How Alex Karras became 'Webster's' dad

Dave Nemetz
Yahoo! TV

People from all walks of life are mourning the loss of Alex Karras, who died today at age 77. Longtime NFL fans know him as the fearsome defensive lineman who chased down quarterbacks for the Detroit Lions in the 1960s. Movie buffs know him as the horse-punching Mongo in the classic Mel Brooks comedy “Blazing Saddles.” But TV fans like us remember Karras best as Emmanuel Lewis’s big, cuddly dad George on the ‘80s ABC sitcom “Webster.”

Plenty of athletes try to transition into TV and film after their playing days are over, but few did so as successfully as Karras. After his scene-stealing turn in “Saddles,” he spent three seasons in the “Monday Night Football” booth and landed key roles in films like “Porky’s” and “Victor/Victoria.” He also filmed a CBS TV movie called “Babe” in 1975 alongside actress Susan Clark, who would later become his wife… as well as his TV wife on “Webster.”

In 1983, ABC approached Karras and Clark to star together in a new romantic comedy, which got picked up for the fall season. But fate intervened when an ABC executive saw a pint-sized Emmanuel Lewis in a Burger King commercial. Sensing an opportunity to compete with NBC, which had a runaway hit with “Diff’rent Strokes,” ABC quickly signed Lewis and looked for a way to work him into one of their existing sitcom pilots. Karras and Clark liked the idea of their characters adopting an orphaned Lewis, and “Webster” was born.

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“Webster” instantly became a Top 25 hit in the ratings, but behind the scenes, tensions were rising. The network pushed for the show to focus almost exclusively on Webster, which Karras and Clark reportedly fought back against, since they had initially signed on for a show that featured them. And Karras bristled at the producers’ suggestion that he pick up the then-13-year-old Lewis like he was a little boy. “That’s Charlie McCarthy… it’s so sick,” he told People in 1984. “Emmanuel is not handicapped.” (Karras can be seen holding Lewis in some early episodes, but the producers eventually backed down.)

The cast became a tight family unit, though, and the show lasted a total of six seasons (four on ABC and two in first-run syndication). The cutesiness eventually wore off for Lewis and for viewers, and “Webster” aired its final episode in March 1989. But Karras’s portrayal as the gruff but lovable George earned him a permanent spot in the ‘80s Sitcom Dads Hall of Fame. As Webster used to say, “Thanks, George!”

See Alex Karras as George in this trailer for the "Webster" DVD set: