By David Ariosto, CNN
(CNN) — Alex Karras, the burly defensive lineman turned actor in the ABC sitcom “Webster,” died Wednesday surrounded by his family in their Los Angeles home following a hard-fought battle with kidney disease, heart disease, dementia and stomach cancer, according to a family spokesman.
He was 77.
“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 written statement.
The Gary, Indiana, native was an All-American at the University of Iowa and was catapulted into professional football in 1958 with a first-round draft pick by the Detroit Lions.
It was in Detroit where he helped the team’s defensive line become one of several through the years bear the nickname “Fearsome Foursome.”
In 1963, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Karras and Green Bay Packer running back Paul Hornung for gambling on league games, prompting the All-Pro tackle to try his hand at professional wrestling.
The following year, after he returned to the gridiron, Karras reportedly refused to take part in a pregame coin toss.
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said to the official. “I’m not permitted to gamble.”
According to his family, “Karras had always dreamed of being an actor,” and got a boost when Lucille Ball “took him under her wing and allowed him to train in small parts.”
After various appearances on television shows, Karras landed roles in movies, including “Blazing Saddles,” “Porky’s” and “Victor Victoria.”
He later joined the long-running television show “Webster,” where he played George Papadapolis, the guardian of the newly orphaned Webster, played by actor Emmanuel Lewis.
Karras also co-wrote autobiographies called “Even Big Guys Cry” and “Alex Karras by Alex Karras.”
In April, Karras — who had been battling dementia — joined more than 3,000 other former NFL players who are suing the league for not better protecting them from head injuries.
“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,” his family said. “In lieu of flowers, please make a donation to one of the organizations Alex Karras ardently supported: Natural Resources Defense Council, Bioneers, Greenpeace Foundation or the Pesticide Action Network.”
Memorial services are being planned and will be announced soon, his family said.
— CNN’s Sarah Hoye contributed to this report