“What Alex Karras told me about Norm Cash’s Death.”

If you like this story, you can find more of Karl’s stories at Karl J. Niemiec

Anyone who really knows me thinks of my longtime suffering when they hear the words Detroit Lions. I’m not a paint my face blue and silver and scream my head off in the parking lot type of guy. But I am still the kid at heart that huddled in the back window of his big brother’s 63 Ford Falcon, with the power on and the engine off, freezing his tush off while listening to the only faint signal he could get to hear the Lions play. I was fourteen and had taken off with my bother’s car that summer so he wouldn’t let me start it. Therefore, I froze out there, as Minnesota ruined my childhood game after game. That kid is still me. I still get crawl-in-the-backseat excited every year to listen or watch the Lions play. I do whatever it takes to watch and/or read about the games from wherever I am.

Alex Karras

 

Imagine this same kid, me many years later, in the loft of a North Hollywood apartment writing an outline on my Sanyo computer, when the phone rang. It was Ricardo, a chef friend I had worked with. “Karl, do you have time to write something?” he asked. At that time, I was one of the first people that I knew to have a computer. So I was still skeptical of another free proposal to write someone else’s idea. However, I knew Ricardo knew nothing of showbiz, nor cared about it beyond cooking for it, so I listened.

He said he was cooking for a guy who wanted a script rewritten. I asked for his name and was told, Alex Karras.

“Come on,” I said. “Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions?”

“Yes, I think he played sports, there are photos on the wall of him in a blue costume.”

“Costume?”

“Yeah, football costume.”

“Put him on the phone.”

So, a moment went by and this deep slow voice came on. “This is Alex. Can you come to my office in the morning?”

“Sure.”

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Karl, Karl Niemiec.”

“Great, kid. See you at 10. Georgian Bay Productions, in Burbank.”

That began my odyssey of writing for one of the greatest if not infamous Lions Football Players who ever wore the Honolulu Blue.  I, a kid with his ear still glued to the boot of a frozen car, was about to write for The Alex Karras.

I realize I’m not the only writer to have written for Alex. And I’m sure not the last. But anyone would be hard pressed to be a bigger happy screenwriting fan of the Detroit Lions.

The next morning, I met with Alex in his office. After greeting me, he sat back in his chair. We didn’t use agents, just agreed to a contract man to man. That’s the way Alex did business. He told me what he was willing to pay, and I either agreed to it or not. Of course, I said yes. So he lit a cigar and began to tell me a movie plot that he originally hired Harry Kleiner to write. All I knew about Harry Kleiner was that he and Alan R. Trustman had written Bullitt and that it was based on the 1963 novel Mute Witness by Robert L. Fish.

The story Alex told me was about a hard luck family from the Gulf of Mexico who was having one of its sons, a doctor, sent back home from Vietnam in a coffin. Only the good-for-nothing brother of the dead doctor arranged for something added to the coffin. When a mixed bag-of-trash showed up to claim what that was, a Hurricane strikes the coast and traps them all together for the night.

Yes, kind of like Key Largo. Alex even said it was based on that concept. Only Alex didn’t want any of Harry’s script and wanted me to start fresh with a new plot, new characters, and new title but wanted me to save the basic premise. Basically, it was a page-one rewrite contract. Alex gave me 30 days to finish it. After that, we’d do a read through, and then a polish. He promised not to show the first draft to anyone outside his office until we did another draft. He kept that promise.

What popped into my head was that Corpus Christi is Latin for The Body of Christ, and there was a body involved, so I placed the story in Corpus Christi and used that as the title of my draft. Alex really liked that. Based on that concept, he gave me the go.

Only, many things happen when entering and leaving a project, some good some bad. As a paid screenwriter, most of what happens next you have no control over. Such as me rewriting Harry’s script. Anyway, Alex’s partner at the time showed the first draft to money people and they said no again to the project as a vehicle for his wife Susan Clark. Apparently, they had said no to Harry Klinner’s script, too, so I didn’t feel as bad as I was disappointed in not getting the rest of my writing money, which would’ve been another $20 grand. I’m sure Harry was asking a whole lot more for another draft which was probably why I got a shot. The project got shelved, and as the hired writer, there was nothing I could do about it.

Regardless, memories of working on the script with Alex where still all good. Alex was easy going; respectful of my time and receptive to my input. Like many producers, he just wanted someone willing to write his ideas down for him. He was passed his days on TV’s Webster and Monday Night Football. Most people remember Alex in Blazing Saddles as Mongo, but I remembered him most for a much darker role as Hank Sully, the right-hand-man of villain Jake Wise (played by James Woods) in the 1984 movie Against All Odds starring Jeff Bridges. Alex hadn’t done a movie for awhile that I knew of, and was at that time just a laid-back producer who wanted to talk story projects for his wife Susan Clark.

