Legendary Chicago Bears linebacker and NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus has died at his home in Malibu. He was 80.
Described as “Chicago through and through,” Dick Butkus was born Richard Marvin Butkus in the city on December 9, 1942, the youngest of nine children in a Lithuanian-American home. He attended Chicago Vocational High School, where he played fullback and linebacker and earned more than 70% of his team’s tackles. He then attended the University of Illinois, leading them to a Rose Bowl victory over Washington when he was a junior in 1964. He was tough.
Following that victory, journalist Dan Jenkins’s cover story about Butkus for Sports Illustrated on October 12 began with, “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.”
Another publication in October 1971 described Butkus as “the meanest, angriest, toughest, dirtiest in football,” adding that he was “an animal, a savage, and subhuman.”
A knee injury forced the brute Butkus to retire at the end of the NFL’s 1973 season when he was just 31 years old. The Chicago Bears retired his jersey in 1994. But he never retired from the spotlight. After leaving the NFL, Butkus made a name for himself as an actor.
Butkus was a member of the Screen Actors Guild for more than forty years and had roles on television series across multiple networks, roles in several films, and even became the face of Miller Lite beer in televised commercials. Per The Hollywood Reporter:
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,” Butkus also appeared on episodes of “Coach” and “MacGyver,” in a 1978 TV movie, “Superdome,” and in the 1990 sequel “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” by Amblin Entertainment.
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.
Butkus made guest appearances in some of television’s most iconic sitcom series of the 1970s and 1980s, including The Rockford Files, Wonder Woman, Taxi, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Matlock, and MacGyver.
His final guest appearance in a television series was in 2014 when he played the role of himself in an episode of Disney Channel‘s I Didn’t Do It, titled “Ball or Nothing.”
Dick Butkus married his high school sweetheart, Helen Essenberg, in 1963. The couple had three children: Ricky, Matt, and Nikki.
Butkus reportedly died peacefully in his sleep overnight at his blufftop Malibu, California, home. The Chicago Bears quickly shared the news via social media.
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) October 5, 2023
In a story for Sports Illustrated in 2004, Butkus described the difference he felt between playing for the NFL with the Bears and being an actor, saying “Football for me was never work; 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?”