Dick Butkus, the ferocious Chicago Bears middle linebacker who brought his reputation as an NFL barbarian to Hollywood for Miller Lite commercials, sitcoms and films, has died. He was 80.
A member of the Screen Actors Guild for more than four decades, Butkus died peacefully in his sleep overnight at his home in Malibu, his family announced Thursday.
From 1987-89, Butkus had a recurring role as cafe owner Ed Klawicki on My Two Dads, an NBC sitcom about two single men (Paul Reiser, Greg Evigan) raising a teenage daughter (Staci Keanan).
Butkus joined the NBC Saturday morning series Hang Time in 1998 as old-school Deering High Tornados basketball coach Mike Katowinski, taking over for former NBA star Reggie Theus, and he worked on that show for its final three seasons.
Earlier, Butkus was a regular on two short-lived, light-hearted network dramas: ABC’s series Blue Thunder, which featured Dana Carvey and a gadget-filled helicopter, and NBC’s Half Nelson, a Joe Pesci starrer created by Glen A. Larson about a Beverly Hills security outfit.
And in the teen sex comedy Hamburger: The Motion Picture (1986), Butkus starred as Drootin, a drill sergeant-like teacher at Buster Burger University, a school for prospective fast-food franchise owners.
Butkus played nine NFL seasons, from 1965-73, all with the Bears, and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility. At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, he was known for his incredible drive, strength, leadership, speed, agility and ability to demoralize opponents.
“He’s the meanest, angriest, toughest, dirtiest son of a bitch in football. An animal, a savage, subhuman,” is what Playboy magazine made of him in an October 1971 profile.
Late NFL Films co-founder Steve Sabol once called Butkus his favorite NFL player, saying, “To me, his career was the most sustained work of devastation ever committed, anywhere, anytime. … Remember how he used to tackle? If anything were hanging out — whether it was your chinstrap, elbow pad, shoulder pad, shoe — it would be ripped off. He mauled and tore ball carriers apart.”
Chicago through and through, Butkus was born in the city and went to Chicago Vocational High School before starring at the University of Illinois. The Bears retired his No. 51 in 1994.
After hanging up his helmet, Butkus displayed a flair for comedy in his Miller Lite commercials, often appearing along another former NFL scruncher, Bubba Smith, where they tried to pass themselves off as refined gentlemen who play polo and tennis and attend the opera.
When it came to acting, “I was worried about making a mistake, because people would say, ‘He’s just a football player,’ so I was harder on myself to do it right,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1998. “Then I learned from the Miller Lite commercials. ‘Who cares if you blow a line?’ It doesn’t matter if you do it in one take or 100 takes, if I can do it better each time.
“The end result is what people see. Working with Bubba, I was able to add things with facial gestures and stuff. … I could play off him and add something. It didn’t matter if I got the laugh.”
The youngest of nine children in a Lithuanian-American family, Richard Marvin Butkus was born on Dec. 9, 1942. His father was an electrician, and his mother worked in a laundry. Raised on the South Side of town, he rooted for the old Chicago Cardinals and added muscle by moving furniture with his four older brothers.
Butkus played fullback and linebacker in high school, making 70 percent of his team’s tackles, then led the Fighting Illini to a Rose Bowl victory over Washington in 1964 as a junior.
In an Oct. 12, 1964, cover story for Sports Illustrated, Dan Jenkins kicked off his piece about him: “If every college football team had a linebacker like Dick Butkus of Illinois, all fullbacks soon would be three feet tall and sing soprano. Dick Butkus is a special kind of brute whose particular talent is mashing runners into curious shapes.”
The Bears selected him with the No. 3 pick in the 1965 NFL Draft, then signed him for less money than the Denver Broncos of the rival American Football League were offering — Butkus wanted to play in Chicago.
As a rookie, he was named to the All-NFL first team (the first of six times) and made the Pro Bowl for the first of eight straight seasons. He finished his career with an NFL record 27 opponents’ fumble recoveries, many coming as the result of his jarring hits, and ESPN named him the 70th greatest athlete of the 20th century.
“When I went out on the field to warm up, I would manufacture things to make me mad,” he once said. “If someone on the other team was laughing, I’d pretend he was laughing at me or the Bears. It always worked for me.”
While he was still playing, Butkus appeared in a commercial for Prestone antifreeze on the first-ever Monday Night Football telecast in 1970 and showed up in Brian’s Song, the acclaimed 1971 ABC telefilm about his doomed teammate, running back Brian Piccolo.
Butkus said he fought the “dumb jock” stereotype in Hollywood with the help of actor friends like Larry Hagman and Tom Poston.
In addition to the Miller Lite spots, Blue Thunder and Half Nelson, he and Smith also were paired on episodes of Coach and MacGyver; in a 1978 TV movie, Superdome; and in the 1990 sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
Befitting a real actor, Butkus did a spaghetti Western, Cipolla Colt (1975), and his home in Malibu is on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
He also received high marks for playing Brom Bones in a 1980 telefilm adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and appeared in other movies like Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976), Gus (1976), Johnny Dangerously (1984), Necessary Roughness (1991) and Any Given Sunday (1999).
His TV résumé also included episodes of Emergency!, Police Story, The Rockford Files, Growing Pains, Wonder Woman, Magnum, P.I. and Night Court.
Butkus replaced the fired Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder as a studio analyst for CBS’ The NFL Today in 1988 (he worked two seasons at that), was a WrestleMania referee called Bears games on the radio.
He married his high school sweetheart, Helen Essenberg, in 1963, and they had three children, Ricky, Matt and Nikki.
In another Sports Illustrated story, this one by Rick Telander in 2004, Butkus spelled out the difference between football and acting for him.
“Football for me was never work,” he said. “If you love something, it’s not work. … But if acting were my real true love, I’d be honing my craft, wouldn’t I, over at some shitty theater?”