When Headlocks Met Hollywood: Tinseltown's Longtime Affair With Wrestling

World Wrestling Entertainment is going Hollywood for its 21st annual "Wrestlemania" this year. But Hollywood came calling for wrestlers a long time ago.

The setting could not be more appropriate as WWE -- formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation -- will present "Wrestlemania 21" on April 3 in the shadow of Hollywood at Los Angeles' Staples Center. "Wrestlemania 21" comes as pro wrestlers are bodyslamming the Big Screen.

"The Rock" Dwayne Johnson -- who first rose to fame as a third-generation WWE wrestler -- drew some critical acclaim and laughs as a gay bodyguard/aspiring actor in "Be Cool," the sequel to "Get Shorty." Octogenarian legendary wrestlers The Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young are featured in "Lipstick & Dynamite," a documentary about lady pro wrestlers that opened in limited release on Friday. And wrestlers such as Stone Cold Steve Austin, Bill Goldberg, and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling's Kevin Nash will star opposite Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Burt Reynolds in a remake of "The Longest Yard" when it opens Memorial Day weekend.

Still, the gladiators of the squared circle are not new to Tinseltown. Hollywood has long recognized their star potential. Wrestling -- or what some have referred to as "sports entertainment" in recent years -- calls on its performers to adopt an in-ring persona when they entertain the audience.

Some say wrestlers, who blend athleticism with charisma and theatrics, are cinematic naturals.

"It is a form of theater. Most of the wrestlers' characters -- in-ring personas -- are exaggerated, blown-up version of themselves," said Gerald W. Morton, a language and literature professor at Auburn University Montgomery in Alabama and author of "Wrestling to Rasslin': Ancient Sport to American Spectacle." "This is the best stage for suspending our belief that we can experience in a drama."

Stars on the Mat, Stars on the Screen

The Mexican film industry recognized the star appeal of wrestlers back in the 1950s. Late legendary masked wrestler El Santo starred in 59 Mexican films during an in-ring career that lasted 48 years. Hollywood was a little slow to take wrestlers outside their traditional environment, but it has had a long-standing relationship with them.

In the 1970s, the late Andre the Giant made several guest appearances as the bionic Bigfoot opposite Lee Majors in television's "The Six Million Dollar Man" and had a role in the 1987 movie "The Princess Bride." "Rowdy" Roddy Piper surprised critics with a commanding, not-so-campy performance in his starring role in the 1988 cult favorite sci-fi flick "They Live." Former National Wrestling Alliance Champion Terry Funk showed Sylvester Stallone and Patrick Swayze his brawling skills in "Over the Top" and "Road House," respectively. And former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura -- who has had several small roles on the big and small screen -- most memorably fought alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Predator."

WWE's Steve Austin had a recurring role in the CBS TV series "Nash Bridges" in the late 1990s. Triple H, the world champion of WWE's program "Raw," had a supporting role opposite Wesley Snipes in this winter's "Blade: Trinity" and has made guest TV appearances on shows such as "The Bernie Mac Show" and "Mad TV."

Some credit WWE Chairman Vince McMahon's promotion of wrestling as entertainment, not primarily as sport, with keeping his product in the spotlight and opening opportunities for wrestlers within and outside his company.

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