Merlin Olsen

The football great who became an actor

Merlin Olsen


“I don’t enjoy contact,” Merlin Olsen, the legendary defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams, once admitted. But Olsen’s reticence wasn’t apparent to opposing teams. Lauded as a “gentle giant” off the field, he was a member of the Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome,” one of the most famous defensive lines in professional football history. On his way to 14 consecutive Pro Bowls and election to the NFL Hall of Fame, Olsen made 915 tackles, still the all-time Rams record.

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Born in Ogden, Utah, the second of nine children, Olsen had an inauspicious debut. “In the ninth grade, a coach recommended that he try out for the band, rather than the football team,” said The Washington Post. But with speed, determination, and size—he was 6-foot-5 and about 275 pounds—Olsen transformed himself into a great lineman. At Utah State University, Olsen was a three-time academic All-American, graduating summa cum laude with a degree in finance. Selected third in the 1962 NFL draft, he spent his entire 15-year pro career with the Rams, earning a master’s degree in economics along the way. “With the Rams,” said the Los Angeles Times, “Olsen helped popularize the star power of defensive linemen who could sack quarterbacks.”

After he retired from the NFL in 1977, Olsen put his star power to work on television, serving as a commentator on football broadcasts for NBC and later for CBS. His acting career took off, as well, said Variety. From 1977 to 1981, Olsen played the role of Jonathan Garvey on Little House on the Prairie, and later had the lead role in the short-lived Father Murphy drama on NBC. He appeared in two other television dramas and also served as spokesman for FTD florists.

Olsen, who died of cancer, “had super­human strength,” said his Rams teammate and “Fearsome Foursome” member Deacon Jones. Yet in a 1997 interview, Olsen revealed that neither he nor the other members of the Fearsome Foursome ever worked out with weights. “There was not a weight lifter in the group,” he said. “Imagine how big we’d be today.”

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