'Webster' star Alex Karras dead at 77, family says

(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 who was thrust into professional football in 1958 with a first-round draft pick by the Detroit Lions, where he played until 1971.

It was in Detroit where he helped the team's defensive line become one of several through the years to bear the nickname "Fearsome Foursome," earning a reputation for his formidable presence on and off the line.

But in 1963, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Karras and Green Bay Packers 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."

But Hollywood was calling. And according to his family, he "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 breakout movie roles, including playing "Mongo" in the Mel Brooks satirical western film "Blazing Saddles," as well as other spots in "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," and sat in the broadcast booth along with Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford during "Monday Night Football" broadcasts.

"While his legacy reached far beyond the gridiron, we always will fondly remember Alex as one of our own and also as one of the best to ever wear the Honolulu Blue and Silver," said Lions President Tom Lewand.

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.

The players, who say they suffer from a variety of debilitating and potentially life-threatening concussion-related injuries, got a high-profile boost when the former Lion joined their ranks.

His family said he also was a strong supporter of the environment.

"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.