Former NFL great Alex Karras made his transition to acting appear almost too easy, only to further defy expectations by taking on roles that skewed away from the tough guy image he had cultivated as a professional athlete. As one of the greatest defensive tackles ever to play the game of football, Karras enjoyed a college career in which he won the Outland Trophy and a Rose Bowl Championship in 1957, followed by an impressive 12-year run with the Detroit Lions. His segue into acting began while he was still with the Lions, when he appeared as himself in the football docudrama "Paper Lion" (1968). After leaving football, Karras began appearing on various TV series and in movies, usually as a hulking bad guy or athlete. With his uproarious turn as the dim-witted man-mountain Mongo in "Blazing Saddles" (1974), he displayed not only a knack for comedy, but a willingness to laugh at himself. Over the course of the next decade he took on diverse roles in a variety of TV and film projects that included a role as a gold prospector in the miniseries "Centennial" (NBC, 1978-79) and a turn as a closeted gay bodyguard in "Victor/Victoria" (1982), opposite Julie Andrews and James Garner. Perhaps his most fondly remembered television role would be as the adoptive father of Emmanuel Lewis on the family diversity sitcom "Webster" (ABC, 1983-87; syndicated, 1987-89). Whether it was in the character of athlete, hired thug, lawman, or loving father, Karras endeared himself to audiences with performances that displayed surprising heart and humility for a man known early on as one of the hardest hitters in pro football.
Born Alexander George Karras on July 15, 1935 in Gary, IN, he was the son of Emmiline, a registered nurse, and Lou, a physician. The youngest of three boys, Karras was dealt an early devastating blow when his father died when Alexander was only 13 years old and just beginning to show promise as a football player. After graduating from Gary Emerson High School as a four-time Indiana all-state selection, Karras briefly entertained the idea of following his brothers to Purdue before signing with the University of Iowa's Hawkeyes in 1955. Karras' years as a defensive tackle at Iowa were as notable as they were turbulent, marked by frequent run-ins - even physical altercations - with hard-driving Hawkeyes coach Forest Evashevski. He went on to rack up an impressive college football career, being twice named to the All-American team, winning the Outland Trophy, and placing higher on the Heisman Trophy ranking than any other interior lineman in history for years to come. After helping the Hawkeyes win the 1957 Rose Bowl Championship, Karras was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1958, where he soon gained a reputation as one of the most dominant defensive players in the league. Although Karras remained with the team throughout his entire 12-year career in the NFL, it was not without its drama. In 1963, he was suspended for a year over gambling violations, and echoing his days at Iowa, Karras frequently butted heads with his Lions coaches.
Although he would be barred from participating in the regular season, Karras was still practicing with the team at its training camp in the preseason of 1963, the year a young writer named George Plimpton joined them in his research for his non-fiction book Paper Lion. The premise of Plimpton's experiment was to see how an "average Joe" would fare playing against professional football players. The result was as painfully funny as it was unsurprising. Among other team members, Karras figured prominently in the account, and when it was later made into a film starring Alan Alda in the role of Plimpton, Karras was cast as himself in the film adaptation of "Paper Lion" (1968). While he performed admirably during his time in the NFL - ultimately becoming a four time Pro Bowl selection - the Lions would fail to win a Super Bowl, and after a serious knee injury, Karras was released by Detroit in 1971. His career as a football player had come to an end, but a new one was just about to begin. Having impressed with his screen presence in "Paper Lion," Karras picked up guest appearances on a few television series prior to making his TV movie debut as cowboy Clint Walker's hulking adversary in the Western "Hardcase" (ABC, 1972).
Choosing to pursue his acting opportunities, Karras convincingly portrayed gentle hillbilly weight-lifter Hughie Rae Feather in the sports comedy "The 500 Pound Jerk" (CBS, 1973). It was, however, his next role that would win the athlete-turned-actor a special place in the hearts of generations of comedy fans, when he took on the role of Mongo, the idiot strongman working for the villainous Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) in Mel Brooks' side-splitting Western parody "Blazing Saddles" (1974). Karras' shining moment came when Mongo knocked out a horse with a single punch - one of cinema's more unexpectedly hilarious bits of physical comedy - only to later respond to a question with the philosophical reply, "Don't know... Mongo only pawn in game of life." That same year, Karras returned to his old stomping grounds when he signed on as a commentator for "Monday Night Football" (ABC, 1970-2005/ESPN, 2006- ), a part-time job he would hold for three years. Enjoying wider popularity than when he was with the Lions, he took on more television projects, such as a role opposite his future real-world wife Susan Clark, who played female golfing legend Mildred 'Babe' Didrikson in the sports biopic "Babe" (1975). Karras earned his first executive producer's credit with the "ABC Afterschool Special" episode "Mighty Moose and the Quarterback Kid" (ABC, 1976), in which he also had a starring role. Keeping with the sports-themed projects, he starred as a financially successful, but emotionally destitute professional wrestler in "Mad Bull" (CBS, 1977).
