RIP Merlin Olsen
Merlin Olsen, a 14-time NFL Pro Bowl selection, actor and philanthropist died Thursday after a battle with mesothelioma. He was 69.
I knew Merlin through my years at the Children’s Miracle Network, with which he was intimately connected from its founding in 1983.
I'll leave it to others to memorialize his astonishing football career, or his careers as an actor and broadcaster. Instead I'll address Merlin as I knew him.
For many years it was my pleasure to put words into Merlin’s mouth.
It was a pleasure because in addition to all the other wonderful things people have said about him, Merlin was the consummate professional.
It was a point of pride with him that he could read any voiceover script you gave him and get a perfect read in one take. Usually he did.
I remember once that Merlin did the voiceover work for a particular ad. Circumstances were such that about 3 months passed by before we cut the ad together. In the meantime something had changed necessitating a change in a portion... but not the whole... script.
We brought him back into the studio and three months after his first read Merlin listened to the previous recording for a minute or two and then managed to match exactly his pitch of his voice and the pace and timing of his delivery. Few professionals can do that.
This from a guy whose first career was in football.
I remember another instance when I was writing the old Children’s Miracle Network Telethon. We shot it live in Disneyland’s old outdoor venue called Videopolis.
We had a story about a young boy who had survived a shooting by his father. The father had shot and killed the mother, then shot the boy, who survived, before the father fatally turned the gun on himself. It was a tough story that I used to talk about the epidemic of child abuse in the United States.
And for weeks leading up to the telethon the format called for Merlin to introduce the videotaped story. It had to be Merlin, I kept telling the producers, because only he could give it the gravity it required without making it grave.
At the last minute another telethon host... an actor... was substituted in Merlin’s place and sure enough that host massacred the read. At one point this other host looked off camera [at who it wasn’t clear] and said, while reading some dire statistics about child abuse, “I can’t believe this.”
Merlin would have aced that read.
We used cue cards at Videopolis because it was an outdoor venue and the Southern California sun was often too bright for Teleprompters. But we had two kinds of cue cards; cue cards for Merlin and cue cards for everyone else. Merlin was so exceedingly far-sighted that he required his cards in a tiny, tiny little script.
Children's Miracle Network has a photo in their archives of Merlin with a big smile on his face and a microphone in one hand looking grandfatherly at a little bald boy in his other arm. Merlin had humongous hands, so both the microphone and the child look tiny.
That's Merlin Olsen the philanthropist in one photo.
Merlin also spent many years on advisory boards at Children's Miracle Network. Usually celebrities on boards are there to smile and make jokes at the breaks. But Merlin was also exceptionally bright... he had a masters degree in economics. So with Merlin on your board you got the benefit of both his celebrity and his remarkable intelligence.
There’s a whole bunch of other stories I could tell. One involves Charles Barkley at Merlin’s home in Deer Valley, Utah. But that’s the kind of story you tell over dinner or drinks, not in a blog posting.
I’ll conclude with this. I remember hearing an anecdote about Wilt Chamberlain, the NBA superstar when he was at the Olympic Gamess after his playing days were over. This being the Olympics there were 7-foot (and taller) guys all over the place. But such was his legend and stature as a player that Wilt… who was 7 foot 1 inch… nonetheless seemed to dwarf even taller players.
Merlin was the same way. It wasn’t that Merlin diminished other people. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was just that in order to find someone to measure up to Merlin Olsen as a football player, a broadcaster and actor, a philanthropist, and a man, you’d have to invent that person.
In the real world there was only one Merlin Olsen.