Alex Karras, the former NFL defensive lineman who used his charm and sense of humor about himself to transition into acting the 1970s, has died in Los Angeles today. Karras was one of a number NFL players of that era who had been diagnosed with dementia, mostly likely stemming from brain injuries related to their time on the gridiron. He had recently suffered kidney failure. He was 77.
Karras’s most memorable role was that of the big, brutish, dim-witted and horse-punching Mongo in Mel Brooks’s 1973 comedy Blazing Saddles. As the henchman of the evil Hedley LaMarr (Harvey Corman), Mongo was sent repeatedly to try and terrorize the folks of Rock Ridge only to be turned away in a variety of Looney Tunes-inspired blackout gags. His character spoke little, but when he did, it was with an unusual clarity amount his station in life.
Born in Gary, Ind., Karras was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1958. He played defensive tackle for the Lions for 12 seasons and was part of their our “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line.
Karras’s first acting role was playing himself in the 1968 film Paper Lion. The movie was based on the book by George Plimpton, played by Alan Alda, and his attempt to try out for the the Detroit Lions. He followed his appearance in the film with a few television roles before being cast in Blazing Saddles. At one point he was under consideration for the role of Connie’s philandering husband Carlo in The Godfather, though director Francis Ford Coppola ultimately cast Gianni Russo in the part. He also appeared in the films FM (1978), Victor Victoria (1982), Porky’s (1982) and Against All Odds (1984).
On television, Karras would have success as the father of the family sitcom Webster, which ran on ABC from 1983 to 1989. He was also a commentator on ABC’s Monday Night Football from 1974 to 1976 alongside Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford.
Karras’s final film appearance was in 1998’s Buffalo`66.