Merlin Olsen, actor and football star, dies

Had roles in 'Little House on the Prairie,' 'Father Murphy'

Merlin Olsen, a bearded, gentle-giant Pro Football Hall of Famer who went on to a successful TV career as an actor, announcer, host and pitchman, died Thursday of cancer near Los Angeles. He was 69.

He was diagnosed last year with mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung lining.

Olsen played his entire 15-year career with the Los Angeles Rams, who drafted the All-American defensive lineman from Utah State with the third overall pick in 1962. A member of the defensive line known as the Fearsome Foursome -- with Rosey Grier, Deacon Jones and Lamar Lundy -- that helped glamorize defensive players, he was named rookie of the year, went to 14 consecutive Pro Bowls, was voted NFL MVP in 1974 and remains the franchise leader in tackles with 915.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Thursday lauded Olsen as an "extraordinary person, friend and football player."

"He cared deeply about people, especially those that shared the game of football with him," he said. "Merlin was a larger-than-life person, literally and figuratively, and leaves an enormously positive legacy."

After retiring from football in 1976, the mild-mannered Olsen began a career in television. He had made some TV appearances during his playing days -- including episodes of "Petticoat Junction" and "Kung Fu" -- then in 1977, he was cast as Michael Landon's sidekick Jonathan Garvey on NBC's "Little House on the Prairie."

He appeared in more than 50 episodes through 1981, when we was given his own series, "Father Murphy." Olsen played the title character, an 1870s frontiersman who posed as a priest to help a group of orphans find a home, for its two-season run on NBC.

He later toplined a pair of short-lived Peacock series during the '80s: "Fathers and Sons" and "Aaron's Way."

While making his name in TV dramas, Olsen memorably partnered with Dick Enberg to announce NFL games for NBC during the late '70s and '80s. They became the network's A-team, calling the biggest regular-season games of the week, playoffs and four Super Bowls and several Rose Bowls. Olsen made his Super Bowl debut as a color man in the 1979 game on NBC.

The 6-foot-5, roughly 270-pound Olsen also was familiar to TV audiences as the longtime pitchman for FTD Florists and a host of telethons by the Children's Miracle Network, a charity founded by members of the Osmond family that supports children's hospitals and raises awareness of children's health issues.

On Dec. 31, Olsen and his wife, Susan, sued NBC Studios, NBC Universal, 20th Century Fox and other companies, claiming that his rare form of cancer was caused by his negligent exposure to asbestos. The suit is pending.

He is survived by his wife; their children, Nathan, Jill and Kelly; brothers Clark, Phil and Orrin; sisters Colleen, Lorraine, Gwen, Winona and Ramona; and several grandchildren.