Alex Karras was a big, burly Pro Bowl football player. He was an even bigger personality.
Here's a look at Karras' key roles on the road to off-the-field stardom:
1. Paper Lion: This 1968 behind-the-scenes look at the National Football League, which was made while Karras still suited up every Sunday as a linebaker for the Detroit Lions, provided the role he'd been born to play—his larger-than-life self. "I've been an actor all my life," Karras said in 1994. "Before I was a football player, I wanted to be an actor."
2. Blazing Saddles: Mongo conferred Karras cult-comedy status. The Mel Brooks character also brought the by-then-retired NFL-er some grief. "Little old ladies wrote me from all over after the picture came out," he said in 1975. "They said, 'How could you hit a poor dumb beast?'" For the record, he didn't—he didn't really punch the horse. In a statement today, Brooks said, "Alex Karras was a great pleasure to work with. There was a lot of him and all of it was gentle, sweet, and surprisingly talented. I will miss him."
3. Monday Night Football: For the time, few gigs could make you a household name faster than MNF. Dubbed the broadcast's "funnyman," Karras bantered with Howard Cosell in the mid-1970s until the wayward Don Meredith returned to the big show after a three-year absence.
4. Babe: "This show is a big one for me," Karras said in 1975. That it was. His performance as the wrestler husband of pioneering athlete Babe Didrikson was called "brilliant." A steady stream of film work followed. So did a professional and personal relationship with costar Susan Clark. "Alex didn't come on like a macho Hollywood fantasy," Clark said in 1979. The two married the following year.
5. Webster: Neither Karras nor Clark wanted to work with a kid. "But they convinced us the show would not be slanted toward the kid," Karras said in 1983. Whether that proved to be true—it was hard to not focus on the pint-sized Emmanuel Lewis—ultimately mattered less than the fact that the role of retired jock George Papadopoulos brought Karras lasting fame as a prime-time father. Webster ran for six seasons, from 1983-89. Karras' marriage to Clark endured until his death. Lewis said he had "a heavy heart" today and saluted his TV dad, saying: "Rest in peace, my friend."