The Olympic Games are upon us. In just a couple of days, we will be hit with ceremonies, parades, non-stop advertisements, and athletes fulfilling their lifelong dreams. But what happens after the games are over? Sure, some athletes grace the cover of a Wheaties box or take their game to the professional level. Others, however, get the acting bug.
And why not? The exposure received by gold medal winners is seldom rivaled. Hundreds of millions of people tune in to support their country in this quadrennial display of athletic achievement. A studio looking for some promotion might offer a check with plenty of zeroes to secure that type of free promotion in a film.
The following movies feature gold medalists attempting to set the gold standard in film:
Tarzan the Ape Man – 1932 – (Johnny Weissmuller)
In the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, Johnny Weissmuller was considered the best freestyle swimmer in the world. He won five gold medals and set the world record for the 100-meter event. In 1931, he signed a seven-year contract with MGM and shot his first feature film Tarzan the Ape Man. Alongside Tarzan’s love interest played by Maureen O’Sullivan, Weissmuller stars as the title character. The film revolves around a treasure hunting couple searching for ivory in Africa. They encounter Tarzan, a man raised by apes. Their daughter, Jane, joins them and, as you might expect, Tarzan and Jane have chemistry.
The film was a massive hit, and Weissmuller received praise from many, including Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan. The film itself did not have much speaking for Tarzan, but the action scenes were well received. Most notably, this film was known for the initial appearance of the trademark Tarzan yell. Weissmuller would go on to do 12 more Tarzan movies for multiple studios.
Film – Silver medal
Acting – Bronze medal
Space Jam – 1996 – Michael Jordan
In 1992, the “Dream Team” was the first time professional basketball players competed for the US Olympic team. A virtual who’s who of 80s and 90s NBA superstars, the squad was led by arguably the best player in the history of the league: Michael Jordan. The team walked through the competition en route to a gold medal, the second for Jordan.
In 1996, Jordan starred in Space Jam, a half animated half live-action comedy featuring dozens of NBA stars. Jordan plays himself in the film as a basketball player who retires to play baseball (which he did in real life). During this time, a group of aliens attempts to steal the Looney Tunes characters to help their struggling amusement park. In an effort to save themselves, the characters challenge the aliens to a game of basketball. Bugs Bunny recruits Jordan to play on their behalf.
The film has many top actors including Bill Murray and was produced by Ivan Reitman. It received some critical praise and was given two thumbs up by Siskel and Ebert. As for Jordan’s acting, Jan Bernard of the New York Daily News said,
“Jordan doesn’t seem to be acting so much as playing along…”
Film – Silver medal
Acting – No medal
Rad – 1986 – Bart Conner
At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the US gymnastics team took center stage. For the first time in Olympic history, the US team won the all-around gold medal. Bart Conner also won the gold medal in parallel bars after receiving a perfect “10”. He would later go on to join a super marriage with Romanian gymnastics legend, Nadia Comăneci. Before that, however, he vaulted onto the silver screen in the sports drama, Rad.
Rad is a BMX movie about local legend Cru Jones and his attempt to become a professional rider. Conner plays Bart Taylor, the bad boy biker who is the world champion and cash cow for Mongoose bicycles. Disobeying his mother (Talia Shire) and forgoing his SATs, Jones successfully qualifies for the championship race at Helltrack taking place in his hometown.
Worried that his guys might lose, The President of Mongoose, played by Jack Weston, attempts to disqualify Cru. When the race finally happens, two of Taylor’s teammates try to take Cru out of the race. On the final lap, Taylor slows down to allow for an even showdown between the world champ and the hometown hero.
Rad is directed by Hal Needham of Smokey and the Bandit fame and features Full House‘s Lori Loughlin as the lead character’s love interest. As an actor, Conner is adequate and not given a ton of dialogue. The film received an incredibly low 0% Rotten Tomatoes critic review yet holds a 91% audience rating, one of the largest discrepancies of any movie on the site. For a generation of kids who rode their bikes all day, the film was golden.
Film – Gold medal
Acting – Bronze medal
Several other US Olympic gymnasts have made feature films. Mitch Gaylord starred in American Anthem, and Kurt Thomas was featured in Gymkata.