Alex Karras - Blazing Saddles Oct 14, 2012 9:49:34 GMT 1
Post by Laurence on Oct 14, 2012 9:49:34 GMT 1
This articles appeared in The Guardian on 11 October 2012
In Mel Brooks's 1974 film Blazing Saddles, the enforcer Mongo rides into town on a Brahma bull, and knocks out a horse with one punch. "Don't shoot him, it will just make him mad," the townspeople advise Sheriff Bart. Later, Bart asks Mongo about the things he's done. Looking up with puppy eyes, the hulking villain says: "Mongo only pawn in game of life."
Alex Karras, who has died aged 77, was a natural to play Mongo, with his larger-than-life body and rubbery face, which he could contort in exaggerated clowning, or soften to suggest his slyly sympathetic wit. Some of those skills he learned as a professional wrestler, and even as a novice actor he stole scenes from comedians as talented as Cleavon Little or Gene Wilder. Karras went on to have a successful career as a character actor, and a star of the TV series Webster (1983-89), in which he plays a coach who adopts an ex-teammate's orphaned son. To US audiences Karras was already familiar as a great from the world of American football, known as much for his escapades off the field as his exceptional play on it.
Karras's antics had already featured heavily in George Plimpton's 1966 book Paper Lion, in which the editor of the Paris Review spent a training camp playing quarterback with the Detroit Lions. Plimpton was captivated by the player called "the Mad Duck", recognising that his wildness masked both the cerebral nature of his play – "only" 248lb, Karras was considered small for defensive tackles, but used quickness and technique – and his off-field sensitivity. They became lifelong friends. Karras featured in a second book, Mad Ducks and Bears (1973), and named one of his sons George. He also played himself in the 1968 film of Paper Lion, with Alan Alda as Plimpton.
Karras was born in Gary, Indiana, where his father, a Greek immigrant, was a doctor and his mother a nurse. His older brothers, Lou and Ted, would both play in the NFL, but instead of following Ted to the University of Indiana, Alex wound up at the University of Iowa. Despite feuding with his coach, and being benched for a game against Indiana and Ted, he led Iowa to the 1956 Big Ten championship, and in 1957 won the Outland trophy as the nation's top lineman. But by the time he was chosen by the Detroit Lions, he had already left Iowa to take up professional wrestling, earning more in the six months before NFL training began than he would in his first two gridiron seasons.
Karras was voted All-Pro – the best player in his position as determined by a media poll – in 1960 and 1961, but in 1963 was suspended indefinitely by the NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, along with Green Bay Packer halfback Paul "the Golden Boy" Hornung, for gambling and "associating with undesirables". Karras had used his wrestling money to buy a one-third share in the Lindell AC, a downtown bar that attracted sportsmen and gamblers, its name echoing that of the rather grander Detroit Athletic Club. But the NFL was transforming itself from the US equivalent of the UK's rugby league, played on Sundays by hard men in northern factory towns, to a television spectacle that would enthrall a nation, and its image needed to be clean.
Karras admitted placing bets, though never on his own games. Unlike Hornung, he was unrepentant. He returned to wrestling, with a moneymaking feud against Detroit's top villain, another former footballer known as Dick the Bruiser, during which they staged a brawl that tore the Lindell apart.
After Karras sold his share in the bar, he and Hornung were reinstated for the 1964 season, during which he again made All-Pro. On one occasion, when as captain he was asked to call a game's opening coin-flip, he refused, telling the referee he was not supposed to gamble.
Following his performance in Paper Lion, Karras became a regular guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and after retiring from football in 1971 he pursued acting, reuniting with Alda in an episode of MASH and starring in a TV movie, The 500 Pound Jerk, in which he played a hillbilly strongman turned Olympic weightlifter who falls in love with a Soviet gymnast. After Blazing Saddles, Karras replaced another footballer-turned-actor, Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, for three seasons on ABC's Monday Night Football. His 1991 novel, Tuesday Night Football, is a comic take on that experience.
In the TV movie Babe (1975), he played the wrestler George Zaharias, husband to the great athlete Babe Didrikson. He divorced his first wife, Joan, to marry Susan Clark, who played the title role in Babe. His best film performances came as the gay bodyguard Squash in Victor, Victoria (1982) and as gangland muscle in the Out of the Past remake Against All Odds (1984), with Jeff Bridges. By then, however, he and Clark were producing and starring in Webster, which proved very successful. His final film appearance came as a sportscaster in Buffalo '66 (1998).
In his autobiography, Even Big Guys Cry (1978), Karras wrote: "It takes more courage to reveal insecurities than to hide them, more strength to relate to people than to dominate them, more 'manhood' to abide by thought-out principles rather than blind reflex. Toughness is in the soul and spirit, not in muscles and an immature mind."
Karras had suffered from dementia since 2005, and this year joined a lawsuit from former players against the NFL, arguing that the league had failed to protect them from what his wife described as "the physical beating he took". He died following bouts of cancer, heart and liver disease, and is survived by Susan, their daughter, and five children from his first marriage.
• Alexander George Karras, actor and football player, born 15 July 1935; died 10 October 2012