, but have subsequently garnered due praise.
2 Paul Newman
Many fans will be shocked to see Paul Newman sitting at number two. However, he was also known for showing up in westerns such as The Left-Handed Gun (1958), Hombre (1967), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Meanwhile, the number one pick was almost exclusively associated with their roles in sports films.
The most prominent of Newman’s career are The Hustler (1961) and The Color of Money (1986), both about billiards, plus Slap Shot (1977), a film about ice hockey. But there are also a few films about racing: the far-lesser-known Winning (1969), for starters, along with the Cars franchise by Pixar, in which Newman played Doc “The Hudson Hornet” Hudson. And finally, Newman played an AWOL soldier-turned pugilist in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). That’s quite the range of activities.
1 Kevin Costner
From bicycle racing in American Flyers (1985) and golfing in Tin Cup (1996) to football in Draft Day (2014) and cross-country in McFarland, USA (2015), Kevin Costner has truly run the gamut of sports throughout his time as an actor of athletic characters. Those were four different sports, but he definitely only specialized in one: baseball.
In his second on-screen appearance, Costner plays a minor role as the younger brother of the protagonist – a boy who discovers he has a knack for baseball. Titled Chasing Dream (1982), this picture is mostly forgotten, only really notable for this role of Costner’s. However, Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989) are two of the most iconic, commercially successful, and critically acclaimed baseball movies to ever be released.
But then there’s For the Love of the Game (1999) by Sam Raimi — also about baseball — along with a boxing movie called Play it to the Bone (1999) and a racing film called The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019). That’s ten sports films in total, rendering Costner the undeniable king thereof.
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