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A Cultural History of Pro Wrestlers on TV Shows

John Cena's Peacemaker is just the latest in a long line.
  • Photos: Rysher Entertainment, Fox, ABC, Netflix, HBO Max.
    Photos: Rysher Entertainment, Fox, ABC, Netflix, HBO Max.

    It's no surprise that professional wrestlers make for compelling film and TV stars. Yes, they're athletes, and the jocks have always been distinct from the theater kids, but wrestlers are also performers, blending their athleticism with character, charisma, comedy, and good old-fashioned soap opera dramatics. That's why, through the years, pro wrestlers have often crossed over into acting. With WWE star John Cena — who's already established himself as a movie star with flicks like Blockers and The Suicide Squad — starring as the lead in HBO Max's new superhero series Peacemaker, we thought we'd take a look at the history of pro wrestlers on TV. From Hulk Hogan to The Rock and everyone in between, wrestlers have been crossing over for decades now.

    The Age of Hulkamania

    While pro wrestlers made their share of appearances on TV in the early decades of TV ("Classy" Freddie Blassie made an appearance on the old Dick Van Dyke Show back in 1962), it was the breakthrough of Hulk Hogan in the WWF of the 1980s that really kicked things off. That era of the WWF was characterized by an unprecedented blending of pro wrestling with broader pop culture entertainment, combining MTV, Cyndi Lauper, Mr. T, movies, and Wrestlemania itself into a cultural phenomenon that truly captured the zeitgeist. Hogan was such a popular crossover star that he and his fellow WWF wrestlers were given a Saturday morning cartoon series called Hulk Hogan Rock n Wrestling that starred Hogan, Andre the Giant, Rowdy Roddy Piper, the Iron Sheik, and others.

    Unsurprisingly, cartoons turned out to be fertile ground for crossover wrestling characters. The popular G.I. Joe animated series in the '80s added real-life wrestler Sergeant Slaughter to its cast of Joes, with Slaughter joining the team as a boot-camp instructor who would bodyslam invading Cobra forces every now and then.

    Hogan, meanwhile, crossed over into movies, with titles like No Holds Barred (where he played a wrestler), Mr. Nanny (where he played a nanny) and Suburban Commando (where he played a suburban commando). But in the mid-1990s, after he jumped ship from the WWF to rival WCW, Hogan took advantage of his new employer's base of operations in Florida to star on the syndicated series Thunder in Paradise. From the creators of Baywatch, Thunder in Paradise lasted one full season, with Hogan playing an ex-Navy SEAL turned mercenary (a setup not entirely dissimilar from that of his old WWF cohort Mr. T on his '80s series The A-Team).

    What Almost Was

    The Golden Age of '80s WWF wasn't just a boon for the Hulkster. There were opportunities for the likes of Rowdy Roddy Piper, who parlayed his wrestling popularity into roles like the John Carpenter film They Live!. On TV, his greatest opportunity was one that never fully flourished, when he and future Minnesota governor Jesse "The Body" Ventura were cast as a pair of ex-wrestlers turned cops in the TV pilot Tag Team. Unfortunately, the pilot never got picked up and culture was robbed of something special, although Ventura would later make an especially memorable guest appearance (alongside Alex Trebek!) on The X-Files.

    The Age of Attitude

    The next great boom time for wrestling on TV kicked off in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, when the WWF returned to prominence with stars like The Rock, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, and Triple H. We'll get to The Rock soon enough, but it should be noted that this era resulted in Stone Cold getting an arc on the CBS series Nash Bridges, as well as an avalanche of cameos and guest appearances across all sorts of TV shows. They're too numerous to list here, but they include the likes of Vader recurring on Boy Meets World, Lita appearing opposite Jessica Alba on Dark Angel (and suffering a neck injury in the process), and Triple H on The Drew Carey Show.

    Wrestling Meets Reality

    Unscripted TV and the world of pro wrestling have meshed very well over the years. The WWE ventured into reality on its own accord with shows like Tough Enough and Total Divas, not to mention the myriad reality programs on the WWE Network. But wrestlers have crossed over into mainstream reality franchises, too. Chris Jericho and Stacy Kiebler both competed on Dancing with the Stars. John Morrison was incredibly entertaining on the "David vs. Goliath" season of Survivor. Reality fame even managed to precede wrestling fame in a few cases, most spectacularly with a young Mike "The Miz" Mizanin, who parlayed a fixation with wrestling on the 10th season of The Real World into an enduring career as a WWE champion. Mizanin and his wife fellow wrestler Mary now star in their own USA reality series, Miz & Mrs. 

    Recently

    The modern-day wrestling boom has kept crossover wrestlers gainfully employed with side gigs. AEW star Cody Rhodes appeared on Arrow. Female wrestler Awesome Kong (real name Kia Stevens) turned in one of the best performances among a stellar ensemble for three seasons on GLOW. WCW legend Bill Goldberg has a recurring role on the appropriately titled ABC sitcom The Goldbergs. And one of the best and longest running performances by a pro wrestler in the 21st century was former WWE champion Edge, who scored recurring roles on the Syfy series Haven and the History channel's Vikings.

    The Great One

    With all due respect to Hulk Hogan, without question the greatest crossover star of all wrestlers has to be Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. His rise from wrestling champion with an ungodly amount of charisma to Hollywood A-Lister and leading man have been rightly celebrated. One of his first crossover jaunts came on an episode of That '70s Show, where he played his own father, wrestler Rocky Johnson. Movie roles soon followed, and although his TV work hasn't been quite as prolific, between HBO's Ballers and NBC's Young Rock, Johnson's made his imprint on TV as well.

    With Peacemaker, Cena gets his chance to do the same, and in the process nail down a cornerstone of Warner Bros.' superhero TV universe. It's been a long road from Rock n' Wrestling, but wrestlers on TV have been larger than life every step of the way.

    Peacemaker is now streaming on HBO Max.

    People are talking about Peacemaker in our forums. Join the conversation.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: John Cena, Peacemaker, Dwayne Johnson, Hulk Hogan, Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, WWE