Perhaps no Lion had a career as successful and varied as Alex Karras, especially off the gridiron. Nicknamed "The Mad Duck," Karras was more than a football star, he was a track-and-field athlete, a wrestler, a businessman, a broadcaster, and an actor in such an unusual variety of roles as to strain belief.
Born in Gary, Ind., Karras played defensive tackle for the 1958-1962 and 1964-1970 Lions. He started playing college ball at the University of Iowa, and went on to become one of the most effective defensive tackles in the league, making the 1960s All-Decade NFL team. Karras led a seemingly charmed life, logging 161 games and only missing one due to injury in his 12 NFL seasons. His fame also got a helping hand via writer George Plimpton, who wrote about him in his book Paper Lion, an account of Plimpton's season with the team. Karras later played himself in the film version of that book.
As an actor, Karras is remembered today for the gentle demeanor of his role as a dad on primetime TV. But, when provoked, the real-life Karras could have a hot temper and a smart mouth. He's said to have once thrown a shoe at his college coach when quitting the team. After being forced to sit out the 1963 season due to gambling violations, he allegedly refused an official's request to call a pre-game coin toss, quipping that he was not allowed to gamble.
He earned money as a wrestler in the offseason, and had a stake in the famous Detroit sports bar Lindell A.C., where he played a role in one of the most outrageous confrontations in Detroit sports history. While at Lindell A.C., Karras was visited by Richard "Dick the Bruiser" Afflis, a football player and wrestler like "Killer Karras." But Afflis was something of an outlaw. He had been banned from wrestling in New York for causing a riot that injured more than 300, provoked by his no-holds-barred, break-your-face style of brawling. Wrestling writer Richard Berger called Afflis "a walking riot waiting to happen."
As accounts have it, Karras sat down at the bar with the visiting Bruiser and talked shop for a while — until Afflis took offense at some remark Karras made. Soon, the fists were flying. Karras's friends tried breaking up the fight in vain. The fight raged all over the bar, smashing windows and wrecking furniture. Finally, about a dozen Detroit cops piled on to end the brawl, but not before it had practically destroyed the bar, spilled out into the street, started a small riot, and injured several passers-by. Later, Afflis and Karras fought a brutal grudge match at Olympia Stadium, where, before a capacity crowd, the Bruiser, blinded by blood in one eye, took Karras down for the count.
By the mid-1970s, Karras was passing out of football, taking on more bit parts as an actor. In 1974, he gained notoriety with the small but memorable role of a monstrous, dim-witted giant named "Mongo" in Mel Brooks's parody Western Blazing Saddles, in which he knocks out a horse with one punch and, in response to a question, utters the improbable answer, "Don't know. Mongo only pawn in game of life."
Karras began to guest star on popular television programs, and ABC snapped him up as a sports broadcaster on Monday Night Football for three years. In the 1980s, Karras's acting career took off in earnest, and he appeared in Porky's, Victor Victoria, and Against All Odds. He found his greatest acting success on the television series Webster, playing the title character's father, George Papadapolis. And, yeah, although that looks positively corny now, it represents a remarkable achievement. It's not often a football player finds a successful acting career. But it's a rarity when a man who brawled with Dick the Bruiser can leave us with such a fatherly softie as his signature performance.
Alex Karras died Oct. 10, 2012, in Los Angeles. — mt