Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Death of a Man Who Knew How to Live

Alex Karras in his first major role: A Detroit Lion
It is difficult to grasp that Alex Karras is gone. This big, laughing Greek who so captivated many of us with his football and his acting skills and his utter zest for life spent his waning days a shell of a man who suffered dementia, among other things. He was a pro football lineman, a guy who hit people hard on every play and it took a toll over the decade-plus that he played at an all-star level.

Karras as Mongo in "Blazing Saddles"
But it was later that most people came to know him, and it was as an actor, even though he had been famous as a Detroit Lion (and one of the stars of George Plimpton's marvelous book, Paper Lion, in the 1960s; he named one of his sons after Plimpton). He became the memorable Mongo in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" and he was Babe Didrickson's Greek husband and promoter in "Babe," a move where he met his elegant wife Susan Clark. I always though it a strange coincidence that both Brooks (Anne Bancroft) and he married such elegant women when neither was that. But both were funny and as Jessica Rabbit whispered when somebody asked her what in the world she saw in Roger, "He makes me laaaaaaaugh."

Karras made a lasting name on a sitcom in the 1980s ("Webster" with Susan Clark)  that I never say and I've always thought it sad that those little excursions into moneymaking often obscure much better work. He played a closeted gay bodyguard in "Victor Victoria," another of is short, but memorable roles in a long movie career. His gambling in 1962 (when he was banned from football for a year--along with Paul Hornung--and spent that year thumbing his nose at the NFL as a pro wrestler) will probably always keep him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is a shame if you consider those things important. I don't. He was a great football player and no hall of fame can make him any better.

More than the acting, the athletics or anything else, though, Alex Karras was a free man, a free soul who laughed and loved and lived life to the fullest. Screw the hall of fame. But let's not forget even for a second that it was football that left him a shell, even in his 77th year. He was physically spent because of the entertainment he provided many of us and that's the shame.

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