Tackling a new career

After 15 seasons of knocking 'em dead for the Rams, Merlin Olsen is off to a socko start in show biz, where unlike some erstwhile colleagues he's no drag
January 19, 1981

It's 9:10 a.m. and he's clomping along at a modest 10-minute-per-mile pace, hating every minute of it. "Jogging," he says, "is my idea of nothing to do." The trail winds through the leafy glades and meadows of Lacy Park in San Marino, Calif. Pasadena is off to one side nearby and Los Angeles is out there somewhere. Jogging housewives, when they see him coming, suddenly run a bit straighten, shoulders up, tummies pulled in and chests thrust out. "Oh, hell-o there," they say musically. It's celebrity-identification time. He nods back at them and grunts morosely, perspiration glistening in his beard.

This is Merlin Jay Olsen, tending to his body at age 40. He's 6'5" and 240 pounds, with a massive chest easing down to a 36-inch waist. His weight is 25 pounds less than his last, and lightest, playing weight as a Los Angeles Ram—and considerably less than he weighed when he joined the Rams in 1962. He was 294 then, and it took two days to walk around him. But now he thinks a lot about metabolic balances and carries just what it takes to push all his bulk around.

"I don't know where I got this size," Olsen says. He speaks in tired bursts, in time with his footfalls. "Good nutrition, I guess. I mean, I spring from perfectly average, if sound, pioneer American stock. My two grandfathers were both about 5'7". One grandmother was just 5'1", and the other was even smaller, maybe 4'11". My dad is an average 5'10½"."

A pause follows while Olsen glances around, hating the jogging, hating the morning.

Everything seems to check out. The two not-so-big grandfathers, the little grandmothers and his dad. Wait a minute. How big is your mother, Merlin?

"Seven feet tall." he says.

It has been four years since Olsen stopped playing defensive tackle after 15 seasons of hammering and slamming people about for the Rams. The time has been spent in coming off his bigness, in one sense, while establishing a highly visible presence in another. Olsen is now TV's best football color man and an emerging character actor as well, performing both roles with a distinctive voice that is almost a growl, as if he keeps it tied up outside at night. He is the gentle giant, Jonathan Garvey, of Little House on the Prairie, and he will deliver the analysis during NBC's Super Bowl XV telecast on Sunday, Jan. 25. Olsen's analyses are a monument to homework. He watches game films, taking detailed notes: he talks to players; he visits locker rooms, making the rounds slowly, cubicle by cubicle; he visits training rooms, sitting on the bare tables and watching routine taping as if it were major surgery or peering into Jacuzzis as if some special knowledge will swirl up from their roiling depths.

Super Bowl XV may well be Olsen's last major football telecast, but more about this in a bit. First one must understand what's happening to Olsen now, and why.

He's attempting to pull off a rare feat, a daring double transition in careers, and at the moment he's in delicate midstride. Olsen's step, step, sliiiide from football into sports commentary was relatively easy. Now he's doing a more difficult step, step, sliiide into dramatic acting, starting with television staples like Little House. His own TV series is set. After that comes big-screen movies. And the next thing you know, Olsen is going to be America's new John Wayne.

This is assuredly not an idle prediction. A number of key people in the entertainment industry have divined this already and are shaping their plans to take advantage of it. If you are suddenly smitten with a need to ask who in God's name needs another John Wayne, that's certainly a fair question. But it's also beside the point, because that's what you're going to get.

The elements are in place, starting with a commanding size that carries with it a certain cast to the head. Little people don't have it. Olsen also has a fine squint that makes him appear to have a relaxed attitude. Actually, the squint masks intense alertness, as anyone who has ever seen a John Ford Western knows. All this is strictly oldtime gun-fighter stuff, but if one doubts the importance of it, he has only to look at the next closest man in the John Wayne mold to see that it's no contest. Clint Eastwood, who has the height and the characteristic hip-forward slouch, just flat cannot squint properly. Oh, he narrows his eyes, all right; to a fault, in fact. But get Eastwood out in the bright sunshine in front of the saloon, and he looks like he's suffering from progressive myopia. And the last important point: inside Olsen's persona, serving as a backdrop, is a comforting sense of solid niceness, which fans recognize at a glance. They feel it viscerally. And while there may be villainous roles—Olsen has just finished one as a hired killer in an episode of Walking Tall—the audience will be indulgent, loyal, not believing any of it for a moment, waiting for their man to come back.

For the record, one should note here that Wayne was 6'4" and 244 pounds in full maturity, within one inch and four pounds of where Olsen is now. And Wayne was also a football player, in his case at USC. In 1969, back when it was thought cute to sign sports figures to cameo roles, Olsen even appeared in a movie with Wayne, The Undefeated, but that non-epic is best forgotten.

In many ways, all of this offers a dismal prospect for Olsen. Folks will take to calling him Big Merlin, and his career could fall into a predictable mold, with Olsen forever clomping around in out-sized cowboy boots. Still, it's difficult to manufacture what isn't there, and the young Wayne is the way much of Hollywood sees Olsen right now. Listen to Michael Landon, himself a victim of typecasting, who grew up as the kid brother on Bonanza and then sidestepped to Little House. Landon sees in Olsen the same ability to project a sort of monster sincerity that the late Dan Blocker had. "Merlin gives off quiet strength," says Landon. "You might be able to fool them in the movies, but never on television—the truth of what you really are always shines through. Look, I know that Merlin would like to play villains now and then, to bring some variety into his career. But I would personally prefer that he didn't do it. Snarling is the easy way; acting the way he does it now is much tougher."

It's passing strange that seemingly nobody in Hollywood can see the irony in all this; perhaps they've forgotten or, more likely, never known that Olsen is capable of enormous and frightening violence. He banged away on football fields for more than two decades, missing only two games in 22 years of high school, college and pro action. After joining the Rams in 1962 he was named to the Pro Bowl every year for the next 14, an NFL record. Olsen was the Rams' MVP in 1970 and 1972, Southern California Athlete of the Year in '72, the NFC's most valuable lineman in 1973, the NFL's MVP in '74. One doesn't earn such recognition by doing dainty entrechats in the direction of the offensive backfield. "At 285 pounds I was extremely strong," Olsen says, "and it was all usable strength that I could direct against opponents, not like that of a weightlifter, whose feats of power are all restricted."

Olsen bowled over entire teams. He stamped, he spat, he growled. When he cleared his throat, it sounded like a snow-plow blade being pushed along a dry street. "I was as ugly as a torn pocket," he says. "And what folks tend to forget in a long career like mine is that going to the Pro Bowl 14 times adds up to an entire extra season of play."

Still—and this is important—Olsen committed all his mayhem with a serenely thoughtful look on his face. One of NBC's publicity pictures is an 8x10 black-and-white glossy showing Olsen closing in on San Francisco's John Brodie. And in spite of the incipient murder, Olsen looks bemused, like a man thumbing through National Geographic. He didn't look any meaner then than he does now.

Maybe Olsen's look of inner peace comes from his pastoral childhood. He was the second child and first son among the nine kids born to Merle and Lynn Olsen. His youth was spent in a small town called Logan, the jewel of Cache Valley, a high, lush meadowland some 85 miles north of Salt Lake City where, because of some climatological quirk, bountiful crops and peaches the size of softballs grow. The Olsens—and most everybody else in Cache Valley—are Mormons, and the Mormons have an absolute penchant for odd names: LaVell, LaDell, Nephi, Moroni. So the name Merlin figures. At first, folks thought that it was a melding of his parents' names, Merle and Lynn, but not so. Lynn had simply liked the name ever since she'd read King Arthur, and that was that. Don't laugh; it could have been Gawain Olsen, All-Pro defensive tackle.

The Olsens weren't wealthy, but they got along beautifully because everybody pitched in. "With nine kids to feed, everything was planned." Merlin says. "We did it all like a factory. We'd drive a truck up into Idaho and haul back a ton of potatoes. We'd can 1,600 quarts of peaches a season on an assembly-line basis, washing and peeling and slicing, passing them along from hand to hand. My folks would buy 100 chickens at a time, and we'd line everybody up and prepare the chickens for the freezer. And in season, we'd add elks and venison—I was only seven when I first helped Dad pack deer out of the woods."

So much for childhood. In this condensed version, Olsen goes through Utah State University in a flash, which was really pretty much the case anyway. The team didn't accomplish a whole lot beyond tying for the Skyline Conference championship in his last year, but Olsen was named a Helms scholastic and athletic hall-of-famer, won the Outland Trophy as the nation's most outstanding collegiate lineman, became a consensus All-America and played in the East-West, Hula Bowl and Chicago All-Star games. Olsen also came away with a B.A. in finance, carrying a 3.64 (out of 4.00) average, making Phi Beta Kappa and graduating summa cum laude. He later added a master's degree in economics. To top off his college career, he made off with the incomparable Susan Wakley, about whom more in a page or two.

Of his success in the classroom, Olsen says, "Economics comes easily to me, and we all seek out what we do well in life. I had in mind becoming a businessman. And I was good at logic and reasoning; figures were comfortable inside my head." Exactly. The way Olsen saw it, there is a logic in pro football that a reasoning mind can quickly grasp.

Olsen's First Rule of Logic: you never, but never, scream in pain when you're decked and stomped on. You get up as best you can and just say to the offender, "I'll be back." Say it forcefully. And then do it.

Olsen's Second Rule: always intimidate a quarterback. Deliver a solid blow upon him, if possible. It will serve as a reminder to him; there'll be times when he won't be able to see you, but he'll know you're there, somewhere.

Olsen's Do's and Don'ts: if you're viciously kicked in the groin—not just once, but twice in the same game—do not, repeat, do not shower and dress and drive yourself to the hospital. This is brave but unwise. You'll always find upon arriving that your groin is so swollen you can't get out of the car. However, if the hospital won't discharge you when you feel you should go, do get right up from bed and walk out and drive yourself home—in your nightie, if necessary.

Perhaps the most important rule was arrived at during the 1960s, when Olsen was a pillar of the Rams' Fearsome Foursome of Roosevelt Grier, Lamar Lundy, Deacon Jones and himself. To wit:

Olsen's Logic of the Semiconscious: keep in mind that toward the end of a brutal game, you're occasionally going to be playing in a coma. Your moves become like those of a trained animal—instinctive; your head swings shaggily like that of a wounded bear. Now then, if you can play in a coma—and find that your reactions are possibly better than when you're fully conscious—you know that all your training has paid off.

Olsen's training certainly paid off. And some of it seemed to rub off on kid brother Phil, who's eight years younger than Merlin. Phil first signed with the Patriots but briefly played side-by-side with Merlin in 1971 until an injury took him out of the lineup. And once, even Dad made the team.

"It was early in my career, in 1962, and the folks had come down from Cache Valley to see their first pro football game," Olsen says. "I felt good about them being somewhere up in the stands. The offense was in and I was sitting on the end of the bench when suddenly I felt someone tap me on the shoulder." Olsen gets up and tells the rest of it with accompanying gestures.

"I turned around and it was Dad. Somehow, Lord knows how, he had talked his way past the guards at the bottom of the stands. Then he had gotten on the field and at the track had talked his way past another set of guards—and that takes a lot of doing. Maybe it was that special Utah look about him. There was about a minute and a half left in the game; we were winning. 'Dad!' I said. 'What in the world are you doing down here on the field? Listen, you're not supposed to be down here.' And he nodded. 'It's all right, son,' he said. 'I just wanted to tell you that I walked up to the top of the stadium here and I looked over the side and I could see down into the parking lot. And I've never seen so many cars in my life, son. So I think your mother and I are going to leave a few minutes early. Get a head start on them.'

