Oct. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Alex Karras, who followed one successful career in professional football with another in movies and television, play-punching a horse in one of the signature madcap scenes of “Blazing Saddles,” has died. He was 77.
He died today at his residence in Los Angeles surrounded by family members, according to a statement from their representatives distributed by the Detroit Lions, his former team. Karras was recently released from a California hospital after having kidney failure to spend his final days at home, the Associated Press reported yesterday. He also had heart disease, dementia and stomach cancer, according to the statement.
Karras was part of the mass concussion lawsuit more than 3,000 former players have filed against the National Football League.
In pulling off the transition from football to acting, Karras helped pave a career path followed by O.J. Simpson, Fred Dryer, Bubba Smith and other players. Though he portrayed his share of heavies, Karras, a 250-pound defensive lineman during his days with the Lions, also pulled off comedic roles in films including “Victor/Victoria” (1982) and, from 1983 to 1989, as the adoptive father of Webster Long (played by Emmanuel Lewis) in the ABC series “Webster.”
“Before I was a football player, I wanted to be an actor,” he told the Detroit Free Press in 1994. “My dad was an actor, and I used to sit in the theater in the front row and fantasize about being an actor.”
After his father’s death when he was a boy, he said, “my whole family had to change what their intentions were,” and his became football, the sport his older brothers had pushed him into. “I went through that thinking, knowing, that eventually I would go back to what I really wanted to do.”
Karras played 12 seasons with the Lions from 1958 to 1970, missing the 1963 season after NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended him and Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers for betting on other teams’ games. He was “one of the fiercest members” of the Lions’ defensive unit of the 1960s who “used his stocky build to bull rush offensive lines,” the team says on its website.
He was named to the Pro Bowl in 1961, 1962, 1963 and 1966. The Pro Football Hall of Fame included him on its All-Decade Team of the 1960s.
Karras began to pursue acting during the waning years of his football career, playing himself in the film adaptation of George Plimpton’s “Paper Lion,” an account of Plimpton’s experience in training camp with the 1963 Lions.
In “Blazing Saddles” (1974), Mel Brooks’ sendup of westerns, the 6-foot-2 Karras played Mongo, the fearsome, dim-witted thug who enters town on a giant bull with “yes” and “no” passing instructions on its rear end. Challenged by another rider -- “Hey, you can’t park that animal over there” -- Mongo walks over and punches the rider’s horse to the ground.
After retirement, he provided color commentary on ABC’s “Monday Night Football” for three seasons, from 1974 through 1976.
In “Victor/Victoria,” which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, Karras won notice for his portrayal of a gay bodyguard alongside Julie Andrews, Robert Preston and James Garner. Vincent Canby, in his review for the New York Times, said Karras “comes out of the closet as a fine comic actor.”
“Webster” paired Karras with his real-life wife, Susan Clark, as the white adoptive parents of a black child, played by Lewis, whose biological parents were killed in a car crash. Karras played a retired football star, George Papadopoulos, who had been a teammate of the biological father.
Karras told People magazine in 1979 that show business had helped him leave football fully behind.
“People say, ‘What did you think of that quarterback yesterday?’ and I don’t know who they’re talking about,” he said.
Alexander George Karras was born on July 15, 1935, in Gary, Indiana, the son of a physician. He was the fourth of six children, according to the People article.
As a defensive lineman at the University of Iowa, he was part of a team that won the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, 1957, beating Oregon State. He won the 1957 Outland Trophy, as the best collegiate interior lineman in the U.S., and finished second to running back John David Crow of Texas A&M in voting for the Heisman Trophy.
The Lions selected him with the 10th overall pick of the 1958 draft. He began his NFL career after a few months as a professional wrestler, a calling he returned to during his 11-month suspension from the NFL in 1963.
He met Clark, who would become his second wife, on the set of “Babe” (1975), a television movie about the female Olympian and golfer Babe Didrickson.
His other films included “Porky’s” (1982) and “Against All Odds” (1984).
Karras had a daughter with Clark, whom he married in 1980. His first marriage, to the former Joan Jurgensen, produced five children before ending in divorce.
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