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. He was 77.
Karras played numerous guest roles on series television, on shows like “McMillan and Wife,” “Love, American Style,” “M*A*S*H” and “The Odd Couple.” 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 the champion 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 for me, his best role was as “Squash Bernstein” – one of the most surprising gay roles in movies. For 1982, it was unusual to see a gay man portrayed by such a macho, “straight-acting” man. I think it was ground-breaking in many ways and played with courage and confidence. The same courage and confidence he displayed as a pro football player.
Karras had kidney disease, heart disease and stomach cancer, his family said in a statement announcing his death, as well as dementia. He was among the more than 3,500 former players who are suing the National Football League in relation to the long-term damage caused by concussions and repeated hits to the head.