"Well, I stood up and put my arm around him and was saying something about how really great it had been that they'd come to the game, when suddenly I had a strange sensation that something was terribly wrong. I looked around—and the defensive team was gone! The ball had changed hands, and my unit was on the field. So I jumped into the air and I hit the ground running as fast as I could, struggling with my helmet, heading for midfield.

"And then I was aware that something, someone, was running along beside me. I looked around—and it was Dad. There we were, out in the middle of the field in front of cheering thousands. 'Dad! Listen,' I said, speaking for some insane reason in a hushed voice, 'you're not supposed to be out here. You're right in the middle of a football game.' " Olsen pauses and looks around. " 'Oh, really?' Dad said. 'Well, well. I thought the game was over and you were going out there to shake hands with the other team.' "

That was early in Olsen's career. Along toward the end, just about everything began to hurt, including a lot of nooks, crannies, tendons, ligaments and out-of-the-way joints that he hadn't even known he had. It got so bad that Olsen—then suffering from a severely jammed neck that probably made him a couple of inches shorter than he recently had been—refused to go into the training room. "Look," he'd tell the trainer, "you're not really going to be able to help me, I know. And I also know that I've got to start next week. Better then that I should try and relax with my pain and my family instead of messing with it."

Olsen's body took all the guff without too much reproach until, before the start of the 1976 season, he announced that this was the beginning of the end. He would find something to do come next year, but it wouldn't be playing football. Actually, three years earlier Olsen had taken pen in hand and figured out, with devastating logic, the rest of his life.

He did it by elimination. "There's a tendency among football players to ride too long with their success," he says. "They always have a vague notion in their minds: 'I'll just retire someday and become president of IBM,' or something like that. They can't make the transition from football to the real world. They lose their identity and it destroys them; it's happened to so many of my friends."

But not Olsen. "I figured it this way, like a problem in reasoning. First, my personal needs. I was accustomed to the spotlight, therefore I couldn't go into corporate anonymity. Then, I was accustomed to making pretty big money; I wanted that to continue, of course. And, finally, I wanted something that offered both challenge and pressure. It shook down to only two possibilities: broadcasting and acting. When you think of the logic involved, it was an easy decision." Having reasoned it out, Olsen then drafted his own proposed television contract, legalese and all.

There was a time, right up to a few weeks ago, when the story of Olsen's contract wouldn't have been entirely believable. But it is now, thanks to the wonderfully screwy Charlie's Angels case. No, no, not the investigation into purportedly misdirected funds at ABC; it's what the case revealed that counts. On Dec. 2, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, in noting that there was no cause for criminal action, also commented that the TV entertainment industry was so mixed up that while tons of money changes hands, nobody seems to know exactly where any of it goes.

Perfect. Olsen had been getting steady raises and he knew that his final salary as a Ram would be well over $100,000. Thus, in drafting his proposed new television contract, he lightly wrote in a figure, knowing with the inescapable logic of an economics major and Phi Beta Kappa that the TV folks would likely double it. And naturally he was right. "The final figure turned out to be about $200,000," Olsen says, "and all of my hopes in that first contract were met or exceeded." Olsen had doped out the illogical secret: in television, it isn't the money; they'll pay anything, positively anything, just to sign the talent and keep the other networks from getting it.

"Three days after I wrote my sample contract I flew to New York," Olsen says. "I talked to people at NBC, ABC and CBS, letting them know that I was interested. I didn't sign, but the talks were satisfactory. I succeeded in getting my name on their list. And when I was ready, four years later, they were ready, see? The only way to have charge of your life is to take charge of it." Olsen picks up an imaginary life by the throat and shakes it around.

All of which brings up Olsen's last rule of logic. There he was, in civvies at last, wearing a size 48 XL blazer with the NBC escutcheon on the breast pocket. "O.K., guys," he said, "tell me the part about the training program on how to be a color man." And the NBC executives did one of these: "Uhhh, the, uhh, the training program. Right, Merlin? Well, uhh, you see, we don't really have...."