Norm Cash

So we moved on from Corpus Christi looking for something else to write. Sitting at his house one day, talking about writing a second script, I told him how my mom was friends with Norm Cash. That he used to give my mother tickets so that my older brother and I could watch the games when we were kids. Norm had even taken us down into the Tiger locker room once to have two balls signed, one for each of us. We suspected that Norm gave us tickets so that Mom would have to come with us, and we were probably as right as much as we didn’t care. It was free great Tiger tickets!

Alex, just looked at me, his eyes saddening. I could tell he knew Norm Cash well. Maybe knew more than he wanted to know about him. After a moment of silence, he said, “They killed him, you know. They hung him over the boat, filled his cowboy boots with water, and let him sink. Gambling debt. He owed the wrong kind of people more than he could pay back. So they killed him.”

I knew Alex was telling me the truth as he saw it, just by the way he told me. Something maybe others knew about, maybe not. I did know Alex was a part-owner of the renowned Lindell AC Bar in downtown Detroit with brothers Jimmy and Johnny Butsicaris. My father’s family owned a bar in Detroit too at that time, (See the novel: The Polish Gang about them, at http://amzn.to/karlniemiec ). I knew that one of my Uncles ran book around that same time. In 1963, Alex got involved in a gambling scheme, betting on NFL games. There were others involved, most prominently the Packers’ Hornung. Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner at the time, suspended both Karras and Hornung for a season. Alex ended up having to sell his portion of the Lindell. If anyone knew the truth about Cash’s gambling and drowning, my guess maybe Alex did.

Friends, eyewitnesses who found him and official reports said Norm had a bruise on his head that stormy night consistent from falling. They said that Norm had slipped and fallen on the wet dock, hit his head, fell into the water and drowned. There was no mention of foul play.  No real mystery was unsolved that night. As far as anyone knew. But there sat Alex claiming he was murdered. What was I to think?

Alex didn’t say anything more about Norm for a few minutes. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to tell me about Norm. But he had, and so now maybe I knew what really happened to Stormin’ Norman. Somehow, both of us knowing brought us closer together.  I already knew that Cash was a favorite with his teammates, the media, and Tiger fans. He was also known for his hard-living and his sense of humor.

My mom was a bartender in Farmington, Mi, and that’s how they knew each other. Some of the Tigers and Lions hung out there. Cash was born in Justiceburg, Garza County, Texas; and did wear cowboy boots. The official reports had said that on October 11th, 1986, Cash drowned in an accident off Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan when he slipped while aboard a boat, fell, and struck his head. His body was discovered about 11 a.m. in 15 feet of water off the shore of Beaver Island. He is buried in Pine Lake Cemetery, West Bloomfield, Michigan.

We sat there for a while longer, listening to the wildlife sounds around Alex’s home. He had a nice single story place in the hills. He was smoking a cigar. We had beers. He smiled finally coming out of thought, “Norm was a good guy, a good ball player. Good friend. I miss him. Not such a good swimmer.”

Denny Mclain

“He was good to us,” I said. “My mother liked him. He gave us kids special memories. He even came to our house one night with Denny McLain to pick Mom up. “ I started thinking about Denny. He was a great pitcher at the time. He played for ten seasons, mostly for the Detroit Tigers. In 1968, McLain became the last pitcher in Major League Baseball to win 30 or more games during a season (31–6). Something accomplished by only thirteen players in the 20th century. Having him in our home was an honor.

But he was a stark contrast to Norm Cash, they made kind of an odd couple, with McLain being so brash and outspoken. He sometimes created controversy by criticizing teammates and fans with little provocation so he wasn’t the darling of the media and fans like Norm was. In fact, his stellar pitching at the beginning of his career was a marked contrast to his personal life, where he became associated with organized crime and was eventually convicted on charges of embezzlement and served time in prison. Alex, Norm and Denny, I was starting to see a trend there, all three possibly touched by illegal hands that held Detroit at bay at that time.  Only Norm didn’t get caught. Or did he, by someone other than the law? Did Denny and Alex get him involved in organized crime? Into gambling? We know that Alex and Denny got out alive. According to Alex, Norm did not. Did Alex and Denny both really know the score?

