Think of the names Michael Jordan, Jim Brown and Terry Bradshaw and you think of phenomenal athletes who have carried their teams to championship status. What you don’t think of is a distinguished career in the movies.
A growing crossover between the athletic, motion picture, and music industries (think of the Blues Brothers Super Bowl show, Shaquille O’Neal’s recording contract and Dennis Rodman’s MTV show) has opened the curtain for Hollywood to dive into an expanding talent pool of already recognized stars. However, athletes attempting to break into the picture business can often get pigeonholed into cartoonish characters, or if they’re lucky, a la Michael Jor-dan, playing opposite cartoon characters.
Howie Long aims to change all that.
“The great thing about acting is that you keep getting better and better,” NATO/ShoWest’s Rising Male Star of the year says. “In football, you arrive in your peak physical condition and as you grow older and your body starts to give, you make that up with experience.”
Long just completed production on Fox’s “Firestorm,” the second of his three-picture deal with the studio. The first pic, “Broken Arrow” with John Travolta and Christian Slater, grossed an impressive $70 million domestically. Long has also signed a deal with Disney for which he will film “Black Cross” in May.
“Terry (Bradshaw) thinks I do nothing but grunt through the whole movie,” Long jokes. “Actually I don’t shoot a gun and my character isn’t cartoonish. He’s a guy everyone can relate to and I’d rather move in that direction rather than the Superman thing.”
A successful crossover from professional sports to the box office is often deemed as an exception rather than the rule, and when it’s achieved it’s usually in the action genre. For every Jim Brown, there’s a Brian Bosworth. For every Michael Jordan “Space Jam,” there’s a Shaquille O’Neal “Kazaam.”
“You have to try to find your way in this business. You get offered a lot of good money to do what feels like good work and it doesn’t always turn out to be that way,” Long says.
After playing for 13 seasons as a lineman with the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, including eight pro bowls and a 1984 Super Bowl victory, Long retired after the ’93 season to broadcasting, choosing to work Fox TV’s new pre-game show over a higher bid from cable’s TNT.
Since his move behind the microphone, Long’s successful analysis and bantering with his Fox NFL teammates — James Brown, Bradshaw and Ronnie Lott — has led to a contract renewed last season worth an all-star $1 million (estimated) per year for two extra seasons.
“We’re like a locker room talking about everything,” he says of his co-broadcasters. “I’m not sure if (the pre-game show) has helped my acting ability, but it’s been a hell of a lot of fun doing it.”
Still, Long admits that he will likely stick with the action genre for his upcoming productions, noting that his size can mandate a particular type of role.
“The biggest thing I have to do is to try to stay small. Others are trying to put on weight, I have to try to take it off,” he says, noting that the physicality of actioners has taken its toll, despite his NFL conditioning; and no, he won’t be doing most of his own stunts. “The philosophy is different in films. Here the crew doesn’t want me to do everything, whereas in football physicality was everything,” he says.
On the set of “Firestorm” in Vancouver, Long fell victim to the weather and broke two of his ribs. “It was a freak thing. I slipped on black ice, flipped and the handle of the axe I was carrying jammed into my chest.”
But it’s that type of action that keeps him coming back for more, and, in theory, continued box office success down the road.
“The first time I saw El Cid, I was hooked. I have always been a big film buff and was mesmerized by the whole process,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to learn from John (Travolta), Christian (Slater), John Woo and (“Firestorm” helmer) Dean Semler.”