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Tackling a new career
Bob Ottum
January 19, 1981
After 15 seasons of knocking 'em dead for the Rams, Merlin Olsen is off to a socko start in show biz, where unlike some erstwhile colleagues he's no drag
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January 19, 1981

Tackling A New Career

After 15 seasons of knocking 'em dead for the Rams, Merlin Olsen is off to a socko start in show biz, where unlike some erstwhile colleagues he's no drag

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It's 9:10 a.m. and he's clomping along at a modest 10-minute-per-mile pace, hating every minute of it. "Jogging," he says, "is my idea of nothing to do." The trail winds through the leafy glades and meadows of Lacy Park in San Marino, Calif. Pasadena is off to one side nearby and Los Angeles is out there somewhere. Jogging housewives, when they see him coming, suddenly run a bit straighten, shoulders up, tummies pulled in and chests thrust out. "Oh, hell-o there," they say musically. It's celebrity-identification time. He nods back at them and grunts morosely, perspiration glistening in his beard.

This is Merlin Jay Olsen, tending to his body at age 40. He's 6'5" and 240 pounds, with a massive chest easing down to a 36-inch waist. His weight is 25 pounds less than his last, and lightest, playing weight as a Los Angeles Ram—and considerably less than he weighed when he joined the Rams in 1962. He was 294 then, and it took two days to walk around him. But now he thinks a lot about metabolic balances and carries just what it takes to push all his bulk around.

"I don't know where I got this size," Olsen says. He speaks in tired bursts, in time with his footfalls. "Good nutrition, I guess. I mean, I spring from perfectly average, if sound, pioneer American stock. My two grandfathers were both about 5'7". One grandmother was just 5'1", and the other was even smaller, maybe 4'11". My dad is an average 5'10�"."

A pause follows while Olsen glances around, hating the jogging, hating the morning.

Everything seems to check out. The two not-so-big grandfathers, the little grandmothers and his dad. Wait a minute. How big is your mother, Merlin?

"Seven feet tall." he says.

It has been four years since Olsen stopped playing defensive tackle after 15 seasons of hammering and slamming people about for the Rams. The time has been spent in coming off his bigness, in one sense, while establishing a highly visible presence in another. Olsen is now TV's best football color man and an emerging character actor as well, performing both roles with a distinctive voice that is almost a growl, as if he keeps it tied up outside at night. He is the gentle giant, Jonathan Garvey, of Little House on the Prairie, and he will deliver the analysis during NBC's Super Bowl XV telecast on Sunday, Jan. 25. Olsen's analyses are a monument to homework. He watches game films, taking detailed notes: he talks to players; he visits locker rooms, making the rounds slowly, cubicle by cubicle; he visits training rooms, sitting on the bare tables and watching routine taping as if it were major surgery or peering into Jacuzzis as if some special knowledge will swirl up from their roiling depths.

Super Bowl XV may well be Olsen's last major football telecast, but more about this in a bit. First one must understand what's happening to Olsen now, and why.

He's attempting to pull off a rare feat, a daring double transition in careers, and at the moment he's in delicate midstride. Olsen's step, step, sliiiide from football into sports commentary was relatively easy. Now he's doing a more difficult step, step, sliiide into dramatic acting, starting with television staples like Little House. His own TV series is set. After that comes big-screen movies. And the next thing you know, Olsen is going to be America's new John Wayne.

This is assuredly not an idle prediction. A number of key people in the entertainment industry have divined this already and are shaping their plans to take advantage of it. If you are suddenly smitten with a need to ask who in God's name needs another John Wayne, that's certainly a fair question. But it's also beside the point, because that's what you're going to get.

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