Alex Karras, Football Star Turned Actor, Dies at 77

Alex Karras in 1984. Below: Karras with his real-life and TV wife Susan Clark and Emmanuel Lewis in "Webster."
Alex Karras in 1984. Below: Karras with his real-life and TV wife Susan Clark and Emmanuel Lewis in "Webster."
 Paramount Television/courtesy Everett Collection

Alex Karras, a menacing defensive lineman in college and the NFL who showed a deft comedic touch in films including Blazing Saddles, the 1980s family sitcom Webster and as a commentator on Monday Night Football games, has died. He was 77.

The University of Iowa and Detroit Lions legend recently suffered kidney failure and died Wednesday in his Los Angeles-area home surrounded by family. He had numerous health problems in recent years, including dementia and cancer, and was part of the wave of concussion-related lawsuits filed by more than 3,000 ex-players against the NFL.

In Hollywood, the burly but cat-like quick Karras -- who carried 250 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame during his playing days -- countered the tough-guy-in-the-trenches image with a quiet, sometimes high-pitched voice and droll sense of humor. He often worked alongside his wife of 32 years, actress Susan Clark, on TV and film projects. She survives him.

Karras’ most memorable movie moment came in Mel BrooksBlazing Saddles (1974), when, as Mongo, an idiot strongman working for the villainous Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), he sent a horse to the ground with a single punch to the face. Later, he responded to a question from Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) by saying, “Don't know … Mongo only pawn in game of life.”

Karras also had a hilarious turn as Squash, James Garner’s homosexual bodyguard, in Blake EdwardsVictor/Victoria (1982).

On Webster, which ran on ABC from 1983-87 and then for two more seasons in syndication, Karras starred as George Papadapolis, a newly married ex-football player in Chicago who is appointed legal guardian of a former teammate’s son (Emmanuel Lewis). Clark played his socialite wife on the series.

Earlier, Karras earned critical acclaim for his sensitive performance as husband and pro wrestler George Zaharias in the 1975 CBS biopic Babe, which starred the Emmy-winning Clark as the transcendent female athlete Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias. He also guest-starred on such series as The Odd Couple, Daniel Boone, McMillan & Wife, Love, American Style, M*A*S*H, Arli$$ and The Tom Show and hosted Saturday Night Live in 1985.

Karras made his transition from gridiron to show business via the football field: He appeared as himself in Paper Lion (1968), starring Alan Alda as writer George Plimpton who, for a Sports Illustrated article, poses as a rookie quarterback in training camp trying to make the Lions team. Karras also figured prominently in Plimpton’s original magazine piece and best-selling 1966 book.

“Perhaps no player in Lions history attained as much success and notoriety for what he did after his playing days as did Alex,” Lions president Tom Lewand said.

Karras starred in such movies as 1978’s Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (he played the hooded fang), Irwin Allen disaster film When Time Ran Out (1980), the comedy Nobody’s Perfekt (1981), as the sheriff in Porky’s (1982), as a football trainer in Against All Odds (1984) and as a sportscaster in Buffalo 66 (1998).

He and Clark founded Georgian Bay Productions in the early 1980s, when they were approached by Paramount Television and ABC to do the Webster sitcom, which was reworked to include Lewis. The couple also starred in telefilms for their company.

Alexander George Karras was born July 15, 1935, in Gary, Ind., one of six children. His Greek immigrant father died when he was 11. At age 15, he worked in the steel mills to help support the family, then won a football scholarship to the University of Iowa, where he powered the Hawkeyes to victory in the Rose Bowl after the 1956 season and was runner-up for the 1957 Heisman Trophy. A two-time All-America tackle, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1991.

Karras was drafted 10th overall by Detroit in 1958 and would make the Pro Bowl four times. But in his prime, he was suspended for the 1963 season by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle for betting on football games. (Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung also was shelved for gambling that season.)

Karras admitted that he had placed at least a half-dozen $50 to $100 bets. Upon returning to action in 1964, he refused when an official asked him to call the pregame coin toss. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “I’m not permitted to gamble.”

Karras was named to the all-time Lions team in 1970, then retired during the 1971 preseason. He is not a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Good-natured with a keen sense of comedy, Karras was a popular guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, appearing more than two dozen times. His favorite performer had been Jack Benny, and Karras’ comic style could be appreciated in his interplay with Carson, the ultimate Benny aficionado.

Karras also hosted a Chicago TV talk show where he enjoyed needling jocks, and he replaced another ex-jock, Don Meredith, to serve three seasons as a color commentator for ABC’s NFL Monday Night Football starting in 1974. (Former AFL star Fred Williamson had done the preseason MNF games that year after Meredith's departure, but the network was unhappy with his work.) Karras once said that Oakland Raiders lineman Otis Sistrunk was from “the University of Mars.”

His sense of humor had a bite, and he often ridiculed Lions’ management. His zings extended to other sporting endeavors, but he laced his comedy with good causes. Although he called golf a “phony, pompous game,” he organized charity events where he would make a mockery of the genteel sport: Cannons would fire behind foursomes; sheep, llamas and an elephant would roam the fairways; and paratroopers would land on greens. Above it all, a crop-duster would disseminate pink smoke over the participants. 

Karras even did a stint as a professional wrestler, taking on the villainous Dick the Bruiser in April 1963 before 16,000 fans at Detroit's Olympia auditorium during his exile from the NFL. The pair got into a brawl and wrecked a bar before the match, which Karras lost. “For that one night’s work, I made $17,000 – $4,000 more than I made with the Lions,” he once said.

Belying his size and machismo, Karras was an enthusiastic orchid grower and author. His 1978 autobiography, Even Big Guys Cry, was a best-seller, and 1979’s Alex Karras by Alex Karras dealt with his misadventures in the entertainment business.

In addition to his wife, Karras’ survivors include their daughter Katie; his children Alex Jr., Peter, Carolyn, George and Renald from a previous marriage; five grandchildren; and siblings Louis, Nan, Paul and Ted.

Watch Karras terrorize Rock Ridge, deck that horse and receive the world's first Candygram in Blazing Saddles below.

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