Wednesday, October 10, 2012

RIP Mongo

Sad to hear about Alex Karras today. He was 77 years old and had been suffering from dementia for the last 12 years of his life. He was a rugged defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions for several years and wreaked havoc on offenses during his career. Reportedly, his dementia was due to his years in the NFL.

I remember seeing him act for the first time in Paper Lion, a 1968 movie based on George Plimpton's time with the Lions as a reporter writing about what it was like in an NFL training camp. Karras played himself, but showed acumen in front of the camera.

The best acting performance I think he did was not mentioned in any of the reports I read. It was in the 1975 movie 'Babe'. Karras played the husband of Babe Didrickson Zaharias, one of the greatest American female athletes of the 20th century. His acting ability in that movie was never surpassed in any of the other roles he played, in my opinion.

Of course, the most hilarious role he ever landed was in Blazing Saddles as the brute, Mongo. Mongo was so bad he rode into town on a brahma bull and punched a horse, knocking its lights out. He was seen crushing several men with a saloon piano. When he lit his cigar, Mongo had it clenched between his teeth, thrusting his whole face into a campfire with smoke billowing up from the brim of his hat. The most famous line in the movie was when he said, "Mongo only pawn in game of life." I honestly have never laughed so hard during the course of a single movie than I did that one.

The difference in the two roles revealed the range in his acting ability. He was that good.

I grew up with Alex Karras playing football on my TV screen. He was Webster's dad in the television series of the same name and drew critical acclaim. He was a color commentator for the NFL, even appearing on Monday Night Football. We used to see him all the time on television, and I never heard a bad thing about him. The only smudge on his career was when he had to sit out for one season due to gambling allegations, back in 1963.

Karras was a professional wrestler for six months before signing with the Lions. During his one year banishment from the NFL, he returned to wrestling and became quite the ticket, taking on some of the more famous wrestlers of his day, notably Dick the Bruiser. When he came back to the Lions, he was made one of their captains. A story goes that a referee asked Karras to call the coin toss. He refused by saying, "I'm sorry, sir. I'm not allowed to gamble." Classic.

By all accounts, Alex Karras was a decent man and a family man. He was a good role model for us all. Our country is poorer without him. Mainly because he wasn't a 'celebrity' like you see today. He was private and kept his personal views off the front page and out of view of the papparazzi. Alex Karras realized what his role was. He knew it wasn't to tell us how to feel, who to vote for, or what charity to be involved in. His role was to entertain us. And he did that with style.

Rest in Peace, Mongo. You did your job and you will be missed.

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