As a 250-pound Detroit Lion, Alex Karras was among football’s meanest tackles. He was in the sports pages constantly—four times for being named All-Pro, once for kicking a Denver player in the head, while he was down.
Now, eight years after his last season, Karras, 44, has gone Hollywood. He takes meetings, makes deals, occasionally waters his rubber tree. No one deserves more credit for mellowing the onetime terror of the NFL than Susan Clark, 36, the sensible, cigar-smoking Canadian actress he’s lived with for three years. They met on the set of Babe, a 1975 TV movie in which she played Babe Didrikson, the famous athlete who died of cancer, and Alex was her husband, George Zaharias. The film won Susan an Emmy—and Karras. “We were at our peak,” she recalls, “doing what we wanted to do—well. We had a terrific high of confidence.”
They pooled their resources in 1978 to form a film production company. Clark is creative consultant and Karras negotiates the contracts. They co-star in their company’s first TV movie, Jimmy B and Andre, scheduled for CBS broadcast early next year.
Another collaboration is due in January: their first child, whom they’ll name Marjorie, Marya or Catherine. “I did amniocentesis, so I know it’s a girl,” explains Clark, who has had three miscarriages since 1975. “If you’re an emotional, somewhat neurotic person like me, you have these incredible passions during pregnancy: hysterical joy, then total depression and sobbing. Alex is much more casual about it.” Perhaps that is because Karras, divorced in 1976, is already the father of five.
Karras and Clark plan a wedding before the baby arrives. “It makes me nervous to be married again,” he says, “so we’ll do it on the way to the hospital and then forget it.” Clark, a divorced, is not enthusiastic either. “If you’ve had a wonderful love affair,” she says, “lived together and survived crises and still have a sense of humor, you worry that you’ll start taking each other for granted after marriage.”
They were both victims of failed marriages when Babe began shooting. Karras was divorcing his wife of 18 years. Clark’s childless three-year marriage to writer-producer Robert Joseph had ended in 1973, and she was randomly dating.
Susan had never heard of Alex, “People told me he was a sports superstar and one of the funniest men on TV,” she recalls. “Then I met this large, rather shy man. He had a gaggle of big-bosomed stewardesses and very loud, small Greeks and Italians who trailed him like ducklings. There was no way I was going to get involved with a man who was in the middle of a divorce and had five children!”
Then Karras invited her to try his homemade soup. She arrived to find the table set for three; the extra place was for Alex’s roommate, known as Tony the Greek. “It wasn’t very romantic,” Susan recalls, “but the soup was delicious.” After dinner the couple retired to the living room. “He had a nine-foot sofa, and he moved closer and closer. Just as he was about to make his big move, Tony walked in like a duenna. I thought, here we are reduced to age 16, so I figured it was time to go home. When he asked if we could have another date, I said, ‘You better take care of your wife and mistresses first.’ ” He did. Romance blossomed.
“Alex didn’t come on like a macho Hollywood fantasy,” says Clark. “I’d had the playboys where you rush to the bathroom in the morning to get made up and swallow Listerine before he wakes up. You can’t base a life on that. Alex has insight, he’s sexy and intelligent, street smart. He is very moral, and his confidence is astounding to someone like me, who sometimes has lots and then none.”
A doctor’s son in Gary, Ind., Alex was the fourth of six children. He was no scholar at the University of Iowa—”The boy had a tendency to be a little fat-headed,” a family friend once said—but as an All-America he was first draft choice of the Detroit Lions in 1958. He still suffers arthritis and dizzy spells from 13 battering pro seasons. He was suspended for the 1963 season for placing bets on his own team. “The truth is that I was a rotten gambler,” he said later. “I couldn’t pick the Super Bowl champ to beat the Little Sisters of Charity if I had a month’s concentration.” Today he ignores football: “People say, ‘What did you think of that quarterback yesterday?’ and I don’t know who they’re talking about.”
In 1958 he married college sweetheart Joan Jurgensen. Their five children, 6 to 20, now live in the Midwest but visit California frequently. His oldest son, Alex Jr., 20, plays linebacker for Oakland University near Detroit.
Alex caught the acting bug when he appeared—as himself—in the 1966 film version of George Plimpton’s Paper Lion. That eventually led to a role in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, three years on Monday Night Football (“the most stress I’ve ever had in my life”) and the talk show and lecture circuits. He moved to Hollywood in 1972. “I got a phone call,” he remembers, “and this voice said, ‘Hi, this is Lucy Ball,’ and I said, ‘Right.’ She asked me to audition for a Daniel Boone show. I was terrible, but survived.
“I went through a tremendous change when I left athletics at age 35,” he adds. “I had therapy for two years to get adjusted to California society.” (“I knew it was over when my psychologist tried to get me interested in a deal.”) His old pal, Detroit bartender Jimmy Butsicaris, whose informal adoption of a black ghetto boy inspired Jimmy B and Andre, isn’t sure Alex is adjusted yet. The film was shot in Detroit this summer, and Butsicaris was disillusioned: “When Alex first got here, in ’58, he wasn’t too wise in the ways of the world. You know, the kind who’ll wear a checked sports coat with striped pants. Now he’s aloof from his old friends. Hollywood changed him. Or maybe Susan Clark changed him. All I know is that he hasn’t changed for the better.” Karras, who portrays Butsicaris in the movie, replied, “If you don’t change, you’ve stopped growing.”
Clark suffered from culture shock herself after she landed in California at age 23, under a 10-year contract with Universal. The daughter of a personnel relations executive, she was born in Sarnia, Ontario and reared in Toronto. At 17 her parents sent her to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. By 21 she had performed in 50 plays and was discovered on Canadian TV in Héloise and Abelard by a Universal talent scout. “When I came to L.A. I was overqualified and under-sophisticated for the marketplace,” she remembers. “They wanted me to diet, change my hair and take out my back teeth to accentuate my cheekbones. It was easier to retreat into character parts.” She appeared in a lot of B+ films—Madigan, Coogan’s Bluff, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here—plus TV and several plays before leaving Universal in 1977.
She won a second Emmy nomination for her 1976 TV portrayal of Amelia Earhart and wrapped five feature movies back to back just before doing Jimmy B. They ranged from the tawdry disaster flick City on Fire to her praised performance as the mother of a leukemia victim in the current Promises in the Dark.
Clark and Karras share a bungalow in Hollywood Hills across from Sally Kellerman. “Alex has a facility for relaxing while someone else does the ca-ca things like dishes, laundry, taking out the garbage,” Clark says. “Susan,” Alex retorts, “is very regimented.” They compromise a lot.
Susan will retire temporarily to breast-feed their daughter. Then next spring they’ll produce a TV drama based on freedom of the press and will star in a romantic comedy in the summer. Their plans tend to be short-range. “We deal with pains and joys as they come up,” Clark says. “It’s better to live for the moment and not be disappointed.” Alex reacts differently: “Hollywood is such a boring place to live. It’s so strange. We’re just going to keep on dancin’.”