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In Memoriam:
Alex Karras

October 12, 2012

Alexander George "Alex" Karras (July 15, 1935 – October 10, 2012), nicknamed "The Mad Duck", was an American football player, professional wrestler, and actor. He played football with the Detroit Lions in the National Football League from 1958–1962. He was Webster’s adoptive dad on Webster and as Mongo he punched a horse in Blazing Saddles. Now Alex Karras, who first rose to fame as a player for the NFL’s Detroit Lions, passed away on Wednesday, October 9, 2012.

The former defensive lineman was 77 and had suffered from dementia. He joined with more than 3,000 players in suing the league in conjunction with head injuries.

In 1968, Karras figured prominently in the film adaptation of George Plimpton's nonfiction sports book Paper Lion, playing himself. Three years later, Karras was under consideration for the part of Carlo Rizzi, the duplicitous brother-in-law of the Corleone family, in The Godfather. The role was one of many acting opportunities that developed following his performance in Paper Lion and his appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Following his release by the Lions in 1971, he began acting on a full-time basis, playing a Tennessee boy turned Olympic weightlifter named Hugh Ray Feather in 1973's The 500-Pound Jerk. He played a hulking villain who menaced Clint Walker in the ABC TV film Hardcase. A minor but memorable role came one year later in the western parody Blazing Saddles (1974): the very strong and slow-witted thug Mongo, who rode into town on a huge brahman (marked with "yes" and "no" passing signals), knocked out a horse with one punch, and famously responded to a question from Sheriff Bart with, "Don't know..." (looking straight into the camera) "...Mongo only pawn in game of life." That same year, he was quickly brought in by ABC to replace Fred Williamson as a commentator for the network's Monday Night Football. He served three years in that role until leaving after the 1976 NFL season, with his most memorable comment coming in his first game, when he joked that bald Oakland Raiders' lineman Otis Sistrunk, who never attended college, was from "the University of Mars".[4]

In 1972, Karras hosted a local weekly football program for Windsor, Ontario CBC affiliate CKLW-TV, The Alex Karras Football Show; his program generally preceded the CBC's Wednesday night CFL telecasts.[5]

Karras returned to acting with roles that included playing Sheriff Wallace in Porky's (in which his wife, Susan Clark, also starred), and as western settler Hans Brumbaugh in Centennial. He played James Garner's closeted gay bodyguard in the movie Victor Victoria. Karras played a darker role as Hank Sully, the right-hand-man of villain Jake Wise (played by James Woods) in the 1984 film, Against All Odds.

His television appearances included guest roles on M*A*S*H in the episode "Springtime", The Odd Couple and a brief run on Match Game '75. He also signed on to play the character "Super Jock" in commercials for a line of sports action toys by that name, produced by Schaper (1975).[6] In 1977 he was cast in the lead of the TV movie Mad Bull.[7]

In 1979 he had the role of Hans "Potato" Brumbaugh, a potato farmer, on the TV miniseries Centennial. He was known for his humorous endorsement of La-Z-Boy recliners, in an ad campaign which also featured NFL greats such as Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula, and New York Jets legend Joe Namath.[8] In the 1980s, Karras had memorable success in the TV sitcom Webster, playing George Papadapolis, the title character's adoptive father, in a role that showcased his softer side. His real-life wife, Susan Clark, played his fictional wife in the series; Karras and Clark produced the series through their Georgian Bay Entertainment production company. The two met in 1975 while filming the made-for-television biopic Babe for CBS.

In his later years, Karras suffered several serious health problems, including dementia, heart disease, and cancer.[12]

Karras was among many former NFL players to have filed a lawsuit against the NFL in early 2012, over issues of head injuries during their career that had caused various ill effects later in their lives, including dementia.[13]

On October 8, 2012, it was revealed by friend Tom McInerney that Karras had suffered from kidney failure; doctors gave him a few days to live. Karras was treated at the Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, before being released into hospice care. After returning to his Los Angeles home with family, Karras died in the morning hours of October 10 from complications caused by kidney failure.[14]

Maffew, creator of internet wrestling series Botchamania, paid tribute to Karras at the beginning of episode 217. Karras's depiction of 'Mongo' in Blazing Saddles had often used and parodied in Botchamania, as an introduction to clips involving Steve 'Mongo' McMichael.

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