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Alex Karras, the football star turned beloved Hollywood actor, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles at the age of 77. For most of America, Karras is best remembered as the father on Webster, the '80s sitcom which co-starred his real-life wife Susan Clark.
Born in Gary, Ind., Karras was drafted by the Detroit Lions right out college in 1958. He went on to play 12 seasons as a defensive lineman, leaving the game in 1971 to pursue his other dream: acting.
Fortunately, he had some help. Karras' family told People that Lucy herself, Lucille Ball, "took him under her wing and allowed him to train in small parts." It soon became clear that Karras was a gifted comedian, and he went on to memorable roles in the classic comedies Blazing Saddles (see clip below), Porky's and Victor Victoria.
In the 1980s, Karras had a hit series with Webster, on which he played Emmanuel Lewis' adopted father (and his wife Clark played his onscreen wife). The show ran for six seasons. (Watch a clip from an early episode, below.) Afterwards, he began to move away from acting, appearing periodically on TV throughout the '90s.
Tragically, the head injuries Karras sustained during his football career began to affect his life dramatically. Around 12 years ago, says Clark, he began showing signs of dementia; he was formally diagnosed a few years ago. The couple participated in the mass concussion lawsuit that was recently filed against the NFL by thousands of former players.
"This physical beating that he took as a football player has impacted his life, and therefore it has impacted his family life," Clark said earlier this year. "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."
Karras died surrounded by his family, following a long battle with dementia, kidney disease, heart disease and stomach cancer. "Alex was known to family and friends as a gentle, loving, generous man who loved gardening and preparing Greek and Italian feasts," his family said in a statement. "His love of nature and most especially of the ocean, where he spent many happy days on his fishing boat, led him to support numerous organizations committed to protecting our environment for future generations." In lieu of flowers, they are asking for donations to any of Karras' favorite environmental charities: Natural Resources Defense Council, Bioneers, Greenpeace Foundation or the Pesticide Action Network.