One of the most physically formidable athletes in the history of professional football, Bubba Smith was a Super Bowl-winning defensive end for the Baltimore Colts before retiring in the mid-1970s to concentrate on acting in features and television, most notably in the "Police Academy" franchise. At 6'8," Smith was an intimidating presence on the field - he once joked that his game strategy was to grab a number of players, find out which one had the ball, and discard the rest - but spoofed his sports persona on screen by playing genial, even passive figures like "Police Academy's" Moses Hightower, a gentle florist with self-confidence issues. As an actor, Smith was frequently paired with another formidable gridiron great, Dick Butkus; their likable rapport together was often the best part of their collaborative projects. Though never a major star in Hollywood, Smith's football glories remained unvarnished after nearly four decades, and his honors included induction into the College Football Hall of Fame and the retirement of his college jersey in 2006.
Born Charles Aaron Smith in Beaumont, TX on Feb. 28, 1945, Smith was the second of three sons by Willie Ray Smith, Sr., a legendary high school football coach. His brothers, Willie Ray, Jr., and Tody, also enjoyed their own football careers at the collegiate and professional level. As expected, football was a part of Smith's life on a year-round basis, and he spent most of his free time honing his skills in twice-a-day games. Unfortunately, football in the Southwest was largely off-limits to black college athletes due to prevalent racial issues, so he abandoned his dream of playing for the University of Texas and headed north to Michigan State, where he played for the Spartans as a defensive end.
Few football players at either the collegiate or professional level could match Smith's stature and ability. Standing at 6'8" and weighing 270 pounds, he was a natural powerhouse when it came to blocking and tackling, but Smith was also exceptionally fast, which was something of an aberration for a player in his weight class. His combination of speed and strength was a major asset to the Spartans during his tenure with the team, which he helped to earn two Big 10 championships between 1965 and 1967, as well as All-American honors for himself in 1965 and 1966. Smith also played in one of the greatest matchups in college sports history, the controversial 1966 Notre Dame vs. Michigan State game, which resulted in a 10-10 tie. Smith himself played an important hand in the game by devastating Notre Dame's key quarterback Terry Hanratty; the loss forced Fighting Irish coach Ara Parseghian to run down the clock in the fourth quarter rather than attempt a win, a decision that remained in fierce debate more than four decades later.
But Smith was more than a talented athlete. He was one of several black players helping to establish the Spartans as one of the best college teams of the 1960s, including such future NFL and AFL superstars as Gene Washington of the Minnesota Vikings, the Houston Oilers' George Webster, and the Philadelphia Eagles' Jimmy Raye II. Their success under coach Duffy Daugherty helped to further pave the road for black athletes that had been launched by players like Jim Brown, and also shed light on the Southwest Conference's shocking history of discrimination, as Smith would have been a SWC player were it not for such policies. Though rarely credited as such, Smith was an important figure in the integration of college sports.
In 1967, Smith was the first overall pick in the NFL draft, and went to the Baltimore Colts for an impressive seven seasons as a defensive end. As a member of the Colts, Smith was selected All-Pro once and All-Conference twice, played in the 1968 NFL championship game and two Pro Bowls in 1970 and 1971 before helping to bring the team to Super Bowl III against the New York Jets, and Super Bowl V against the Dallas Cowboys in 1971. The Colts lost the former, but captured the championship in the latter, though the game itself was, according to many critics and fans, an error-riddled debacle, with both teams setting Super Bowl records for most turnovers and most penalties. Smith himself would refuse to wear his championship ring, citing the poor quality of play. Knee surgery forced Smith to miss the 1972 season, after which he was traded to the Oakland Raiders. He returned to his home state in 1975 to play out the remainder of his professional career with the Houston Oilers until 1977. Smith marked his final game as a football player with a stellar game against the Miami Dolphins in which he made 12 unassisted tackles, including two sacks of quarterback Bob Griese, blocked an extra point and knocked aside a field goal.
