ALEX KARRAS never took instruction that well, and certainly not very often. Parents, teachers, coaches, commissioners, network honchos—they all had their problems putting this guy through his paces. It was just like his mother had told him, all those years ago, with a sarcasm that might not have fully registered: Everybody's out of step but him. So when he finally turned 65, in 2000, with pension checks from all his careers starting to come in (not to mention residuals, rental income and paydays from his production company), he called it quits. "I was tired of people yelling at me," Karras says. "People have been yelling at me since I was 13."
This is an article from the July 14, 2008 issue
Karras, who turns 73 this month, acknowledges that his failure to knuckle under was probably rooted in his attention deficit disorder, diagnosed way too late to help his teachers or any other authority figures. He is so at peace now (and quite a bit smaller, too) that it's hard to imagine he ever threw a shoe at a coach or, for that matter, knocked out a horse with one punch. To see him work in the garden of his house in the Hollywood Hills, or to imagine him relaxing on a Mediterranean cruise or on a train to Jackson Hole, Wyo., or attending his daughter's graduation at USC is to forget his capacity for chaos, playful or not.
For people of a certain generation, Karras is the lovable, adoptive father on Webster (which costarred his real-life wife, Susan Clark). But before he was George Papadapolis in the 1980s sitcom; and before he played Mongo, so memorably dim-witted, in Blazing Saddles ("Mongo ... only pawn in game of life") in '74; and before he filled the booth on Monday Night Football ("There's Otis Sistrunk, from the University of Mars") alongside Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford; and before he started cracking up Johnny Carson; and even before he first appeared in the film adaptation of George Plimpton's Paper Lion 40 years ago; Karras was a pretty good, if recalcitrant, football player.
As a two-way lineman for Iowa, he was an All-America in 1956 (the season the Hawkeyes won the Rose Bowl) and in '57 was an Outland Trophy winner and runner-up in the Heisman voting. The latter was surprising on several counts, the least of which being that the Heisman Trophy is not cast in the shape of a looming lineman. It's surprising because Karras was undersized (6'2", 250 pounds), even for his day, and occasionally was banished from the squad by coach Forest Evashevski. Well, not always banished. Sometimes he just quit.
His reputation notwithstanding, Karras was selected by the Detroit Lions in the first round of the 1958 draft, and he became one of the league's leading pass rushers—a frequent All-Pro—and troublemakers. Forget his skirmishes with coaches (and forget, too, his forays into professional wrestling as Killer Karras, in which he supplemented his $9,000 NFL salary and whetted his show-business appetite). What got everybody's attention was his admission in 1963 that he gambled on his own games. The one-season suspension (Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung received the same punishment for the same offense) allowed Karras to tend to his Detroit bar, where he made better money than as a Lion, and also the opportunity, upon his reinstatement, to refuse to call the coin flip before the start of the game. "I'm sorry, sir," he told the ref. "I'm not permitted to gamble."
Plimpton, meanwhile, had been hanging out with the Lions, earning some bumps and bruises in one of his forays into participatory journalism, and he made the colorful Karras a prominent figure in the resulting book. When filmmakers decided to turn Paper Lion into a movie in 1968 (with Alan Alda playing Plimpton), they opted for some measure of reality by casting several of the Lions as football scenery. Karras was a hit on-screen, nailing his scenes in a single take.
Still, it wasn't until he retired before the 1971 season (a knee injury at the age of 35 had slowed him too much) that he began taking show business seriously. His Monday Night Football appearances, along with a steady diet of talk shows, convinced directors of a certain zany looseness. Enough so that he didn't even have to read for the part of Mongo in Mel Brooks's great Western. (Karras earnestly asked Brooks, "How do you want me to play him?" Brooks: "How the hell do I know? I'm just the director!") There is a lot to like about Mongo, but Karras is particularly satisfied by his part in dispatching that horse with a single punch. "One take," he says proudly.
That led to a variety of parts (a gay bodyguard in Victor/Victoria, among them), but none as important as his casting as George Zaharias in Babe, the TV biopic of golfer Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1975. Karras was delirious to learn that he would be playing opposite Clark, an actress he had long admired. On the pretense of scouting her golf game before production began—"I didn't want either of us to be embarrassed during shooting," he says—Karras followed her onto a course, staying out of sight behind bushes. In his telling it sounds a bit more like stalking than it does scouting: "She hits a drive right at me." Being deliberately flushed from a hiding place would have been an awkward enough moment for most men. But Karras compounded it by saying, "I love you." Before Clark could properly assess the situation, Karras thoughtfully added, "And I think you have a great body."
They are together more than 30 years later, partners in life, a production company (they produced Webster, among many other shows, battling the network along the way, of course) and a child, Katie, 26, a physical therapist. While Clark continues to act in regional theater, Karras is content to stay home; literally, to smell the roses. He says blows to his head—he remembers three times being completely out of it for more than 20 minutes during NFL games—may have impaired his memory and no doubt reduced his self-confidence in public. "I can still get home," he says, laughing.
He is not so forgetful that he can't look back and regret at least some of the chaos he caused. Recently, out of the blue, he placed a call to his old Iowa coach, Evashevski, 90 now, to apologize for all the ruckus he inspired. "I couldn't take it any more," Karras says. "I had to call him." Evashevski was flabbergasted. What did he expect? It's the same old story, Karras says. "Everyone's out of step but me."
George Plimpton on Alex Karras and the upstart Lions, at SI.com/WATN.