Bubba Smith, the hulking football star who famously played his imposing size for laughs in the Police Academy series, has died, according to numerous sources. Smith was 66 and died of natural causes.
Smith enjoyed a legendary run as first a college athlete at Michigan State and then in the NFL, where he played for the Baltimore Colts (where he earned a Super Bowl ring), Oakland Raiders, and the Houston Oilers before retiring in 1976. During his NFL career, he got a taste of showbiz with appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and finally an episode of The Odd Couple, where—after Oscar comments that Felix’s famous hand-shaped chairs make him feel like he’s in Bubba Smith’s hand—Smith appeared as himself to hammer home the joke. He also starred alongside another footballer turned familiar TV presence, Dick Butkus, in a series of popular ads for Miller Lite.
Once he had fully left football behind, Smith also became a regular on TV, picking up small parts on The New Adventures Of Wonder Woman, Good Times, Charlie’s Angels, Lobo, B.J. And The Bear, The White Shadow, Vega$, Eight Is Enough, and Taxi, often playing henchmen, fighters, or other strongmen, though just as often he was the big guy with the surprisingly gentle heart. In 1980, Smith had a shot at a series of his own in the TV adaptation of Semi-Tough, which replaced Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson’s characters with Bruce McGill and David Hasselhoff. Although it seemed a lock at the time, it was never picked up. However, Smith coincidentally worked with Reynolds himself on 1983’s Stroker Ace, and Smith eventually did get a recurring role in his own series: The 1981 ABC sitcom Open All Night, where Smith played the night manager at a family-owned convenience store.
Open All Night was canceled in 1982, but Smith soon found work in 1984 in the quintessentially ‘80s action series Blue Thunder, which concerned the LAPD crew of an advanced helicopter outfitted with endless crimefighting gadgets. Dana Carvey (!) and James Farentino patrolled the air, while Smith provided ground support below, partnered once again with Dick Butkus.
That same year, Smith landed the role that would define his career to many—that of the gentle giant Moses Hightower in the Police Academy series. A former florist (“You know… flowers and shit”) who possessed a superhuman strength, Hightower was both the muscle and the heart of the franchise, his enormous bulk contrasted against his sweet disposition and vulnerable personality. Hightower’s signature moment came in the first Police Academy, when he admits to Steve Guttenberg’s Mahoney that he’s afraid of failing a driving exam. Their late-night practice session begins with Hightower ripping the front seat out of a Honda Civic so he can steer comfortably from the back.
Throughout the Police Academy series, the 6-foot-7 Smith was often called on to do little more than stand up (or occasionally, throw a football) to provide a punchline. But he had moments of real comedic acting, too—like his memorable scene pretending to be a voodoo priest in order to scare the shit out of some cocky recruits (including a young David Spade) in Police Academy 4: Citizens On Patrol.
Smith starred in six Police Academy movies in all, and was also incorporated into the animated series, making him one of the most closely identified names and faces with the Police Academy brand. And although Police Academy movies seemed to self-generate every year throughout the ’80s, Smith did manage to find time for other work, including reteaming with Butkus again on the Joe Pesci-starring TV series Half Nelson and co-starring in the Tommy Lee Jones thriller Black Moon Rising. And throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Smith had frequent cameos as himself on shows like Mr. Belvedere, Who’s The Boss?, Coach, and Married… With Children (where he also played the character “Spare Tire” Dixon), as well as in movies like Gremlins 2: The New Batch, plus he landed small roles in episodes of Family Matters and Sabrina The Teenage Witch, and films like The Naked Truth and Silence Of The Hams. He even briefly revived Hightower to drop in on the (mercifully short-lived) Police Academy sitcom, which, yes, existed.
Smith’s showbiz career slowed somewhat after 2001’s Down ‘N’ Dirty, but he continued to act sporadically. His last completed film was the 2010 horror movie Blood River, while IMDB lists his final appearance as the “postmodern avant-guard [sic] dramedy musical non-musical told nonlinearly” film DaZe: Vol. Too [sic] — NonSeNse—an appropriately strange and silly end for a guy with a strange and often silly career, and one whose charm was that he never took himself too seriously.