“Wrestling is fake.” If you’re a fan of professional wrestling, that’s the criticism you have to endure the most. Sure, it’s scripted and pre-determined, but it’s also thrilling, and in the best moments, like watching a movie come to life. Wrestlers might know that a move is coming from their opponent, but that makes it even more impressive, when you have two men or women going through a choreographed presentation that looks like a real fight, all without either actually getting seriously hurt. And when those wrestlers aren’t battling, they’re selling the upcoming match with promos that have been meticulously crafted to get fans interested in what’s to come. So, yeah, call it fake, but professional wrestling is also filled with actors doing the most jaw-dropping stunts you’ll ever see.
It should come as no surprise that these stuntmen and stuntwomen, who also put so much time into rehearsing lines, would try their hands at acting in movies. Professional wrestling and movies share so many similarities, just with different sets. That doesn’t mean that it’s an easy or natural transition. Though some wrestlers, especially recently, have hung up their boots and become successful movie stars, others should have stayed in the ring. Still, through fame and failure, it’s a fascinating transition that many have made over the decades.
Hulk Hogan Paved the Way
Though you might first think of someone like Hulk Hogan as the initial wrestler turned actor, he wasn’t. Professional wrestlers had long been part of film, even if it wasn’t exactly mainstream. In 1959, Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson was one of the stars of Ed Wood’s so-bad-it’s-good Plan 9 from Outer Space. He’d actually acted in many films before that, and ironically, famed wrestler George “The Animal” Steele would play him in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic.
The 1960s and’ 70s had luchadors like El Santo in some pretty bad horror luchador films, but it was the 1980s when wrestlers in movies became mainstream. 1982’s Rocky III is the best early example, with the introduction of Hulk Hogan, playing an early opponent of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, a showboat named Thunderlips. This was before the rise of Hulkamania in WWF (now known as WWE). A few years later, when Hogan’s rise took over professional wrestling, his acting career really took off.
If you compare his films to those of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Dave Bautista today, you’re not going to be impressed. There are some real duds in there, but what Hogan did with his ability to take a niche territorial form of entertainment and turn it into a colossal mainstream phenomenon shouldn’t be undervalued. For Hogan to even be in movies, whether he was good in them or not, spoke to just how much of a game changer he was. Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, Hogan had a string of movies that did well on VHS, such as 1989’s No Holds Barred, 1991’s Suburban Commando, and 1993’s Mr. Nanny. None of them are exactly top-notch entertainment, but if you were a kid then, you ate those films up.
Andre the Giant and Roddy Piper Made an Impact in Hollywood Too
Hulk Hogan wasn’t the only wrestler to try his hand at acting in the 1980s. There were two other names who made a lasting impact on cinema in the decade. 1987’s The Princess Bride is undoubtedly a modern classic that has been shared over generations. At its heart stands the larger-than-life Andre the Giant, a wrestler so awe-inspiring that he was a household name. What his nemesis Hulk Hogan would do as a lead in films was impressive, but Andre, while not the lead here, was in a huge Hollywood film filled with huge Hollywood names. Directed by Rob Reiner and starring the likes of Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, and Billy Crystal, Andre played Fezzik, an employee of Shawn’s bad guy Vizzini. His presence and his kindness left his co-stars in awe, with many coming back to be interviewed for the Andre the Giant documentary in 2018.
A year later, one of wrestling’s best villains became the hero, when “Rowdy” Roddy Piper landed the lead role in John Carpenter‘s They Live. Earlier that year he had starred in the cult favorite, Hell Comes to Frogtown, but under Carpenter’s direction he thrived as the bubble gum chewing, ass kicking drifter battling aliens in this Reagan era satire. Piper, one of wrestling’s great promo masters, showed that he could be a serious lead, not just with his acting, but in action scenes as well, such as that classic and never ending fight scene that’s impossible to turn away from.
Andre and Piper didn’t have big acting careers like Hogan did for a short time, but even The Hulkster’s roles became less significant in the mid-’90s as the Real American hero went through a steroid scandal, jumped ship from the WWF to WCW, and later became an iconic bad guy.
