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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.