Four years after his breakout performance as Mongo, Karras reteamed with "Blazing Saddles" star Cleavon Little for "FM" (1978), an ensemble comedy focusing on a group of eccentric deejays at a Los Angeles radio station. He next turned in a delightfully hammy performance as the Hooded Fang, a former wrestler who presides over a children's prison with an iron fist in the fantasy film based on the book by Mordecai Richler, "Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang" (1979). Also that year, Karras played immigrant prospector Hans Brumbaugh in the epic 12-part historical miniseries "Centennial" (NBC, 1978-79), based on the best-selling novel by James Michener. He appeared alongside Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset and an all-star cast in the Irwin Allen disaster dud, "When Time Ran Out" (1980), and that same year played a brutal associate warden of America's most notorious prison in "Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story" (NBC, 1980), followed by a co-starring role in the misfit comedy feature "Nobody's Perfekt" (1981). Two years earlier, Karras and his wife had formed their own company, Georgian Bay Productions, which allowed him to executive produce and appear in the tele-movies "Jimmy B & Andre" (CBS,1980), "Word of Honor" (CBS, 1981) and "Maid in America" (CBS, 1982).
Karras continued to find success in theaters, when he played the title character's brother in the raunchy teen sex comedy "Porky's" (1982), and earned accolades for his against-type performance in Blake Edwards' cross-dressing comedy "Victor/Victoria" (1982), as James Garner's closeted bodyguard, Squash. For all the notoriety that had come before, he achieved his highest public profile as the co-star of a family sitcom, alongside his wife and diminutive moppet Emmanuel Lewis, in "Webster" (ABC, 1983-87; syndicated, 1987-89). Originally developed as a vehicle for Clark and Karras and co-produced under their Georgian Bay shingle, "Webster" soon became all about the adorable orphan (Lewis) adopted by Karras and Clark's newly-married couple, the Papadapolises. Despite its early Nielsen ratings success, the show's ranking dropped sharply by the fourth season, at which time it was dropped by ABC. However, the continued popularity of "Webster" with younger viewers prompted its being picked up in first-run syndication for two more years before the sitcom's three stars (Karras, Clark, and Lewis) unanimously decided to call it quits in 1989, with rumors abounding that Karras had had it with playing second fiddle to Lewis. Years earlier, Karras had also managed to break away from the first season of "Webster" long enough to play a football trainer who betrays his former teammate and friend (Jeff Bridges) in the romantic thriller "Against All Odds" (1984), also starring Rachel Ward and James Woods.
After closing up shop on the set of "Webster," Karras' film and television output tapered off considerably. He would go on to make sporadic appearances in the occasional TV movie, such as "Fudge-A-Mania" (ABC, 1995), and guest spots on series like "Civil Wars" (ABC, 1991-93), "The Ben Stiller Show" (Fox, 1992-93), and "Tracey Takes On ..." (HBO, 1996-99). Near the end of the millennium he made an appearance as Tom Arnold's dad in an episode of the short-lived sitcom "The Tom Show" (The WB, 1997-98), and was seen briefly on theater screens as a sportscaster in Vincent Gallo's deeply personal and dark comedy "Buffalo '66" (1998). By the next century, however, Karras was largely removed from the acting profession. In 2007-08, he worked briefly as a football coach while simultaneously owning an ice cream shop in the beachside town of Surfside Beach, SC. But serious illness plagued his later years, as Karras suffered from a variety of ailments that included heart disease, cancer and dementia. In early 2012, he joined a number of former NFL players in a class action lawsuit filed against the league for the ill effects of head injuries suffered during their careers. Unfortunately, Karras never saw resolution when he died on Oct. 10, 2012 following a brief bout with kidney failure. He was admitted to St. John's Medical Center in Santa Monica, CA two days earlier and was subsequently released to hospice care. He died from complications at home surrounded by family. Karras was 77 years old.