Webster star Alex Karras, who began his career as a football hero for the Detroit Lions, has died, the Associated Press reports. He was 77.
Karras, who was suffering from kidney failure, died at home in Los Angeles surrounded by family members, including his wife, Susan Clark, the Canadian actress who also played his fictional wife on Webster, said Karras’s attorney, Craig Mitnick
Lions president Tom Lewand released the following statement upon learning of Karras’s deteriorating health: “The entire Detroit Lions family is deeply saddened to learn of the news regarding the condition of one of our all-time greats, Alex Karras. Perhaps no player in Lions history attained as much success and notoriety for what he did after his playing days as did Alex.”
Born the fourth of six children to a doctor in Gary, Ind., Karras was an all-American at the University of Iowa and played 13 seasons as a bruising defender for the Lions – missing only the 1963 season, when he was suspended for betting on his own team.
He also worked occasionally as a professional wrestler in the ’50s and ’60s.
Karras got his first taste of acting by appearing as himself in the 1966 film version of George Plimpton’s Paper Lion. Among his Hollywood roles, he appeared in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles in 1974 and notably played a closeted gay bodyguard in Victor Victoria in 1982. He was also a commentator for three seasons of Monday Night Football in the ’70s.
Karras was best known, however, for his role on Webster, playing George Papadopoulos – the adoptive father of Emmanuel Lewis’s title character – from 1983 until 1989.
Karras and Clark had one daughter, Katie, now 32. Karras’s first marriage ended in divorce after 18 years and five children.
Clark had never heard of Karras when they met on the set of Babe, a 1975 TV biopic movie about the athlete Babe Didrikson, in which Karras played her husband.
“People told me he was a sports superstar and one of the funniest men on TV,” Clark told PEOPLE in 1979. “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!”
But she came around. “Alex didn’t come on like a macho Hollywood fantasy,” Clark said in the same interview. “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.”
Karras suffered dementia and cancer in recent years, and was part of the mass concussion lawsuit that more than 3,000 former players have filed against the NFL.