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.