Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the most impressive multi-hyphenate athletes ever to grace the earth. One could write an entire anthology on what he did for basketball alone, but Abdul-Jabbar has never been one to stay in one lane. He’s an activist, author, speaker, and, as many fans know, an actor. While the acting career might not be the first thing that people think of when it comes to Abdul-Jabbar, the former superstar has enjoyed a great show business career filled with memorable roles on and off-camera.
The Game of Death
In the early 1970s, it was common for athletes to make the rounds on television. Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, got his first taste of Hollywood through these appearances on talk shows and scripted television shows alike. His first real acting role came in 1970 when he appeared on the hit crime drama Mannix, but before long, that expanded.
When Bruce Lee fans think of Abdul-Jabbar’s acting career, they are most likely think of The Game of Death. Always a spiritual person, Abdul-Jabbar connected with Lee before the latter was a household name. He told the story of their friendship to HuffPost in 2019.
“I first met Bruce when I was a student at UCLA looking to continue my martial arts studies, which I started in New York City,” Abdul-Jabbar said to the website. “We quickly developed a friendship as well as a student-teacher relationship. He taught me the discipline and spirituality of martial arts, which was greatly responsible for me being able to play competitively in the NBA for 20 years with very few injuries.”
While Abdul-Jabbar began to dominate the NBA, Lee started to do the same on the silver screen, as reported by Sporting News. Despite a foot-and-a-half difference between the two, Lee called on Abdul-Jabbar to record the now-famous fight scene from the film. Unfortunately, Lee died before the film was completed, and it took several years before it was shot into an exploitative finished product that tried to use the star’s demise as a plot point.
While the film is infamous, the scene with Abdul-Jabbar, which was completed before his death, remains a classic of the kung-fu genre. Years later, Abdul-Jabbar entertained differently altogether.
Kareem flies high
The next memorable role in Abdul-Jabbar’s career was a role he was born to play. Disguised as Roger Murdock, Abdul-Jabbar represents himself as an airplane pilot. Although he tries to hide his identity when a child sees him right through him, Abdul-Jabbar denies that he is, in fact, himself. Airplane! became a classic, and with it came more acting roles for Abdul-Jabbar.
From an appearance in the movie Fletch, in which he plays himself, to a pair of guest appearances on the popular 1980s sitcom, Abdul-Jabbar got steady acting work when he wasn’t taking the basketball court. In 1994, he played a small but essential role in the hit mini-series The Stand, which was based on the novel by Stephen King.
Later that same year, he played himself in Forget Paris, a film in which a fed-up NBA referee played by Billy Crystal kicks Abdul-Jabbar out in what’s supposed to be his farewell game. Abdul-Jabbar never tried to headline major movies like Shaquille O’Neal or Dennis Rodman, but he carved out a niche of smaller roles that continues to this day. His last appearance as an actor was in the hit Nickelodeon series iZombie.
Abdul-Jabbar has also taken his talents behind the scenes.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar picks up a pen
Abdul-Jabbar worked behind the scenes on several documentaries throughout the year — many of them about him and his teammates. In 2019, however, he took to the realm of fiction to join the writing room for the Veronica Mars revival on Hulu. Although it was just one episode, Abdul-Jabbar received acclaim for his writing.
Abdul-Jabbar embraced the written word since he was a young basketball player. While his non-fiction books are popular in their own right, the Hall of Famer also writes for a series of Sherlock Holmes novels, according to Electric Literature, which introduced a fresh take onto Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic series.
Now in his seventies, Abdul-Jabbar remains active both on and off the basketball court. While he might not have the biggest career for an athlete, he has a pair of memorable roles that remain in the lexicon today. While all of his other work deserves applause, it would be a disservice to ignore what Abdul-Jabbar has done in Hollywood.