Alex Karras, NFL star lineman who became TV, movie actor, 77

Alex Karras (left) defended as Tom Dempsey kicked his winning, record-setting 63-yard field goal with two seconds left.
Alex Karras (left) defended as Tom Dempsey kicked his winning, record-setting 63-yard field goal with two seconds left. –Associated Press/file 1970

NEW YORK — Alex Karras, a fierce and relentless All-Pro lineman for the Detroit Lions whose irrepressible character placed him frequently at odds with football’s authorities but led to a second career as an actor on television and in the movies, died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles.

Mr. Karras, 77, had kidney disease, heart disease, stomach cancer, and dementia, his family said.
He was among the more than 3,500 former players who are suing the NFL in relation to
damage caused by concussions and repeated hits to the head.

To those under 50, he may be best known as an actor. He made his film debut in 1968, playing himself in ‘‘Paper Lion,’’ an adaptation of George Plimpton’s book about playing quarterback for the Lions, which starred Alan Alda as Plimpton. His rendering of his own roguish personality led to several appearances on ‘‘The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,’’ and in the 1970s he played guest roles on series television, on shows like ‘‘McMillan and Wife,’’ ‘’Love, American Style,’’ “M*A*S*H,’’ and ‘‘The Odd Couple,’’ in which he played a comically threatening man-mountain, the jealous husband of a woman who has become friendly with Felix (Tony Randall).


Perhaps most memorably, he played Mongo, a hulking subliterate outlaw who delivers a knockout punch to a horse, in the Mel Brooks western spoof ‘‘Blazing Saddles.’’

In 1975, he played George Zaharias, the husband of track star and golfer Babe Didrickson Zaharias, in the television movie ‘‘Babe.’’ The title role was played by Susan Clark, who became his wife, and from 1983 to 1989, they starred together in the gentle sitcom ‘‘Webster,’’ about a retired football player who takes in a black boy (Emmanuel Lewis), the orphaned young son of a former teammate.

But Mr. Karras first earned fame as a ferocious tackle for the Lions, anchoring the defensive line for 12 seasons over 13 years, 1958-70. He was an especially versatile pass rusher, known for his strength, speed, and caginess.

‘‘Most defensive tackles have one move; they bull head-on,’’ Doug Van Horn, a Giants offensive lineman who had to block Mr. Karras, said in 1969. ‘‘Not Alex. There is no other tackle like him. He has inside and outside moves, a bull move where he puts his head down and runs over you, or he’ll just stutter-step you like a ballet dancer.’’

Mr. Karras was named to four Pro Bowls, and was a member of the NFL All- Decade team of the 1960s. He was never elected to the Hall of Fame, an oversight that has sometimes been attributed to the fact that the Lions fielded mostly undistinguished teams; in his only playoff game, the Lions lost to the Cowboys by the unlikely score of 5-0 in 1970.


But another theory is that his unwillingness to be an obedient NFL citizen, especially his antagonism toward the longtime NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, resulted in an unofficial blackballing.

Witty, brash, and smart, Mr. Karras was a thorn in the side of league authorities, speaking out against team owners in general and the Lions’ management in particular. He deplored the way players were treated like chattel on the one hand, deployed as seen fit, and children on the other, held to restrictive behavioral standards, scolded, and disciplined.

His reputation as a league outlaw was cemented in 1963 when Rozelle suspended him indefinitely, along with Paul Hornung, for betting on NFL games, and both players missed the entire season.

Neither man was accused of betting against his own team.

Shortly after Mr. Karras returned, an official asked him to call the pregame coin toss and Mr. Karras, with cheeky disdain, refused.

‘‘I’m sorry, sir,’’ he said, ‘‘but I’m not permitted to gamble.’’

Alexander George Karras was born in Gary, Ind.
He attended the University of Iowa before he was drafted in the first round in 1958.

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