Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why Mongo Mattered: Alex Karras

I think I fell in love with him the moment he punched out a horse.

The news came yesterday that NFL player-turned-actor Alex Karras died at age 77.  I cannot count the number of times he made me laugh as Mongo in the wonderfully irreverent Mel Brooks western, Blazing Saddles.  "Mongo only pawn in game of life."
It's not unusual for professional athletes to leave the playing field or the court and exercise some acting skills.  It was unusual to see a pro athlete become such a versatile, natural and brave actor.  He was the perfect Mongo -- a musclebound numbskull.
He was straight as Mongo in Blazing as the burly bodyguard in Victor/Victoria...he embraced racial diversity on TV's, Webster...and he was great on the gridiron for the Detroit Lions.  His big bear of a bodyguard to the James Garner tough guy in Victor/Victoria was a breakthrough and a role that is still relevant and refreshing today.  First of all, that Blake Edwards film is one of the last truly terrific screwball comedies.  I feel it ranks right up there with the best of Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch from Hollywood's golden era of the 1930s and early '40s.  That gender bender story is my favorite Julie Andrews film.  Victor/Victoria came out when gay images were evolving in America and in American entertainment.  Those new images were kicking aside shame and moving up from the "sissy" victim, substitute gal pal and social deviant characters that were constantly seen.  (Remember when singer John Davidson played a psychotic drag queen killer on ABC's The Streets of San Francisco?  He killed and dressed as Carol Channing.)  America had to realize that masculinity wasn't the sole turf of heterosexual males.  Enter Alex Karras as "Squash" Bernstein in Victor/Victoria.  What a totally cool character!  He was to James Garner what William Demarest was to Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve.  The protector, the sidekick, the regular guy.  But with a twist.
At the gym, "Squash" knows boxers who are gay.  This was a 1982 movie.  Last week, Puerto Rico's Orlando Cruz -- who represented Puerto Rico in the 2000 Olympics -- became the first openly gay boxer in professional sports.  I tried to sit through another episode of NBC's freshman sitcom, The New Normal.  I couldn't make it. It's too shrill.  I can't connect to those gay men -- and I'm in the union.  I'm heterosexually-challenged.  The characters are busy being so hyper-trendy, hip, snarky, cute, upscale and fabulous-fabulous-fabulous that it's draining.  I felt like saying to the TV screen, "OK, I get it.  You're gay.  There should be marriage equality.  Let's move on.  Stop beating it into us with a velvet hammer."  I grew up in South L.A.  I worked and lived for ten years in Milwaukee.  Midwest gay men I knew were carpenters, landscapers, supermarket managers, factory workers, sons of farmers, nightclub bouncers and Coast Guards.  Like Karras' character, they were just regular working class guys who happened to be gay.  They were guys you could count on.  Guys who pitched in to help someone in need regardless of your age, looks, body type, income, clothing and neighborhood.  "Squash" Bernstein, bodyguard to his straight buddy, is still refreshing now compared to the gay male characters introduced to us this TV season on The New Normal and Partners.  He's my kind o' guy.
And how many former NFL stars would've been brave enough to get in bed with another man and have a cocktail?  Karras did that with Robert Preston in Victor/Victoria.
The sitcom, Webster, gave Karras the opportunity to act with Susan Clark, his real-life wife.  Emmanuel Lewis was Webster, the child adopted by a former football star.  This show was a great big bear hug of racial diversity and golden family values.
Webster was a hit sitcom.  Blazing Saddles, Victor/Victoria and Porky's were box office hits the actor could include on his resum√©.  Alex Karras leaves behind some very entertaining work.  Entertaining -- and still significant.  Thank you, Mr. Karras.

This coming weekend, I'll be away to shoot the main part and final portion of a TV pilot.  This project has been in the works for months.  As some of you know, my life -- like the lives of too many other Americans -- was drastically and severely changed by the Recession when I got laid off from work.  Let's just say that I've been out of a job for so long that steady employment is now on my Bucket List.  Seriously, it's been a rocky couple of years --- humiliating and humbling yet also enlightening.  I've been blessed with great help from family and friends.  I've received constant motivation to "keep the faith."  I pray this TV project gets picked up so I can return to the work force and kick unemployment to the curb.  But I also pray it gets picked up because I believe in this arts-related project I'm co-hosting.  I'm blessed with a great production crew.  This was an unexpected opportunity that came my way.  It's a great ray of hope.  Say one for me.  I'll blog at you again in about a week or so.  Thanks so much for your time and attention.


  1. Great article, Bobby. Break a centipede's worth of gams on that pilot and get to writing your book. The world wants to read it.

  2. What a great piece putting into words what I was thinking/feeling about Alex Karras' career and the depiction of gay men in movies and on TV. As a lifelong Chicagoan, your comments about midwestern gay men resonates. Thanks and all the best with the pilot!

  3. Nice post! Can’t wait for the next one. Keep stuff like this coming.
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