Sunday, April 12, 2020

2020 Alex Karras Film Fest

Although on the face of it, an Alex Karras film festival seems ludricrous, Alex Karras had a good career as a character actor and television personality. What better time to watch some of Alex Karras' film roles than during this pandemic?

The Alex Karras filmography lists 25 guest shots on popular television programs and made-for-television movies including Love, American Style; The Odd Couple; McMillan & Wife; M*A*S*H; and appearances on talk shows like The Mike Douglas Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Alex also co-starred with his wife Susan Clark and Emmanuel Lewis on Webster which ran on ABC for six years. Karras' feature film credits include 14 movies, six of which my wife and I watched over the last ten days. That's a substantial body of work.

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In his first feature film Paper Lion, Karras played himself in a 1968 look behind the scenes of the Detroit Lions preseason training camp. He appeared alongside other Lion players, but Alex's personality jumped off the screen. He was the only player with acting ablity. Alex appeared in plays at Gary Emerson High School.

Karras caught the attention of Desilu executive producer Lucille Ball. Lucy phoned Karras and encouraged him to pursue acting after he retired from the gridiron. From then on, he was bitten by the acting bug. Lucille Ball was helpful in getting Karras established in Hollywood. They became lifelong friends.

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In 1975, Karras hit box office gold with his portrayal of Mongo in Mel Brooks' riotous film Blazing Saddles. Amidst the craziness of the film, Mongo speaks eight words that encapsulate the dilemma of modern man, "Mongo a pawn in the game of life."


Karras plays a Looney Tune cartoonish, dull-witted brute who knocks out a horse with one punch and opens a Western-Union candygram that blows up in his face. Classic Warner Bros. slapstick comedy. Blazing Saddles is #6 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Best Comedies.

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The following year, Karras gave a nuanced performance as wrestler George Zaharias--the real-life husband of America's most celebrated female athlete Babe Didrikson. The TV movie Babe starred Susan Clark in the title role which earned her an Emmy award for Best Actress. Their onscreen chemistry was powerful and translated to real life. Karras and Clark met on this film, fell in love, and married five years later. His performance proved he could handle dramatic as well as comic roles.

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Neither Sue nor I had ever seen Porky's before. It turned out to be literally a low brow, coming-of-age comedy. The biggest names in the movie were Susan Clark and Alex Karras. Now man and wife in real life, they took minor roles and never appeared on screen together in this film. Susan Clark plays stripper Cherry Forever and Karras plays County Sheriff Wallace. Giving a deadpan performance, Karras is convincing as a corrupt cop harassing the Angel Beach High School basketball team on a dark country road.


Porky's Lobby Card

Film critics Gene Siskel & Roger Eberts gave Porky's two thumbs down for its "degrading objectification of women and juvenile treatment of adolescent sexuality." They pronounced the movie "One of the worst films of 1981." The initial $5 million investment grossed over $136 million in the film's worldwide release, becoming the highest grossing comedy in Canadian history.

For me, Porky's has little redeeming value, but film historians credit it for spawning a new breed of film--the teen movie. Porky's influenced a generation of writers, most notibly John Hughes, who came to exemplify the genre throughout the 1980s with films like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and The Breakfast Club--all of which had more heart and charm than their predecessor. 

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In 1982's Blake Edwards' gender-bending extravaganza Victor Victoria, Alex Karras got a first-class supporting role as Squash Bernstein, the bodyguard of American gangster King Marchand, played by James Garner. Karras' comedic timing, deadpan facial expressions, and flawless line delivery make this performance the high point in his comedic career.


Alex Karras and Robert Preston

The movie's finale performance of "The Lady of Spain" with Robert Preston (The Music Man) as an aging, gay cabaret performer is not to be missed. Director Blake Edwards remembers that Preston did the routine in one take. Two takes might have killed him. That in itself is reason to see this film. Gay or straight, this movie is a laugh riot.

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The most compelling role where Karras' range as an actor was on full display is 1984's Against All Odds--a remake of the 1947 film noir classic Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum. What makes his role of pro-football trainer Hank Sully more compelling is a football gambling syndicate that drives the plot of the film.

In another life, Alex Karras was suspended by the NFL for the 1963 season for gambling on football games which he openly admitted. This film benefits from Karras' real life experiences and problems with the NFL. Karras plays a football trainer in a role fundamental to the storyline.

Character Hank Sully is basically a good guy who compromises his integrity with a gambling syndicate. Though internally conflicted, Sully is hired to cover up a gambling scandal and recover a missing ledger book filled with incriminating information tied to names of important people.

Jeff Bridges and Alex Karras
Against All Odds benefits from solid performances by Jeff Bridges, as a washed up pro-football player declared "damaged goods" and thrown to the curb by his team; Australian Rachel Ward plays the femme fatale Bridges is paid to locate in Cozumel, Mexico; and James Woods is the underworld figure who wants his girlfriend, his ledger book, and his $50,000 back. Sue and I agree that Against All Odds is Alex Karras' best film performance.

2 comments:

  1. Wow! I didn't know Lucile Ball encouraged Alex's acting. He ended up being a natural.

    ReplyDelete