Terry Crews: From Football to Filmmaking
Terry Crews, an All-Conference defensive end who played football for the San Diego Chargers, Washington Redskins, and St. Louis Rams from 1993-1997, has traded in his running game for an acting and directing career. Crews plays Cheeseburger Eddy in the new movie The Longest Yard.
Crews was born in Flint, Michigan, where he earned an Art Excellence Scholarship to Western Michigan University as well as a full scholarship to play football there. When the San Diego Chargers drafted Crews, he was very excited.
"I told my wife, Rebecca, when I met her 16 years ago, 'I'm going to play NFL, and then I'm going to Hollywood and make movies.' I didn't plan on acting in movies, but I did know I'd be involved some way," says Crews. "I enjoyed playing football; I was just disappointed when the Charges cut me and then they went ot the Super Bowl. That was a hard game to watch."
In 1996 Crews co-wrote and co-produced the independent feature film Young Boys Incorporated. “It’s a prodigal son story about two kids who got involved in the drug game. I had plenty of friends and family members involved in drugs, and I saw what could go wrong. I wanted to help people avoid that,” explains Crews with an enthusiasm that radiates in his warm eyes. “We shot it all in Detroit and I spent my own money. The movie was horrible, but I got the bug.”
Crews claims he was drawn to artistic endeavors before he started playing professional football. “I had an art scholarship before my football scholarship. I was known as the painting artist and did a line of NFL licensed lithographs for Sierra Sun Editions. I think that imagination has transferred to films.”
After the Eagles playoff game in 1997, Crews moved with his wife and two daughters to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. He got his first break in 1999 with his audition for the extreme sports show, Battle Dome. He became a series regular known as the urban warrior, T-Money.
Crews moved on with commercial appearances for Burger King and Heineken beer and film roles in White Chicks, Soul Plane, Starsky & Hutch, Baadasssss!, Malibu’s Most Wanted, Deliver Us from Eva, Friday After Next, Serving Sara, and The Sixth Day. He appeared as a Police Officer in the 2004 Blink-182 music video, Down.
According to Crews, acting is something he was born to do. “I’m a ham, a honey-baked, slow-roasting ham. I love the camera. I started behind the scenes and directed. I never took acting classes, I’d just ask myself, ‘what would you like to see,’ and it worked. Making movies isn’t easy, but it’s something I’m born to do. After a day on the set it’s so physically exhausting you can hardly stand up. But once I found my calling, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
Crews says he got the call about The Longest Yard from Adam Sandler. “The Cheeseburger Eddy character was originally a 350 lb fat guy, and I had auditioned for another role in the movie. Then Adam saw me in White Chicks. He called me on my cell phone while I was driving home and said, ‘I want you to play Cheeseburger Eddy, and I’m going to change it around so you’re the purveyor of cheeseburgers.”
Crews is only one of the big guys in this comedy about Paul Crewe (Adam Sandler), a former NLF player who purposefully threw a game, got off easy, but basically can’t live with himself. When his life spins out of control, he’s tossed into a prison in the middle of New Mexico among some of the biggest brutes he’s ever seen in his life.
Being tossed into a prison, even for pretend, wasn’t exactly what Crews expected. “It was weird being in that Santa Fe prison,” he says. “It was the site of one of the worst prison revolts in history, and there were a lot of ghosts and weird things people talked about. It was so bad they built a new prison right next to it, and they had a shaman, a priest and a minister come and bless the production before we began.”
Not all the scenes were shot in the prison. “No, we did most of those on a sound stage in LA,” Crews explains. “But we had to be respectful of the prison. People lost their lives there, so it was almost a cemetery. We could laugh about it because we were just making a movie, but then you’d think, ‘what if I was in this thing,’ and you could see how men changed while there.”
Did the fact there were few women in the movie change the set atmosphere? “Yes,” says Crews. “We had to bring girls on the set to serve as water girls, because with so many guys all the time, it really became a prison type mentality and tempers would flare. No one wants to look like a fool before a pretty girl, so after that the guys didn’t act like idiots.”
Transitioning from football to films is not an unexpected leap for Crews. “Football and movies have the same structure,” he points out. “The coach is the director. The extras are the special teams. The superstar is still the superstar. The cameraman is your tape guy. The studio is the same as the officials; they determine what’s in and what’s not. No one is accepting of mediocrity, you can’t be mediocre and survive, so it’s all the same. Keenan Wayans told me last year, “Terry, to be successful in this business you have to be a force of nature. You have to give people something they can’t get anywhere else. And if it weren’t for someone else – you wouldn’t be here.”
Crews acknowledges that his mentor set him on the right course. “I met Reginald Hubbard (Boomerang, House Party) and was trying to get a meeting with him. When he saw my independent film, he took me in and mentored me. “It’s because of him I’m where I am today. He’s still a great friend and collaborator and someone I respect.”
Combining the life of a celebrity and a family man can be tough, but Crews seems to have a handle on both tasks, even with a growing family. “We have four daughters now, Naomi, Azriel, Tera and Wynfrey and a son on the way,” Crews says. “I haven’t changed, but it’s different now because of video. More people are recognizing me, and I appreciate it though I’m not anonymous anymore. With comedy, people recognize you more, because when you make people laugh, they don’t forget you. I remember when I didn’t have any money and that was a bad problem, so celebrity is a good problem.”
Crews will next appear in The Alibi, 3001, and Harsh Times. “And we’re just announcing we’ve made a deal for a fall show on UPN, Everybody Hates Chris. It’s like The Wonder Years. A young kid plays Chris when he was younger and I play his father.”
Kids today often look at a career in professional sports or movies as an ultimate goal -- and one that doesn’t require much schooling. Crews knows what that feeling is like. “I had big dreams. I grew up in Flint, Michigan, where you were supposed to grow up and go to work in the auto industry. A lot of people told me about my dreams, ‘no way, stay in school.’
“I know you can have it all. Why must you abandon school to play basketball or football? There’s the local level, pro level and state level of sports. And professional sports ends for everybody. Dr. J is not playing basketball anymore. The important thing is just to be well balanced, well rounded and learn about life. Get out and see and do things so you know what your passions are and what makes you tick. It’s not always college. Just develop your skills and use school to develop your skills. Then what you choose will be like magic.”
Crews seems to be following that advice in his own magical career.
(Read Diana Saenger’s reviews of classic films at http://classicfilm.about.com.)