Former football star and actor Alex Karras has died, two days after suffering kidney failure and being transferred to hospice care. He was 77.
Karras, a lineman for the Detroit Lions from 1958 to 1970, made the news last spring when he was joined more than 3000 former players filing suit against the NFL, as part of the controversy over whether the league has done enough to protect players from head injuries. Susan Clark, Karras’ wife of 32 years and a frequent co-star during his acting days, has said that Karras blamed the hits he took for the dementia that dominated his later years, and that he was “interested in making the game of football safer, and hoping that other families of retired players will have a healthier and happier retirement.”
During his college career at the University of Iowa, Karras developed a reputation as a beast on the field and a wild man off it. After graduation and a six-month fling as a professional wrestler, he became a first-round draft pick to play for the Lions for 12 seasons—though not consecutively, as he was suspended for one year in 1963, after admitting to having placed bets on games. (During his hiatus, he returned to pro wrestling.) Karras' football career ended when, following a knee injury, he was released from the team during the 1971 preseason.
By then, Karras’ celebrity and colorful public image had been enhanced by the 1966 publication of Paper Lion, George Plimpton’s whimsical journalistic account of the time he spent trying out, at the age of 36, for a spot as a Lions quarterback. Plimpton described Karras as a motormouthed put-on artist, entertaining his teammates with talk of reincarnation and the recounting of his past lives. In 1968, Karras made his movie debut playing himself in the film version of Paper Lion, starring Alan Alda as Plimpton.
A year later, Karras had his first acting role playing someone else, in a guest spot on TV’s Daniel Boone. After quitting football, he then guest starred on such series as The Odd Couple, M*A*S*H, and Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre (where he played Papa Bear), in the miniseries Centennial (1978) and Masada (1982), and the TV films The 500-Pound Jerk (1973) and Mad Bull (1977), where he played a wrestler. He was also seen on the big screen in movies like FM (1978), When Time Ran Out…(1980), Porky’s (1982), Victor/Victoria (1982), and Against All Odds (1984). And of course, his most memorable movie role was almost certainly that of Mongo, the simpleton bruiser who punches out a horse in Blazing Saddles (1974).
Karras met Susan Clark when they co-starred in the 1975 TV movie Babe, in which she played the champion golfer Babe Didrickson, and he played her husband, George Zaharis. They married in 1980, and acted together in the TV films Jimmy B. & André (1980), Maid In America (1982), and the 1981 feature film Nobody’s Perfekt (1981). From 1983 to 1989, they co-starred in the TV sitcom Webster, which they also co-produced.
Six years after Paper Lion, Plimpton profiled Karras and his fellow Detroit Lion, John Gordy, in the book Mad Ducks And Bears. Karras’s own memoir, published in 1978, was called Even Big Guys Cry. He was named to the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame in 1977, and to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1991. He was also a regular commentator on Monday Night Football from 1974 to 1976.