All for the best, as it has turned out. It taught Olsen to do his own research, to talk to coaches and players and to apply his own acquired knowledge. Coaches show him game plans, knowing he'll never betray them on the small screen. On the air, Olsen lucidly tells the viewers who has just done what to whom—even unto the cheap shots, which, he notes, are all part of the game.

Now it's the prospect of another career that's changing Olsen's life. Enter Landon again, part actor, part producer. He's lounging between takes on the Little House set, wearing homespun shirt, suspenders and frontier pants and boots. He looks like an authentic pioneer poor man, and between appearances on camera, as if to reassure himself of his real-life riches, he slips on his solid gold watch.

"Merlin's audition tape by NBC was terrific," Landon says. "I talked to him and we hit it off right away. I wrote him into my Little House series as a new character—Jonathan Garvey. Someone I could play off, like I did with Dan Blocker on Bonanza. But remember now, Merlin's actual, real-life character is what we're portraying here—a sensitive man of great strength. I would say that there's no limit to his future."

Indeed, success has forced NBC's hand. Because of interlocking contract commitments, last fall the network deliberately didn't describe an episode of Little House as a pilot for a new series—but that's what it was. In the pilot, entitled A New Beginning, Garvey loses his wife, moves into town to take over a freight business and promptly runs into trouble with young punks running a protection racket. Garvey complains to the sheriff, and guess what? He gets sworn in as a deputy and nabs the culprits.

"The whole thing was done within the Little House framework," Olsen says, "but it would have been a fine spinoff for a new series starring Jonathan Garvey. Just think," he grasps his full, reddish beard and tugs gently at it, "this beard will come off."

And now for the late news. Last week NBC spokesmen finally and officially confirmed that Merlin Olsen will star in his very own dramatic series. It'll be an original drama, continued every week, a Western period setting—and the network even has a tentative spot for it: Sundays at 7 p.m. starting next September. Everything else about the series is as secret as secrets are in the TV industry. "We start shooting it in May," Olsen says, "and listen, I don't know—who knows?—what the title might be. Sheriff! Or Rifleman? How about Off Comes the Beard!"

There it is, back to the central theme: the big guy as lawman, followed by a gradual identification in the American subconscious until the image jells. John Wayne time all over again.

The age is just about right: Olsen's face is starting to crag up nicely. The lines are deepening across his forehead—most of them put there originally by repeated bashes from the brow of his helmet. The furrows recall the awful violence of his charges off the line. Now a smallish ridge of cartilage has built up along Olsen's brow line and a faint scar runs through the left eyebrow. And, further in terms of age, his walk will soon start to become as characteristic in its way as Wayne's was; nothing much Olsen can do about that. After undergoing major surgery on his right knee 10 years ago, he wears his traumatic arthritis like a badge of office.

"Comes with a long playing career," he says. "Susie and I always knew that football was a temporary job. When we first came to Los Angeles we figured, 'All right, we'll do this for two years—it'll be a lot of fun—and then get on with our real lives.' And then we figured that I would play for five—so that I could qualify for my pension. And then the money got going quite well and...just think of how effective I might have been if I had had a mean streak in me."

"Mean streak? Mean? Listen to me," says Rosy Grier, "Merlin's a good family man and a Christian. He's what you want your children to see on TV. He deserves a good career."

Grier has become something of an actor and talk-show gadfly since retiring; he always speaks dramatically now, building elaborate sentences full of religious references. "Most players allow their gifts to fade away when they retire," he says. "But not Merlin. Listen, you take what God gave you to start. Remember, God'll provide the arenas; He'll sign your entry forms. It's a shame that we can't utilize our former football players more than we do. We could use them to keep our national pride going. And then they wouldn't have to be sad and think, 'Well, I can't carry that ball no more and I'm done.' Merlin is a positive figure; you understand what I'm saying? Part of the pollution in this country today is that too many people fill the air with negatives."

Susie Olsen buys the part about ex-players who allow their gifts to fade away; as a football wife, she has seen it happen to some of their friends. "Too many of them sit around for about two years after retiring and just stare at the walls," she says.

