Former actor and football star, Alex Karras, dies at 77

WASHINGTON Wed Oct 10, 2012 11:17am EDT

WASHINGTON Oct 10 (Reuters) - Alex Karras, a hulking giant with a puckish personality who starred on the football field for the Detroit Lions and later in the television sitcom "Webster," died on Wednesday at the age of 77, his attorney said.

Karras had been suffering from kidney failure and dementia.

Earlier this year, Karras joined a class-action suit by former National Football League players who said the NFL did not do enough to protect them from head injuries. The suit said he had sustained repeated head trauma.

Karras' lawyer, Craig Mitnick, said Karras was surrounded by family when died at his home in Los Angeles.

After an All-American career at the University of Iowa, Karras joined the Lions in 1958 and became one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. He was an All-Pro selection four times but his iconoclastic nature often led to conflicts with his coaches. He missed the 1963 season when he was suspended for gambling on NFL games.

After returning to football, Karras represented the Lions at the pre-game coin flip to determine which team would kick off. When the referee told him to call heads or tails, Karras responded, "I'm sorry, sir, I'm not permitted to gamble."

Karras was known to teammates as "The Godfather" - a glib, wise-cracking figure who enjoyed big cigars, even in the shower.

After 12 seasons of pro football, Karras starred in the 1980s sitcom "Webster," joining his real-life wife, Susan Clark, in playing a white couple who adopt a black child played by Emmanuel Lewis.

Karras also had a small but well-remembered role in the Mel Brooks comic Western film, "Blazing Saddles," as Mongo, a dull-witted brute who punched out a horse. He also played a sheriff in "Porky's" and a gay bodyguard in "Victor/Victoria."

Before his NFL career and during his suspension, Karras was also a professional wrestler.

After being cut by the Lions in 1971, he was a commentator on ABC's "Monday Night Football" broadcast for three years.

Karras wrote about his life in "Even Big Guys Cry" and "Alex Karras: My Life in Football, Television & Movies." He was a key figure in "Paper Lion," a look at the 1963 Detroit team by writer George Plimpton, who tried out for the team to see what it would be like for an average person. (Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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