In addition to his physical abilities, Smith's tenure in the NFL was marked by his exceptionally positive nature, a quality that endeared him to players, fans and journalists alike. It also helped him to make the leap to his second career as an actor and advertising pitchman. In the latter capacity, he was frequently seen in popular commercials for Miller Lite Beer, often towering over another tough football vet turned actor, Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears. The pair showed enormous chemistry together, with Butkus' scrappy delivery complimenting Smith's casual strength and gentle demeanor, and they would team up for numerous projects in subsequent years. However, Smith soon tired of the image as a beer pitchman, citing several public incidents involving intoxicated fans, and left the commercial series for work on television and the occasional feature.
As an actor, Smith frequently played roles based on his football past or imposing size. He was a bodyguard for Theodore Wilson's "Sweet Daddy" Williams on "Good Times" (CBS, 1974-79), and played a pro football player named Puddin on the short-lived "Semi-Tough" (ABC, 1980). Audiences had their first glimpse of his knack for light comedy in the obscure sitcom "Open All Night" (ABC, 1981-82), where he played the night manager of a 24-hour grocery owned and operated by eccentrics. In 1984, he had his breakout year as an actor. After penning his autobiography, Kill, Bubba, Kill!(1983), a title earned from the crowd chant that greeted him at every Spartans game, he landed his most indelible screen role in "Police Academy" (1984) as Moses Hightower, a retiring florist whose towering frame concealed a gentle heart that could only be spurred into anger by the most extreme impoliteness. Once activated, Hightower was a freight train with arms that could tear out car seats and withstand an avalanche of concrete. Hightower appeared in six of the seven "Police Academy" films, and remained essentially the same throughout the series: a solid straight man for the zaniest characters, and when properly motivated, a living special effect that escalated the films' propensity towards cartoonish humor. Despite their critical drubbing, the "Police Academy" films were enormously popular with audiences, and helped to mint Bubba Smith as an unlikely comic star.
The series also largely served as the high point of Smith's acting career. He dabbled in a number of television series over the next decade, including a small screen adaptation of "Blue Thunder" (ABC, 1984) and the ghastly "Half Nelson" (NBC, 1985) with Joe Pesci as a diminutive New York cop who opens a Beverly Hills security service for an ossified Dean Martin. In both cases, Smith was paired with Dick Butkus as sidekicks to the series leads, but their popularity among the sports and beer crowds did little to save the shows. He would remain active on television and in features, mostly forgettable in both mediums, though Harley Cokeliss' "Black Moon Rising" (1986), which starred Tommy Lee Jones as a car thief and Smith as the government tough on his back, did have its moments. Smith later revealed that it was his personal favorite. Meanwhile, in 1997, he reprised Hightower for the last time in an episode of the syndicated "Police Academy" series (1997). Smith spent the final decades of his life enjoying the fruits of his stellar athletic career. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988, and saw his Spartans jersey, Number 95, retired on Sept. 23, 2006, prior to his alma mater's match against their old rivals, Notre Dame. On Aug. 3, 2011, Smith was found dead in his Los Angeles home by his caretaker, having succumbed to apparent natural causes. He was 66.
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Was the No. 1 NFL draft pick from Michigan State University when he joined the Baltimore Colts
Won Super Bowl V at the end of the 1970 season with The Colts
Traded to the Oakland Raiders
Finished his career with the Houston Oilers
Made small screen debut in an episode of "The New Adventures of Wonder Woman" (CBS)
Guest starred on "Good Times" (CBS) as Marion 'Sweet Daddy' Williams' bodyguard
Made his film debut in "A Pleasure Doing Business"
Had a recurring role on the short-lived ABC sitcom, "Open All Night"
Breakthrough film role, playing Moses Hightower in "Police Academy"
First regular series role on ABC's "Blue Thunder"
Reprised role as Moses Hightower for "Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment"
Starred on NBC's short-lived series, "Half Nelson"
Again reprised role of Moses Hightower for "Police Academy 3: Back in Training" and "Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol"
Appeared in two episodes of Fox's "Married... with Children"
Reprised role of Moses Hightower on an episode of "Police Academy: The Series"