The Olsen family includes daughters Kelly, 15, and Jill, 13, and son Nathan, seven. Susan, a woman of strong bearing and direct gaze, is a throwback to the type of woman who used to be called spunky. She says what she means, and she takes Merlin's career in absolute stride, being absolutely candid about what it can or cannot do for the family.

"The acting—that is, getting used to it—has been a cinch," she says. "But we have to be careful; it could be the sort of career that could drive one into the ground. You're in danger of becoming such a commodity that your ego becomes involved. But in his Little House role, Merlin's actually playing himself. We'll have to wait and see."

The Olsens deliberately five in what they call the real world—a huge, semi-beat-up old house in old-money, established San Marino. It's comfortably cheek-by-jowl with other big, fine old houses and is far from the glitter of Beverly Hills. The neighbors are aware of Olsen's acting career, but they forgive him that, and when they all get together, nobody talks movie talk.

"We don't exactly swing with the Hollywood jet set," says Susan. "That is, we're not always popping over to Hugh Hefner's for drinks. Most of our friends are real people; naturally, not too many are left from pro football. No groupies hang on to Merlin's coattails. His image is changing a bit. His groupies used to be little boys. Now they're 12-year-old girls."

And now for one last attempt to broaden the image base. Would you accept Merlin Olsen, hired killer? An assassin? "One of the best in the business," says the script in describing Olsen's role in Hitman, a one-hour episode in Walking Tall, which is NBC's and Bo Swenson's effort to pump more life into the already overtold story of Sheriff Buford Pusser. "At last," Olsen had said in accepting the job, "a chance to play a contemporary character."

And so it was that a few weeks ago, Olsen was there on the tavern set, wearing well-cut gray flannel slacks, a blue blazer and a pale blue, open-neck golf shirt, looking eminently believable in spite of his beard. Olsen, as Web McClain, has been hired by the bad guys to bump off Pusser. The sheriff doesn't tumble to this, not right away. He thinks that big, bold, bearded Web is his pal.

The script calls for a contemporary scene in which Olsen and the heroine, Jane, played by Courtney Pledger, are sitting in Olsen's parked Mercedes coupe.

"Why don't we go over to my place for a drink?" he asks, full of sexy menace.

"Your...motel?" she asks.

He nods. "We're both over 21."

Well, that's about as racy as it gets, fans. She doesn't go to the motel, and here comes the big fight scene. It's one of those real, old-fashioned tavern wreckers, starting when Olsen and Swenson overturn their table and then swing furiously on a whole bar full of bad guys. The camera closes in as they start to lift the table.

Cut.

And here comes the final irony: one of football's greatest, biggest, baddest crushers of them all, the slashing defensive lineman who scattered 'em and shattered 'em for 15 years with the Rams—all 6'5" and 240 pounds of muscle—now steps aside. The extras come in, the stunt-men and the stand-ins. The camera starts up again, and they stage the fight with frightening, crunching realism while Olsen stands off to one side, quietly munching an apple.

Wouldn't he like to be out there fighting? Smashing those guys like in the good old days?

"Me?" Merlin Olsen says, and that easy, pleasant smile shows through the beard. "You forget that I'm a very, very gentle man."

PHOTOPRESTON DENNARD
Wide Receiver
NOLAN CROMWELL
Safety
ELVIS PEACOCK
Running Back
PAT HADEN
Quarterback
MERLIN OLSEN
TV Star
JACKIE SLATER
Offensive Tackle
RICH SAUL
Center
PHIL OLSEN
Merlin's kid brother
ILLUSTRATION PHOTOOlsen, here discussing game plans with partner Dick Enberg, has fast become NBC's top analyst. PHOTOJonathan Garvey's beard will go when Olsen gets to star in his own NBC series come the fall. PHOTOAlways a good skate, Merlin takes to the wheels with Nathan, Jill and Kelly—but not Susie—in tow. PHOTOProof that Olsen did famously at Utah State. PHOTOGood times roll when Olsen relives the Fearsome Foursome era with Rosy Grier and Deacon Jones.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)