Merlin Olsen: American footballer who went from the 'Fearsome Foursome' to 'Little House on the Prairie'

British viewers of Little House On The Prairie were probably unaware that Merlin Olsen, who played the huge bearded lumberjack Jonathan Garvey, was one of the greatest linemen in the history of America's National Football League (NFL). As the cornerstone of a four-man defensive front so intimidating it was known as the "Fearsome Foursome", Olsen enjoyed a 15-year career during which he never missed a game. He was named to the Pro Bowl all-star game a record 14 consecutive times and selected first-team all-pro six times. At 6ft 4in and 275lb, his quickness meant he could beat offensive linemen individually, while his massive strength allowed him to tie up multiple blockers, freeing his linemates, particularly his fellow Hall of Fame member Deacon Jones, to rush the opposing passer.

Olsen grew up in Utah's Cache Valley, the second of nine children and the oldest son in a strict Mormon family. Two of his brothers would also play in the NFL, one of them, Phil, as his team-mate for four seasons. Merlin stayed at home to attend Utah State, not a football power. Playing both offensive and defensive tackle, he led the Aggies to two post-season bowl games, a No 10 ranking, and won the Outland Trophy as the nation's best lineman. He also graduated with highest honours in finance.

The Rams, then based in Los Angeles, picked Olsen third in the 1962 draft. He chose the security of the established NFL over a bigger contract offered by Denver of the upstart American Football League (AFL). Playing defensive tackle, with Jones and the 6ft 7in Lamar Lundy at the ends, he was named NFL rookie of the year in 1962. The following season, the Rams acquired the massive tackle Roosevelt Grier from the New York Giants to complete the Fearsome Foursome. Although the nickname had been used before, most notably for the AFL's San Diego Charger line that featured "The Big Cat" Ernie Ladd a few years earlier, the Rams made it their own, helped by the legendary Los Angeles sportswriter Jim Murray, who wrote, "they could stop Hitler's tanks. They taught the public to appreciate defense. Guys who play against Olsen have trouble sleeping the night before." If off the field Olsen was a gentle giant, on the field he was fiercely competitive. "Olsen just rolls everybody up like a carpet," said Murray. "Sooner or later the guy with the ball will be under it."

Coach George Allen was a defensive mastermind, but despite regular-season success they were unable to advance to the NFL championship game. After the two leagues merged to create the Super Bowl, Roger Brown replaced Grier and Coy Bacon stepped in for Lundy, but the new coach Chuck Knox couldn't break the pattern of regular-season triumph and play-off failure. Olsen retired in 1976, after a frustrating loss in the conference final; he never played in a championship game.

After retiring, Olsen had a long career as a colour commentator on NFL games and the collegiate Rose Bowl. But thanks to his exposure in Los Angeles, he had made his acting debut in the 1969 John Wayne film The Undefeated. Generally typecast as a gentle giant, he joined Little House in 1977 when Victor French left the series, and stayed until 1981, when he starred for three seasons as a priest in Father Murphy.

After a recurring role in the 1986 series Fathers and Sons, in 1988 he took the title role in the short-lived Aaron's Way, the Mormon Olsen now playing an Amish father who moves to California to take care of his son's family after the son's death surfing. As his acting career slowed down he became a familiar pitchman on American television.

As well as being named to the NFL's all-time team in 1994, Olsen was also chosen as Utah's athlete of the century in 2000. Last year, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, and while receiving chemotherapy filed lawsuits against the NBC television network for exposing him to asbestos. He is survived by his wife Susan and three children, and two of the Fearsome Foursome, Jones and Grier.

Michael Carlson

Merlin Jay Olsen, American football player, broadcaster and actor: born Logan, Utah 15 September 1940; married 1962 Susan Wakley (two daughters, one son); died Duarte, California 11 March 2010.

Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Life and Style
fashionThe supermodel on her career, motherhood and Cara Delevingne
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer - West Sussex - permanent - £40k - £50k

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Project Manager (infrastructure, upgrades, rollouts)

£38000 - £45000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

Project Manager (App development, SAP, interfacing)

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum + excellent company benefits: Clearwater People Solu...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments