The ‘lion’ sleeps

NFL and TV icon Alex Karras dies

  • Last Updated: 4:20 AM, October 11, 2012
  • Posted: 2:24 AM, October 11, 2012
On the gridiron, Alex Karras was the ferocious “Mad Duck” of the Detroit Lions.
On the silver screen, he was the doltish Mongo who punched out a horse in “Blazing Saddles.”
And on TV, he was the lovable father of “Webster” — as well as the “Monday Night Football” commentator who once described bald-headed behemoth Otis Sistrunk as coming from “the University of Mars.”
Karras, who died yesterday of kidney failure at 77, had as volatile a career as any NFL star.
In 1963, after five years as a dominating defensive lineman, he was suspended for betting on NFL games. So he spent the whole season as a professional wrestler.
MULTITALENTED: Detroit Lion legend Alex Karras in “Webster” with Emmanuel Lewis and Susan Clark, his real wife.
MULTITALENTED: Detroit Lion legend Alex Karras in “Webster” with Emmanuel Lewis and Susan Clark, his real wife.
After he was reinstated, he refused to take part in the pre-game coin-toss to determine who would receive the kickoff. “I’m sorry, sir. I’m not allowed to gamble,” he told the official.
He retired after 12 seasons, four as a sack-happy All-Pro, when he was cut by the Lions. The Pro Football Hall of Fame named him to its All-Decade Team of the 1960s — but he was never inducted into the Hall itself.
After football, Karras decided to try his hand at acting. His first role was playing himself in the movie “Paper Lion,,” based on George Plimpton’s book about trying out as a Lion quarterback.
That led Karras to several memorable roles, including Mongo, who delivered the memorable line in the Mel Brooks movie: “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”
He became a familiar sight on “Monday Night Football,” deflating fellow commentator Howard Cosell and needling Frank Gifford, and also appeared on “The Tonight Show,” trading quips with Johnny Carson.
In the 1980s, he played a sheriff in the comedy “Porky’s” and became a hit on the small screen as Emmanuel Lewis’ adoptive father, George Papadapolis, in the sitcom “Webster.”
He also had roles in “Against All Odds” and “Victor/Victoria.” — but earlier missed out when he was under consideration to play the double-crossing Vito Corleone son-in-law Carlo Rizzi in “The Godfather.”
His easy transition to acting helped pave the way for other football stars, including O.J. Simspon and Fred Dryer.
A crucial TV movie part was that of the husband of famed athlete “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, played by Susan Clark. She became his second wife, and also played the role of his wife on “Webster.”
Plimpton wrote another book that featured Karras, “Mad Ducks and Bears,” and that helped inspire Karras to write his own autobiography, “Even Big Guys Cry.” He even wrote a novel,“Tuesday Night Football.”In one of his last public acts, Karras earlier this year joined a class-action lawsuit by former NFL players who said the league did not do enough to protect them from head injuries.
The suit said Karras had sustained repeated head trauma. His lawyer yesterday said that he had suffered dementia for the last decade of his life.
In addition to Clark, his wife of 37 years, he is survived by their daughter and his four children from his first marriage to the late Joan Powell.