Pro football player turned actor Alex Karras, who died today at age 77, had a varied career that included a role of special significance to LGBT audiences in 1982’s Victor/Victoria.
In director Blake Edwards’s gender-bending musical, set in 1934 Paris, Julie Andrews stars as Victoria, an out-of-work singer who poses as a man to get gigs as a female impersonator. When macho Chicago nightclub owner King Marchand (James Garner) falls in love with her, his bodyguard “Squash” Bernstein (Karras), thinking his boss is in a gay relationship, is emboldened to come out of the closet and begin a romance with Victoria’s friend Toddy (Robert Preston).
Karras’s memorable roles also included Mongo, a hulking brute who starts out as a henchman for the villains but comes over to the side of the good guys in Mel Brooks’s 1974 Western spoof Blazing Saddles; George Zaharias, the husband of multisport athlete (and likely real-life lesbian) Babe Didrikson Zaharias in the 1975 TV biopic Babe; and George Papadapolis, the adoptive father of an African-American boy in the 1980s sitcom Webster. In Babe and Webster, Karras costarred with his second wife, Susan Clark, who survives him.
Karras, a defensive tackle, played 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions and was named to the All-Pro team four times. Diagnosed with dementia several years ago, this year he joined about 3,500 former NFL players suing the league for failing to protect them sufficiently from head injuries. “He is interested in making the game of football safer and hoping that other families of retired players will have a healthier and happier retirement,” Clark told the Associated Press earlier this year. Karras died at the couple’s home in Los Angeles after suffering kidney failure.