In the late ’90s, wrestling transitioned into the Attitude Era, with the childish comic book feel ditched for a hyper sexualized and ultra violent soap opera. There was no demand for wrestlers making movies anymore, though some tried, like Bill Goldberg appearing in 1999’s god awful Universal Soldier: The Return, or a litany of WCW wrestlers having cameos with David Arquette in Ready to Rumble, but there were no wrestlers taking the big leap to become leading men.
Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson Became the Biggest Actor on the Planet
That changed with a certain eyebrow raising Great One. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson rose to the top of the WWF with charisma and coolness on a level that had never been seen before. It led to him appearing in The Mummy Returns in 2001 as The Scorpion King, before reprising the role as the lead in The Scorpion King in 2002. The film was a bit clunky, but most importantly, it showed that Johnson possessed that “it” factor, not just in a wrestling ring but on a movie screen as well.
Soon after, he left wrestling behind for acting. There were struggles at first with okay films like The Rundown (where Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in a passing of the torch cameo) and Walking Tall, before really hitting it big with the Fast and the Furious franchise and other roles such as in Moana and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. He is now arguably the biggest star on the planet and has shown without a shadow of a doubt that it’s not a joke when a wrestler becomes an actor.
Several other wrestlers tried to repeat his success, but none had much luck. Triple H showed up in the awful Blade: Trinity. Edge, CM Punk, and Kevin Nash are just a few others who appeared in feature films, but none of them achieved much. The closest wrestlers came to recreating what The Rock had accomplished was when his old profession itself got into the movie business with WWE Studios. There were a few hits in there, such as the surprising Fighting with My Family in 2019, but most of them were bland direct-to-video fare with WWE wrestlers trying their best to be action stars despite the bad scripts they were handed.
John Cena And Dave Bautista Showed That They Could Act Too
One of those WWE Studios stars broke through. After “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock left WWE, John Cena became the face of the company. Early in his acting career he tried to become an action star with forgettable films like The Marine, but he didn’t have much success. Then came Trainwreck. When Cena appeared in this major film, starring Amy Schumer and Bill Hader, he stole every scene he was in and showed that, hey, this muscle head can act. And he’s hilarious. Lead roles in blockbuster films and smaller comedies came fast, and the last decade has seen Cena win over the general public with parts in Daddy’s Home, Bumblebee, Blockers, F9, and The Suicide Squad. He can be in a superhero movie like The Rock, but he has no qualms with completely humiliating himself for a laugh either.
If Cena was the biggest star in WWE during the mid and late 2000s, Dave Bautista was right behind him. You’d be forgiven for not thinking that he could transition into becoming a major actor. He didn’t have the traditional babyface looks and was already in his mid-40s when he tried to make it in Hollywood. Make it he did though by not trying to reduplicate what someone like The Rock had done. Bautista didn’t attempt to become a leading man straight away. Instead, he was content being a supporting star in big projects. He killed it as the hilarious Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, duked it out with Daniel Craig’s James Bond in Spectre, and had a small but pivotal role in Blade Runner 2049. By letting his performances get him recognition rather than his name, Bautista allowed his career to gradually grow. It has paid off, as now he is a leading man in one of 2023’s top movies so far in Knock at the Cabin.
Wrestlers who tried to act were once seen as a joke, or rewarded with a backhanded compliment like, “He’s not bad for a wrestler.” Now wrestlers occupy slots as three of Hollywood’s most successful actors. As they continue to thrive, more wrestlers will try their hand at acting. AEW World Champion MJF was recently cast in A24’s The Iron Claw, WWE women’s legend Becky Lynch turned heads with her eerily accurate portrayal of Cindy Lauper on Young Rock, and the current face of WWE and cousin of The Rock, Roman Reigns, has the looks and charisma to be an actor whenever he chooses.
Wrestlers have shown unequivocally that they are not the muscle head dolts they get stereotyped as. If anything, their profession and what they do in the ring on a weekly basis makes them more ready than most when it comes time to take a swing at Hollywood. Wrestlers turned actors have conquered television and film in every genre, becoming box office champions and household names. Sometime soon, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see one of them hoisting Oscar gold at the Academy Awards.