RedEye

Alex Karras dies at 77; NFL star turned actor

Alex Karras, an All-Pro defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions who later worked as a "Monday Night Football" co-host and parlayed his hulking strength into a Hollywood acting career, died Wednesday. He was 77.

Karras died at his Los Angeles home, his attorney Craig Mitnick said. Karras had suffered kidney failure days earlier, the latest in a variety of health problems that included dementia and cancer.

He was one of more than 3,500 former NFL players who are suing the league in a dispute over concussion-related injuries.

PHOTOS: Alex Karras | 1935-2012

A dominant fixture on Detroit's defensive front for 12 seasons, Karras was known to millions for his role as "Mongo," the monosyllabic, horse-punching brute in the 1974 Mel Brooks comedy "Blazing Saddles." He later starred in the ABC sitcom "Webster," which ran from 1983 to 1987.

Although he stood 6 feet 3, the 248-pound Karras was wide enough to be stocky, and he routinely fought his way past blockers at the line of scrimmage to burst into the offensive backfield. He was named to four Pro Bowls, and was also named All-Pro – an even more exclusive honor – four times. The Lions named him to their All-Decade Team for the 1960s.

"While his legacy reached far beyond the gridiron, we always will fondly remember Alex as one of our own and also as one of the best to ever wear the Honolulu Blue and Silver," Lions President Tom Lewand said a statement released Wednesday.

PHOTOS: Notable deaths of 2012

Karras' playing career was interrupted by controversy, however. In 1963, the NFL urged him to sell his financial interests in a Detroit bar rumored to be associated with gambling and organized crime. Karras first threatened to retire, then admitted to placing bets on NFL games. He was suspended for one season, along with Green Bay running back Paul Hornung.

Showing an early flair for theatrics, Karras dabbled in pro wrestling during his exile from the NFL, taking on "Dick the Bruiser" – former Packers lineman Dick Afflis – at Olympia Stadium in Detroit.

The early part of that match went according to plan, including Karras punching Afflis in his eye patch, causing fake blood to flow. The two eventually scrapped the script, though, with Afflis grabbing Karras by the throat, pinning him, and later admonishing: "Football players should leave wrestling to wrestlers and go back to their betting."

When he returned to the Lions in 1964, Karras poked fun at his own reputation, once refusing when a referee asked him to call the pregame coin toss.

"I'm sorry, sir," Karras said. "I'm not permitted to gamble."

Born July 15, 1935, in Gary, Ind., Alexander George Karras was the fourth of six children of George and Emmiline Karras, a Greek immigrant doctor and nurse, who lived in an apartment above their medical practice. His brothers Lou and Ted would also become NFL players, although neither was as successful as their younger brother.

Alex played at the University of Iowa, where he won the Outland Trophy as college football's dominant lineman, and helped the Hawkeyes to victory over Oregon State in the 1957 Rose Bowl.

A first-round draft pick of Detroit in 1958, Karras played with the Lions until 1971, when his contract was terminated because of what team officials called "diminishing athletic prowess."

"It's really very sad for most guys," Karras told the Detroit Free Press about the way football careers often end. "They've been playing football all their lives. They're 31, say, and whack! A knee injury or something and they're on the street, with no idea how to spend the rest of their lives."

Karras dabbled in acting during his NFL career, playing himself in the 1968 movie "Paper Lion," based on George Plimpton's nonfiction sports book.

When his NFL career ended, Karras moved to Hollywood to pursue acting full time. He made cameo appearances in several popular TV shows, among them "Love, American Style," "The Odd Couple," "McMillan & Wife," and "MASH."

He worked in the "Monday Night Football" broadcast booth from 1974 to 1976, alongside Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford. Newsweek described Karras as "a gleefully free-spirited amalgam of Babe Ruth, Nathan Detroit and Archie Bunker."

To some, he is best remembered for his role in "Blazing Saddles," a role he secured by dressing in ragged clothes and pounding Mongo-style on the front door of the director's home. Brooks gave him the part on the spot.

One of the movie's most famous scenes is Mongo flooring a horse with a one-punch knockout. The horse was unharmed.

"I thought it was hilarious, but I didn't want to hurt that horse at all, believe me," Karras said in a 2011 interview with the "Sports and Torts" Internet radio show. "I'm not the type of person to do that."

Karras had parts in other movies, including "Porky's," "Victor/Victoria" and "Against All Odds."

His longest-running role was on TV's "Webster," in which he and his real-life wife, Susan Clark, were the adoptive parents of the title character, played by Emmanuel Lewis.

Besides his wife, Karras is survived by their daughter, Katie; his children from a previous marriage, Alex Jr., Peter, Carolyn, George and Renald; five grandchildren and his siblings, Louis, Nan, Paul and Ted.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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