The American actor Richard Bull was 50 when he achieved fame as the patient, kindly frontier shopkeeper Nels Oleson in the wholesome television drama Little House on the Prairie. He appeared for the entire run of the programme (1974-83), based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s children’s books about her family’s struggle to survive a rugged existence in Walnut Grove, Plumb Creek, Minnesota.
Michael Landon starred as Charles Ingalls, head of a loving, homesteading clan in the Old West of the 1870s, with Charles’s daughter Laura (Melissa Gilbert), as narrator, relating events in the pioneers’ lives. Landon became the series’ executive producer and steered it through a decade of homely stories following the family’s trials and tribulations as they faced crop disasters, fires, floods and other challenges in the community.
At Oleson’s Mercantile, Nels is frequently to be seen bickering with his intolerable wife, Harriet (Katherine MacGregor), as they run the general store together and bring up two spoiled, brattish children, Nellie (Alison Arngrim) and Willie (Jonathan Gilbert). Later, they adopt another daughter, Nancy (played by Allison Balson).
“When we began the series, Michael Landon told me he didn’t want Oleson to be a stupid character – and neither did I,” the softly spoken Bull once said. Many viewers who sympathised with his marital plight certainly did not consider the calm, rational Nels to be stupid when he left his insufferable wife to run a travelling store and fell for a younger woman. However, in true family-viewing style, the couple were reunited. He disagreed with those who found the programme too earnest. “I think,” he once said, “its idealism is a good antidote to life as we have to live it.”
Bull was born in Zion, Illinois, loved films as a child and attended the Goodman Theatre’s drama school in Chicago while still at high school. Following Second World War service in the US Army Air Forces, he met and married the actress Barbara Collentine, and they moved to New York to continue their careers.
On screen, Bull was first seen playing doctors in 1956 episodes of the television drama series Medic and was soon popping up with bit parts in many programmes, often in authority roles. He was a regular as the Seaview’s doctor in the popular sci-fi series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68), featuring a nuclear submarine encountering human villains and exotic and lethal marine creatures. He also appeared in other shows such as Perry Mason, The Fugitive, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, Peyton Place and Bonanza.
Later, he was in the three Little House on the Prairie reunion television films (1983-84), and the original series is still screened around the world. Other series in which he appeared included Hill Street Blues, Highway to Heaven (which featured Landon as a probationary angel) and ER, while in 2011 he made an appearance in the Kelsey Grammer series, Boss. His films included The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and High Plains Drifter (1973).
Bull and his wife moved to Chicago from Los Angeles in 1994, and then to the Motion Picture & Television Country House in Woodland Hills, California, two years ago. The actor died of natural causes after suffering from pneumonia.
Richard William Bull, actor: born Zion, Illinois 26 June 1924; married 1948 Barbara Collentine; died Calabasas, California 3 February 2014.