Friday, September 21, 2012

Jock Straps and Theme Songs (Pilot)

Those of you who are avid television fans know that the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards takes place this Sunday, September 23rd.   For those of you who love TV but also love football, it’s going to be hard to choose between watching the Emmys and what’s sure to be a titanic battle between the Patriots and the Ravens on Sunday Night Football.  Here’s hoping you have an understanding spouse and that your remote’s batteries are full of juice!


I’m sure you can recall watching an episode of your favorite sitcom or drama growing up, and sitting upright when you saw a recognizable NFL player striding into the screen to deliver his custom-tailored one-liner before breezing out of the scene… leaving the show’s regulars trying to fill the void of his absence.


Ah, the cameo appearance: almost any agent worth their salt eventually finds a way to get his or her client onto the set of a popular television show to remind the audience that a living, marketable person lives under all those pads. But even the most die-hard fans of football and TV probably don’t realize just how many NFL stars created very successful second careers for themselves on television. My goal with this and the next two posts (yes, there are that many) is to fill that hole in your football knowledge.


There are so many former players who have made appearances in television shows that it would take me months to discuss them all.  So for our purposes, I haven’t included football players whose TV resume consists only of cameos, uncredited roles (e.g., “onlooker”), production credits (i.e., the player funded the project he appeared in) or who were the subject of a documentary or remembrance piece. Also omitted are the dozens of former players who have joined the broadcast world as commentators and analysts. 


Finally, you also won’t be seeing bios of actors who had only brief, lackluster careers in football before bursting onto the screen.  Names in this category include: Carl Weathers, a.k.a. Apollo Creed from the Rocky films (right), who played a total of 26 games professionally as a linebacker (eight in the NFL, the rest in the Canadian Football League); Dean Cain, a.k.a. Superman in Lois and Clark, who was drafted by the Buffalo Bills but suffered a career-ending knee injury during training camp; and Ed O’Neill (below), a.k.a. Al Bundy of Married…With Children, who was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969 but got cut during training camp.


Even with these categories eliminated, I was still left with a large volume of names to consider. In these posts, then, I’ve selected a few individuals to discuss in depth who were the stars of their respective series.  For the rest of the athlete-thespians, I present their names, NFL career summaries, photos and their TV filmographies (with roles and air dates).* Some of these names and faces I’m sure came to your mind right away after reading the first couple of paragraphs in this post; for others you’ll pause, furrow your brow and, when the light of recognition dawns, say, “Oh, yeah!  That guy!”




Merlin Olsen was born in 1940 in Logan Utah and was the second of nine children. If he had a hard time standing out from the crowd at home, it wasn’t an issue for him once he left for college.  Olsen attended Utah State University where he was an All-American defensive tackle and 1961 recipient of the Outland Trophy, which is awarded to the best college interior lineman each year. He was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003. A bronze statue of Merlin stands at the entrance to Utah State’s Merlin Olsen Field at Romney Stadium.


Olsen’s success on the field continued when he signed with the Los Angeles Rams, who drafted him in the first round of the 1962 draft.  He earned every one of his 14 Pro Bowl selections, only missing two games in a career that spanned 15 seasons.  Together with Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy and Rosey Grier (whom you will meet later in this series of posts), Olsen formed a defensive line that became known as “The Fearsome Foursome.” 

For his ferocity and tenacity, as well as his longevity, Merlin Olsen was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility.

The brutality of his football career was a stark contrast to the roles Merlin would play so ably and convincingly during his television career.  In 1977, he was cast to fill a void left by actor Victor French on the hit series Little House on the Prairie.  He was hired to play the role of Jonathan Garvey, best friend to Charles Ingalls, played by the incomparable Michael Landon. 

For more than three seasons he played Charles’ sidekick, until he was cast as the lead on his own series, Father Murphy, created by Michael Landon.  Olsen’s character, Father John Michael Murphy, was actually a frontiersman posing as a priest to save a group of orphans and keep them from the clutches of the evil neighborhood workhouse.


When Father Murphy was cancelled after it second season, Olsen found himself in another leading role, as Aaron Miller in Aaron’s Way.  In Aaron’s Way, Olsen played the patriarch of an Amish family that leaves the friendly confines of Pennsylvania for California, where his late son who left the Amish community has died, leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend.  The show only aired fourteen episodes.


Even if you never watched Little House on the Prairie (hard to believe), Father Murphy or Aaron’s Way, you would probably still recognize Merlin Olsen as the longtime pitchman for FTD Florists:


Sadly, Merlin Olsen passed away in 2010, at the age of 69, the year after being diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma.


Remaining TV Filmography: 
  • Fathers and Sons (“Buddy Landau,” four episodes, April 6-May 4, 1986)
  • Walking Tall (“Webb McClain,” 2/7/81)
  • Kung Fu (“Perlee Skowrin,” 2/15/73)
  • Petticoat Junction (“Merlin Fergus,” 1/17/70)


Other Notable NFL TV Stars:

Lyle Alzado 
Attended Yankton College (South Dakota); drafted by Denver Broncos in fourth round of 1971 draft; played for Denver, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Raiders; retired in 1985.


TV Filmography: 
  • Starred in short-lived Canadian sitcom Learning the Ropes as a high school principal Robert Randall who has a secret alter ego as a professional wrestler (1988)
  • Broken Badges (“Tommy Moran,” 12/22/90)
  • MacGyver (“Tiny,” 11/5/90)
  • CBS Schoolbreak Special, “The Fourth Man” (“Hugo,” 10/16/90)
  • True Blue (“Marv Kosak,” 1/1/90)
  • Riptide (“Ed Kramden,” 5/14/85)
  • Trapper John, M.D. (“Dr. Hansley,” 10/11/81)
  • I’m a Big Girl Now (“Rick,” 4/10/81)


Larry Csonka

Attended Syracuse University where he was named an All-American fullback; was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1989.  Was the number eight overall pick in the 1968 draft by the Miami Dolphins; played for Miami, Memphis Southmen (World Football League), New York Giants and once more for Dolphins before retiring after 1979 season.  Won two Super Bowls and was selected to the Pro Bowl five times; inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

TV Filmography:
  • Co-host of American Gladiators (1991-93)
  • 1st & Ten: The Championship (“AJ Randolph,” 12/5/90)
  • The Six Million Dollar Man (“Larry Bronco,” 11/2/75)
  • Emergency! (“Al,” 9/14/74)


Fred Williamson

Fred Williamson played defensive back at Northwestern University and was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the 1960 draft.  He never played for the Niners, however, playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers that year; played four seasons with the Oakland Raiders, then three for the Kansas City Chiefs and one for the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL before retiring in 1968. Best known for his rise in the “Blaxploitation” film genre of 1970s (starring in films like Hammer and Black Caesar, below), Fred Williamson also had a prolific television career starring in several television programs, including a recurring role in the series Julia.


TV Filmography (only multiple-episode appearances noted):  
  • Hello Paradise (travel show about Palm Springs, CA; appeared in 31 episodes between October 2007 and November 2010)
  • PSI Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal (“Fred Milton Di Genova,” 1/1/98 and 1/11/98)
  • Fast Track (“Lowell Carter,” 23 episodes between August 1997 and March 1998)
  • The Equalizer (“Lt. Mason Warren,” December 1985)
  • Half Nelson (“Chester Long,” six episodes from 3/29/85-5/10/85)
  • CHiPs (“Ty,” September 1979)
  • Police Story (“Snake McKay,” 10/2/73 and “Sergeant Bunny Green,” 11/23/76)
  • The Bold Ones: The Protectors (“Williams,” 2/22/69 and “Arnold Bartell,” 9/28/69)


*Source: Internet Movie Database, found at Filmographies will not include shows where the credited role for the individual is “himself.” Keep in mind that, in addition to their roles in television, several of these men had lengthy movie resumes as well, which won’t be noted. Check back to this space around Oscar time…


  1. Didn't Fred Williamson also do "Monday Night Football" one season? I don't think he got very good reviews in that role.

  2. Why, yes, he did. In 1974 he did the preseason games but was replaced at the start of the regular season by Alex Karras (whom you'll also read about in this series!).


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