Early Thursday (March 11) morning, Merlin Olsen, Hall of Fame tackle for the Los Angeles Rams/”Little House on the Prairie” sidekick/FTD flowers pitchman/facial-hair pioneer/best dude named Merlin since, well, the original Merlin, died at a hospital in Duarte, California. He was 69 years old.
Born in Utah, Olsen starred as a defensive tackle at Utah State University, and was drafted by both the NFL and its upstart rival league, the AFL. He ended up signing with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, where he would anchor one of the all-time great defensive fronts, the so-called “Fearsome Foursome.” After an illustrious 15-year career, he retired and worked as a color commentator, and began a memorable run as Michael Landon’s sidekick on “Little House on the Prairie.” That led to other TV work, including a stint as a pitchman for FTD Florists (here he is rocking a pith helmet and hawking a rainbow-colored “Pick Me Up” bouquet in a 1987 spot) and a starring role on the short-lived drama “Father Murphy,” with Olsen as the titular frontier friar.
He certainly wasn’t the first athlete to make the jump to TV (he wasn’t even the first football player of his generation to do so,) but he may were well have been the best. Despite his burly appearance — he was listed at 6-foot-5, 270 pounds — there was a warmth to his performances, a genial kindness. I can remember watching him on “Little House” as a kid and thinking that Merlin Olsen was a nice guy. And his beard was truly epic. It was velvety, yet rugged, the perfect blend of mountain-man and 1970’s man about town. It was the kind of thing a young boy could aspire to. It made him look a friendly lion, or even a late-period Orson Welles.
It’s no wonder that, in 2004’s “Anchorman,” Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy — himself a fan of the facial hair — casually mentions that he is close friends with Olsen. It was a statement that carried a lot of weight. After all, Merlin Olsen was a nice guy. With a really nice beard. He will be missed.