Alex Karras: American footballer who went on to act in 'Blazing Saddles'

 

Alex Karras, who has died of kidney failure at the age of 77, followed one successful career, in professional football, with another, in films and television, notably play-punching a horse in one of the signature madcap scenes of Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles.

He had been part of the mass concussion lawsuit more than 3,000 former players filed against the National Football League. Though he portrayed his share of heavies, Karras, a 250lb defensive lineman with the Detroit Lions, also pulled off comedy roles in films including Victor/Victoria (1982) and, from 1983 to 1989, as an adoptive father in the television series Webster."

"Before I was a football player, I wanted to be an actor," he recalled. "My dad was an actor, and I used to sit in the theatre in the front row and fantasise about being an actor." After his father's death when he was a boy, he said, "my whole family had to change what their intentions were." His became football, the sport his older brothers had pushed him into. "I went through that thinking, knowing, that eventually I would go back to what I really wanted to do."

Karras was born in 1935, in Gary, Indiana, the fourth of six children of a doctor. As a defensive lineman at the University of Iowa he was part of a team that won the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day 1957, beating Oregon State. The Lions selected him as the 10th overall pick of the 1958 draft – he began his NFL career after a few months as a professional wrestler.

Karras played 12 seasons with the Lions from 1958 to 1970, missing the 1963 season after he was suspended along with Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers for betting on other teams' games (Karras returned to wrestling during his ban). The Lions website called him "one of the fiercest members" of the Lions' 1960s defensive unit who "used his stocky build to bullrush offensive lines." After retirement he provided colour commentary on ABC's Monday Night Football for three seasons, from 1974 until 1976.

Karras began to pursue acting during the waning years of his football career, playing himself in the adaptation of George Plimpton's Paper Lion, an account of Plimpton's experience in training camp with the 1963 Lions. In Blazing Saddles (1974), Mel Brooks' western spoof, the 6ft 2in Karras played Mongo, the thug who enters town on a giant bull with "yes" and "no" passing instructions on its rear end. Challenged by another rider – "Hey, you can't park that animal over there" – he walks over and punches the rider's horse to the ground.

In Victor/Victoria Karras won notice for his portrayal of a gay bodyguard alongside Julie Andrews and James Garner. The New York Times, said Karras "comes out of the closet as a fine comic actor." His other films included Porky's (1982) and Against All Odds (1984). Webster paired Karras with his real-life wife, Susan Clark, as the white adoptive parents of a black child whose biological parents were killed in a car crash. He played a retired footballer who had been a team-mate of the biological father.

Alexander George Karras, Amercan footballer, wrestler and actor: born Gary, Indiana 15 July 1935; married 1958 Joan Jurgensen (divorced 1975; five children), 1980 Susan Clark (one daughter); died 10 October 2012.

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