Maybe Alex smiled when I mentioned my mother because he knew my mother from those days. I didn’t ask. I didn’t have to. For some reason, I got the feeling he did. My mother was a beautiful woman, and the sports guys hung out where she worked. Maybe he had seen them together. As far as I know, Cash, Denny my mom and the others they ran with were just friends and hung out in groups. Beyond going to the games and getting tickets, Mom never talked about any of them. I do know Cash was married at the time to a woman named Dottie, and my mom was single with five kids. Therefore, my thinking was Norm was just being a good guy giving a couple of real Tiger fans the thrill of their young lives. I also remember my mother sitting with the wives of other players behind the dugout while my brother and I sat down along the 3rd baseline with our gloves hoping for a foul ball. If Dottie was there or not, I don’t know.  One game a line drive knocked a woman out. She was chatting away, not far from us, and not paying attention and a line drive just shut her up. That was the same game we went down to the locker room to have balls signed, given to us by Norm.

We sat there for a while longer, Alex and I. Eventually, Alex went on to describe a second idea he had for a script. Something fragmented to do with a nephew coming to see his artist uncle and a statue of a naked man. Not something I looked forward to doing. He said he’d get back to me on it once he thought it out more. I’m not sure if he planned on playing the artist or not.

I wanted to write something about those days, maybe find out the truth, at least, put some positive light on Norm so kids today would know who he was and what he had done as a ballplayer for the Tigers. What he had done for a single mom and two kids like my brother and I. It’s hard to think he’s not in the Hall of Fame. I know he’s a hero to us. But I couldn’t get myself to say it. I knew Alex would’ve said no. And I knew why. If he believed what he told me about Norm to be true, he knew not to mention names, not the names that Alex, Denny and maybe Norm knew unless he wanted to end up feeding the fish.  And if he was making it up, he wouldn’t want to get caught telling me a whopper.  Therefore, I let it go and didn’t pitch writing about Alex, Denny, Norm and the Detroit’s organized crime back in those days. Denny’s the only one left now. The one who did real time.

I never heard from Alex Karras again about writing anything new. Maybe he was concerned about telling me about Norm, maybe not. I don’t know. The script, Corpus Christi, as far as I know sits in his office or somewhere in a box or on a dusty shelf. I know I still have my copy and the Writers Guild Contract. Maybe the only copy. Who knows?

All I could really tell about Alex Karras at that time of his life was that Alex really loved his wife, Susan Clark, and would’ve done anything for her. That’s why he looked for young writers like me, someone hungry who would work hard to develop scripts, for her, and not cost too much while he pitched them to the money guys. Not for himself. For Susan.

That was many years ago. However, a moment in time that I’ll never forget.

I ran across Alex just once after that, at Trader Joe’s in Valley Village on Riverside, and had a chance to thank him for the job. He looked at me blankly, not sure at first, if he remembered me or not. He seemed a little out of it at the time. Or maybe he was just startled that a strange guy approached him out of the blue like I had.  He looked me over for a moment, then smiled and patted me on the shoulder and said, “Sure kid, sure. You’re welcome.” And moved up in the line to pay his bill.

Alex Karras,  nicknamed “The Mad Duck”, who after the NFL went on to star in television and movies, died Wednesday, October 17th in Los Angeles after a long battle with cancer. He was 77. He was a good football player, a successful actor and TV producer. He was loved and trusted by many, including me.

A lot of Lions football has played out since we last talked. Yet, funny things happen; Alex Karras was one of the greatest players to come out of Indiana high school football though I met him while we both lived in LA. Now, I live with my wife and four kids here in Indiana where I write and teach among other things, football. Three Position Football, (see: http://www.laptoppublishing.com/tpf/) invented back in those same days on the farm of listening to the Lions play from the back of my brother’s 63 Falcon.

Thank you, Alex. It was a thrill to have worked and hung out with you. Even for that short while. And even though the script was never produced. It’s okay. I’ll always be able to say “I wrote for Alex Karras, the great Detroit Lions defensive tackle, and he gave me my first Hollywood writing break.  Even told me what might have really happened to Norm Cash.”

For all we know, Norm Cash’s death was an accident, as reported in the papers and believed by longtime friends like Richard Gillespie from beaverislandrealty.com who helped pull Norm’s body from the water and put it in an ambulance that night.  I hope Richard is right.  I wish even more that none of it had happened regardless of how.  All I know, not enough light was put on the life of a great Tiger ball player.  Norm died way too early and it would be great to see him around the stadium like we see Al Kaline and Willie Horton now.  Stormin’ Norman hit .361 and hit 41 home runs without anyone really noticing.

Now Alex is gone, too.  I wrote a screenplay for Alex Karras, not many Lions fans can say that. Maybe one, maybe just me.

Rest in peace, Alex.  Thank you.

Karl J. Niemiec – Lions Fan always.