IF YOU HAPPEN to see the musical Chicago on Broadway in the next few months, the guy playing Billy Flynn might look familiar. But hopefully not too familiar. Eddie George wants you to see Billy Flynn, a lawyer so cunning that he wins every trial, instead of Eddie George, former NFL running back.
George is not the first former player to turn to acting. He isn't even the best running back to do it. Jim Brown retired from the Cleveland Browns in his prime so he could become an actor, back when Cleveland Browns had primes. And O.J. Simpson had a successful acting career, though for some reason he hasn't gotten many parts lately.
The difference with George, who makes his Chicago debut on Jan. 11, is that he chose a craft more than a career. He took acting lessons for two years before he took a role, which brings to mind a line from Othello: "How poor are they that have not patience!" George has since played Othello in a production in his adopted hometown of Nashville. He played Julius Caesar there too. This all enabled him to play one of his most difficult parts: happy former NFL player.
It took some time. When George, 42, rushed for the last of his 10,441 yards, in 2004, he had money and fame, and no idea what to do. "Trying to find your next purpose in life is very difficult after the game of football," he says. "It can be desolate, dark. You're lost because you don't know what is next. Acting and the arts was a vessel for me to channel a lot of that pent-up energy."
Early in his new career George heard Whoopi Goldberg say on The View that if you want to become a star, you go to Hollywood, but if you want to act, you can do that anywhere. Most former football players would have immediately done two things:
1. Booked a private jet to L.A.
2. Looked around to make sure nobody caught them watching The View.
George had a different reaction: "To me, that was profound." He didn't need to be a star. He had already been one at Ohio State (where he won the 1995 Heisman Trophy) and with the Titans (with whom he made four Pro Bowls).
A lot of players retire and think they miss the applause, but what they really miss is having a sense of purpose. Football would not be nearly as rewarding if players never had to practice, and neither would acting.
"You've got to go through that process of falling on your face, being uncomfortable, flubbing your lines," George says. "You've got to embrace it and go with it."
George employed the discipline he learned at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy and honed in his nine years in the NFL. Now, acting is not just what George does, it is part of who he is: "I channeled the fear and frustration into the characters I was playing. It was very healing for me." Does anyone recall Brett Favre saying that after shooting There's Something About Mary?
George admits he will have jitters when he takes the stage next week—"If you're not nervous, then you're not alive"—to play a role that requires him to sing and dance as well as act. Richard Gere won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Billy Flynn in the 2002 movie version of Chicago. George admires Gere's performance ("That's Richard Gere, man—he laid it down") but won't try to copy it. "When you look outside of yourself and into the world, you will see that you can be inspired by different walks of life that help your character," he says. "You can see somebody on the street reminiscent of Billy Flynn that you use. I'm always looking for some kind of inspiration to develop my character. I walk around thinking about it all day."
Though Flynn famously defends women who have committed murder, George says, "playing Billy Flynn really gives me a chance to come from a place of joy." He says that's his favorite role.
Appearing in Othello, Julius Caesar and now Chicago has helped Eddie George play another difficult part: happy former NFL player.
Who is the best athlete turned actor?
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CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED