Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Merlin Olsen: Football Star, Florist and Actor

Merlin Olson was always one of my favorite football players. He played *fifteen* *years* in the NFL for the Los Angeles Rams and made All-Pro every year until, finally, old age and knee injuries caught up with him. People younger than I, no doubt, know him as a TV sports color commentator and as the most successful flower salesman FTD has ever had.

He always comes across as being very thoughtful and well-spoken. If I ever met him, I would seriously consider politely asking him if he was okay with being hugged by a total stranger. (He not only earned his college degree, but picked up an MBA, graduating cum laude.) He also achieved a certain amount of success as an actor. Once, at a Hollywood party, as Merlin was sipping a fruit juice (as a devout Mormon, drinking alcohol is a no-no), his teammate Roman Gabriel mentioned that he had an offer to be in a movie and asked if Merlin would like to join the production. There was a part in the film that was perfect for him.

Merlin asked, “Is it fun?”

“Yes.”

“Do you make money?”

And a Hollywood legend was born. The film was a John Wayne/Rock Hudson vehicle called "The Undefeated". Although Olsen only had about ten lines and had no previous acting training, I seriously doubt that Brando, Olivier, Gielgud or DeNiro could have played the part of “Little George” the blacksmith, as well as Merlin Olson did. You see, the key to that part was that they needed someone who was huge enough to dwarf both John Wayne and Rock Hudson by comparison. Since Merlin stands 6’5” and was 275 pounds of solid muscle, so he fit the bill quite well.

This was not the end of Merlin Olson’s acting career. Many viewers may recall him in the role of the Ingalls family’s next-door neighbor in Little House on the Prairie. Olsen looks big enough to wrestle a bear, but gentle enough that you'd trust him to hold your pet parakeet in the palm of his hand.

Audiences found Olsen’s presence and manner so appealing that, in 1981, he even got the opportunity to play title role in a TV drama called Father Murphy. In it, he played a benevolent fellow posing as a monk so he could help a group of orphans. (How schmaltzy can you get?) The series did run into one snag early on. In one episode, the script called for Father Murphy to get the news that a nefarious group of bad guys were going to shut down the orphanage and convert it into a sweatshop. The script also called for Father Murphy to fly into a rage. They did a take, but the director told Merlin he wasn’t producing a suitable rage, so they shot another take, and another, and another and another. Finally, when it became clear that they weren’t get a good “rage” out of Merlin Olson, the TV execs asked Merlin why he couldn’t even pretend to be angry. He told them that it was probably the result of something his parents had told him almost thirty years earlier. He was almost full-grown at the very early age of twelve. Even for a kid his size, he was possessed of a near-Herculean strength. One day, his parents sat him down for a talk. They told him, “Merlin, do not EVER lose your temper. You could kill someone if you do!”

The series was cancelled after one season. I just love that story because, while it proves that while Merlin Olson may not be a great actor, he is a truly *outstanding* human being.

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