"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.