Football Player-Turned-Actor Alex Karras Dies

Alex Karras played defense for the Detroit Lions in the 1960s. He turned to acting when he retired his cleats, landing a number of character roles in television and film. He was 77.

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Former football great Alex Karras has died. Karras was a dominant defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions. He later used his personality and humor to launch a second successful career - acting in television and movies. NPR's Mike Pesca has this remembrance.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Alex Karras, in what is a great injustice in the minds of most every player who ever shared a field with him, is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But none of the players who are, ever cold-cocked a horse in a Mel Brooks movie. Call it a wash for the son of a doctor from Gary, Indiana; who went on to greatness on the Detroit Lions defensive line, and renown in such films as "Blazing Saddles." There, Karras played Mongo, a seemingly simple-minded brute until Mongo was heard to remark...

(SOUNDBITE FROM MOVIE, "BLAZING SADDLES")

ALEX KARRAS: (As Mongo) Mongo only pawn in game of life.

PESCA: Karras was known - well-known - as a four-time Pro Bowl defender before the publication of "Paper Lion," in which writer George Plimpton embedded himself as a member of the Lions. Readers met, in Karras, an athlete of charisma and depth. Carl Brettschneider, Karras' Lions teammate, remembers Karras as a great player and a faithful friend. Brettschneider was once so badly injured that the Lions general manager wanted to withhold his salary.

CARL BRETTSCHNEIDER: I was supposed to make $16,000. And Russ Thomas says, we're not paying you any money. Well, Alex Karras and Joe Schmidt got the whole team together; said they wouldn't practice unless I got my 16,000 bucks.

PESCA: Brettschneider says Karras didn't follow football after retiring - which probably hurt him when he became an analyst for "Monday Night Football." But he made up for it in other ways. Here, before a game in 1976, Karras serenaded the public, and Howard Cosell, with a song supposedly written by the Jets' head coach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

KARRAS: (Singing) And where 'er we go, we'll let the critics know, that the Jets are here to stay.

(LAUGHTER)

KARRAS: Which really will excite some of the old ballplayers out there, I'm sure, Howard. Excites me.

PESCA: After leaving "Monday Night Football," Karras played the part of the adoptive father of an African-American orphan named Webster. Critics at the time noted "Webster" not only had a laugh track, but an "aww" track. Still, the show ran for six seasons. Karras did attend at least one game in his retirement. Nine years ago, he participated in Detroit's 40th anniversary celebration of "Paper Lion." I talked to George Plimpton the day, after in what would be Plimpton's last recorded interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

GEORGE PLIMPTON: Well, this weekend he wasn't going to come. He was - wrote them to say he didn't think he would. He had some, some - I think he had anxiety problems, you know, that sort of thing. And finally did decide to come, and had a superb time. I mean, he enjoyed himself enormously.

PESCA: In recent years, Karras was diagnosed with dementia. He would tell his old friend Carl Brettschneider that he was suffering.

BRETTSCHNEIDER: Alex called me - sometimes, seven times a day. First thing he would always say is, I've - I got headaches, I got headaches. And I'm dizzy. And I got headaches.

PESCA: Karras was one of over 2,000 former players who sued the NFL over head injuries. He also battled heart disease and cancer, in recent years. He died in Santa Monica, California, surrounded by his family including his wife, Susan Clark, with whom he co-starred in "Webster." Alex Karras was 77 years old.

Mike Pesca, NPR News.

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