By any account, Alex Karras was a character: raconteur, salesman, entrepreneur, author, broadcaster, and actor. Karras, who passed away just a few months ago, was also one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles in the 60’s, though his talents on the field were somewhat overshadowed by the poor Lions squads he played for. Nicknamed “Mad Duck,” Karras was a stumpy bulldog of a player who was so near-sighted he played by feel, and was renowned for his speed and violence. A telling anecdote from a league game involved his mauling of a hapless second string guard; the opposing lineman turned out to be one of Karras’ older brothers (all three Karras boys played professional football.) In recalling the story, Karras wondered aloud if he had subconsciously recognized his brother despite being unable to make out his face, and if he had taken out an adolescence’s worth of anger on a former bully.
Karras had a stream of oddball enterprises and hobbies. He sold “personal massage devices” that he would demonstrate on the shoulders of unsuspecting passersby. He hosted a celebrity golf tournament in Detroit that was essentially a day-long practical joke: the course could feature free-roaming zoo animals (he called a 300-pound tortoise let loose on the green a “moveable hazard”), holes so deep that sunk putts were almost irretrievable, loudspeakers blaring machine-gun noises, roving Mariachi bands, or a parade of armored vehicles led by a little person in Gen. George S. Patton regalia. During a year where he was suspended from the league for gambling on other teams, Karras became a professional wrestler and once held a match alongside Bronco Nagurski.
Despite his talents on the field and exploits off it, Karras is probably best known in his far more mundane jobs as on-air commentator and actor. He got a taste of the acting bug when journalist George Plimpton’s short stint as a benchwarming-quarterback was turned into the feature film Paper Lion; for the sake of verisimilitude, the actual Detroit team was called in to play themselves on screen, and Karras featured prominently in the final cut. After leaving the NFL, Karras appeared in a dozen episodes of The Tonight Show and spent three years in the booth for Monday Night Football. He had guest spots and supporting roles on a handful of shows and TV movies, and an extended role in the Centennial miniseries, though his two most famous gigs were distinctly different.
The first was as the menacing Mongo in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. The film is considered a comedy classic, and Karras’ role as a hulking force of nature with a surprising philosophical bent is popular even today. Fans of the film might interested to know that Mongo’s horse-punching was reportedly inspired by a real-life incident witnessed by Mel Brooks in which comic actor Sid Caesar knocked-out a troublesome steed.
On the other end of the spectrum is his role as oafish father George Papadapolis on the long-running series Webster. On the air from 1983 to 1989, the family comedy was produced by Alex Karras and his co-star/actual wife Susan Clark; the pair conceived of the show as a family ensemble piece about the life of an oafish former football player (naturally played by Karras), though rising child star Emmanuel Lewis was grafted onto the production by the network. After a few stormy years (and a particularly rough first season fomented by ABC forcing Lewis-focused episodes) the show settled into the ensemble format originally envisioned by Karras. Thanks to Webster’s long initial run and subsequent syndication (as well as his other acts), Karras might be the most visually recognizable player to come from an era that included Jim Brown, Dick Butkus, and Johnny Unitas.