A strapping and celebrated defensive lineman in college and professional football, Merlin Olsen spun his success on the gridiron into an acting career on television series like "Little House on the Prairie" (NBC, 1974-1983) and "Father Murphy" (NBC, 1981-83). Olsen established his talent for defense while at Utah State University, and further proved it as one of the infamous "Fearsome Foursome" of defensemen for the Los Angeles Rams from 1962 to 1976. Olsen dabbled in acting while still a pro, but did not achieve real stardom until he joined the cast of "Prairie," which transformed his image from football powerhouse to kindly, wise soul. He continued to try his hand at series until the late 1980s, before simply enjoying the fruits of his sports career until his death in 2010. A workhorse on the field and a gentleman on screen and off, Olsen's spectacular sports accomplishments and good-natured screen persona made him a favorite of TV viewers for nearly three decades.
Born in Logan, UT on Sept. 15, 1940, Merlin Jay Olsen was the second of nine children born to Lynn and Merle Barrus Olsen. From the start, Olsen excelled at football; a three-year letterman as defensive tackle for the Utah State University Aggies, he quickly amassed some of the highest honors given to college-level athletes, including being twice named All-American (in 1960 and 1961) and All-Conference, as well as the Outland Trophy, which was given to the best U.S. college football interior lineman. After graduating summa cum laude and Phi Kappa Phi in 1962, he was actively courted by the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League and the American Football League's Denver Broncos. The first Aggie to be chosen in the first round of the NFL draft, he signed a two-year contract with the Rams that earned him $50,000 - an unheard-of amount at the time - as well as a signing bonus.
His tenure with the Rams, which lasted from 1962 to 1976, was even more stellar than his college experience. Named Rookie of the Year in his first year with the team, he began building a nest of laurels that counted First Team All-Pro in 1964 and 1966 to 1970, Second Team All-Pro in 1965, 1973 and 1974, and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Week in 1965, 1967 and 1972. Olsen was also one-fourth of the most intimidating defensive lineups of its day - the Rams' "Fearsome Foursome," which consisted of Olsen, Rosey Grier, Lamar Lundy and Deacon Jones. This unstoppable lineup was the terror of the NFL from 1963-68, and helped to elevate the Rams from perennial runners-up to a dominant force in the game throughout the late '60s and early '70s, clinching the NFC West title from 1973 to 1976 and first in the league for run defense in 1973 and 1974. Olsen himself earned the title of Outstanding Defensive Lineman from the Rams' alumni association from 1967 to 1970, the NFPLA NFC Defensive Lineman of the Year in 1973, and the Bart Bell Award, which went to the best professional American football player of the year.
Olsen continued to devastate opposing teams with a rotating variety of new Fearsome Foursome members, including Roger Brown, Jack Youngblood and Fred Dryer - like Olsen and Grier, a future gridiron great-turned actor with his own TV show, "Hunter" (NBC, 1984-1991) - and led the Rams through seven straight division titles from 1973 until Olsen's retirement in 1976. When he closed the chapter on his professional football career, Olsen had set the record for Pro Bowl attendance - 14 consecutive since his rookie year. For his efforts, Olsen was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.
Following his retirement, Olsen transitioned into color commentary for NBC's coverage of the American Football League, as well as multiple Super Bowls and Rose Bowl games throughout the 1980s. A natural in front of the camera, he had been experimenting with acting for several years before his retirement. He had made his film debut in 1969 with a supporting role in the John Wayne Western "The Undefeated," and for the next few years, logged turns in features and television series like "Something Big" (1971), which frequently cast him as oversized tough guys and soldiers. The shift from force of nature to gentle giant, which would be his screen persona until the end of his life, came with a recurring role on "Little House on the Prairie." Olsen was recruited to play Michael Landon's friend Jonathan Garvey after actor Victor French, who played Isaiah Edwards, left the series. While never a particularly versatile actor, Olsen was surprisingly convincing as the gentle Mr. Garvey, and on occasion, could be called upon to deliver some genuine emotion, such as in the episode where his wife was killed in a flash fire in the town's schoolhouse. His success in the role was wisely exploited by the FTD floral chain, which cast him as their unlikely spokesman in many television spots.
Olsen got a shot at a leading role via "Father Murphy," a Michael Landon-produced Western drama about a drifter (Olsen) who assumes the role of a priest in order to take care of a gaggle of children orphaned by a villainous town boss. The show attempted to follow in the tradition of "Prairie" as wholesome family entertainment, but limped along until its cancellation in 1983. There was a third attempt at piloting his own series with the short-lived sitcom "Fathers and Sons" (NBC, 1986), which eked out just four episodes before its demise. Between series, Olsen logged time in a handful of TV movies and as the host of numerous telethons from the Children's Miracle Network, a non-profit organization founded by the Osmonds and actor John Schneider that raised funds for hospitals and medical research.
Olsen's last acting role came in "Aaron's Way" (NBC, 1988), a drama about an Amish family, led by Olsen's stern patriarch, who travel to California to take care of a young woman who bore the child of his recently deceased son. The culture clash between Amish and modern California did not strike audiences' fancy, and it disappeared after less than a full season. If the show's demise bothered Olsen, he had the laurels of a storied career in football to fall back upon. The late 1990s and new millennium saw him receive a staggering amount of lifetime achievement awards from the Utah Sports Hall of Fame, USU's Hall of Fame and All-Century Team, and one of the state's 50 Athletes of the Century. In 2009, Utah State announced that it would name its football field after Olsen, with a bronze statue of its favorite son standing at the entrance to the field.
Olsen himself was at the game where the commemoration was announced. Sadly, those in attendance noted that the man, once the picture of health, was too weak to speak to the throng that came to praise him. Olsen had been diagnosed with mesothelioma that year, and was undergoing chemotherapy to combat the disease. On March 11, 2010, the 69-year-old Olsen succumbed to cancer, leaving behind a legendary gridiron career and a much-loved body of screen work.
Cast (Feature Film)
After graduating from Utah State he signed with the Los Angeles Rams for a record amount of $50,000 for two years, plus a signing bonus
Played defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League
Made acting debut in the movie, "The Undefeated," opposite John Wayne and Rock Hudson
Played Jonathan Garvey on NBC's long-running series, "Little House on the Prairie"
Teamed with Enberg for the Rose Bowl Game broadcasts
Cast as the masquerading priest in "Father Murphy" (NBC), created by Michael Landon
Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Played the lead role in the short-lived NBC series, "Aaron's Way"