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.

"He's always understood what is going on in society and sure knows what to do to keep the WWE at the forefront of the entertainment industry," Morton said. "At the time, when Vince McMahon took such a bold step of promoting wrestling as entertainment and put aside any pretext of big sport, I would have thought that maybe he would get four or five [successful] years, tops, with that strategy."

An Up-and-Coming Star

In some ways, Hollywood and Wrestlemania have always been synonymous. In the first Wrestlemania in 1985, Hulk Hogan teamed with Mr. T -- who was at the height of his popularity as a star of "The A-Team" -- in the main event. In its long history, stars such as Pamela Anderson, Liberace, Burt Reynolds, Aretha Franklin, among others have appeared at "Wrestlemania."

To promote its biggest show of the year in commercials and on their programs, WWE stars have been involved in spoofs of famous scenes from films such as "Pulp Fiction," "When Harry Met Sally," "A Few Good Men," "Braveheart," "Forrest Gump," "Taxi Driver," "Basic Instinct" and "Dirty Harry."

One of the wrestlers featured in the spoofs was John Cena, who will be part of one of the main events at "Wrestlemania 21" when he battles titlist "JBL" John "Bradshaw" Layfield for the WWE championship. The two opponents faced off in a spoof of the famous "You Can't Handle the Truth" scene from 1992's "A Few Good Men," with Cena playing Tom Cruise's role and JBL taking on Jack Nicholson's character.

Given his muscularity and chiseled, youthful good looks, Cena, 27, was arguably a natural choice to depict Cruise's character. His in-ring persona -- a hip-hop loving, throwback sports jersey-wearing grappler who thrills fans with his matches and wisecracking raps on his opponents -- has the kind of charisma and crossover appeal potential WWE hopes will help him become organization's new face since "The Rock's" full-time departure to Hollywood.

But Cena is just thrilled to be one of "Wrestlemania's" main attractions.

"For me, it's a little bit special, given I was in the opening match last year and I wasn't even on the program two years ago," Cena said. "Now I'm going after the most coveted prize in our business. It's really something special."

An Untraditional Potential Franchise

Cena would not be a traditional face of WWE. He looks more like a D.J. -- albeit a muscular one -- than a wrestler.

Cena sports a heavy chain with a padlock around his neck. Instead of wearing traditional wrestling trunks and boots to the ring, he prefers baggy jean shorts and retro-air pump high-top sneakers. While he was WWE United States Champion, he turned the traditional static championship belt into a "spinner" belt that resembled a turntable or tire rims -- a tribute to rap and hip-hop.

Adoring fans -- which Cena refers to as his "Chain Gang," much like Hogan did with his "Hulkamaniacs" -- started making spinner belt signs and bought replica souvenir belts.

"I attribute my success to people who got behind it," Cena continued. "I wouldn't be where I am without the people getting on board the whole thing. I can guarantee you that if I win [the WWE championship at "Wrestlemania 21"], you see the most iced-out, tripped out WWE title belt you've ever seen."

If Cena wins the WWE championship, his rise will have been relatively quick, as most of his colleagues in the past have spent several years paying dues in the industry before earning the responsibility of carrying an organization. He respects tradition but takes pride in being untraditional.

"I'm doing things a little differently. I have respect for tradition but I'm like the polar opposite of tradition," Cena said. "I've gotten to where I am in a non-traditional way. It's an achievement for hip-hop."

Cena sported the more traditional wrestling look when he first appeared on WWE television three years ago. WWE writers allowed him freedom to express himself and develop his current in-ring persona when they heard him rap backstage.

Cena bristles at the notion that his in-ring character is a gimmick. Growing up in West Newbury, Mass., he says he grew up listening to rap, wears hip-hop fashion outside the ring, and is a fan of sports history. The wrestling persona is just an extension of who he is and what he likes.

"When people ask, 'What do you think of your gimmick?' it drives me crazy," Cena said. "It's not a gimmick. What I wear in in ring, that's what I wear when I'm going to the arena."

Crossover Success Not an Easy Pin

"Wrestlemania 21" will pay homage to wrestling tradition and its Hollywood ties.

On the eve of the event, three of the four participants in the main event of the first Wrestlemania -- Hogan, Piper, "Cowboy" Bob Orton, Jr. and "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff -- will be inducted into WWE's Hall of Fame. Sylvester Stallone --who had a fight scene with Hogan in "Rocky III" -- will introduce him when he is honored.

Cena, who grew up idolizing Hogan, is looking forward to seeing his induction.

"That's something I'm looking forward to," Cena said. "It's long overdue. He was the personification of sports entertainment."

Though Hogan is arguably the world's most famous wrestler, he was not able to pin Hollywood to the mat. Movies in the early 1990s such as "Suburban Commando" and "Mr. Nanny" were critically scorned and commercial flops.

"The Rock" has been the only wrestler to parlay his in-ring success into a full-time Hollywood career. Since turning some heads for his small role in 2002's "The Mummy Returns," he has been in starring roles in movies such as "The Scorpion King," "The Rundown" and the remake of "Walking Tall."

Cena has enjoyed some crossover commercial success -- and there may be much more to come. He has made guest appearances on several hip-hop radio stations nationwide, appeared on the covers of bodybuilding and fitness magazines in his three-year rise in WWE. He has a rap CD, "You Can't See Me," coming out in May.

"Cena is the man who fans most want to see these days," said "Sir Adam" Adam Kleinberg, who along with Adam "The Phantom" Nudelman hosts "Get in the Ring," an Internet radio wrestling program, and has co-written the forthcoming book "Mysteries of Wrestling." "He's the man fans react the most. He has the mic skills that Vince McMahon likes."

Ready for Their Close-Up

Cena is also one of the cornerstones on which WWE hopes to build a success foray into film. WWE Films, the company's Los Angeles-based film and television division, was formed in 2002, and Cena stars in one of the first movies under its production, "The Marine," due to be released in the fall.

Some fans say Cena could surprise some skeptics.

"I was really impressed with Cena in that ["Wrestlemania"] promo he and JBL did of 'A Few Good Men,' " said Nudelman. "He was really good. It was different than the role [on WWE television] that we normally see him in."

It's debatable how well the WWE-produced films will do, given WWE's failed previous attempts in other non-wrestling ventures such as bodybuilding with the World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF) and the football with the XFL. But Cena wants to show those who may have a close-minded view of wrestlers or forget that "The Rock" rose to prominence as a wrestler that there is talent potential in WWE.

"My short and long-term goals are the same: To let everyone know that WWE is the best sports entertainment company, the best place for live sports entertainment," Cena said. "There are some athletes here. There's a lot of talent here."

Mr. DeMille, I believe Mr. Cena and his friends are ready for their close-up.