I recently featured a television father who impacted my childhood tremendously on “The Waltons.” We lost another television father a few weeks ago who I always tended to feel sorry for as I watched his portrayal as “Nels Olesen” on “Little House on the Prairie.”
The long-suffering dad of the mischievous Nellie (Alison Arngrim) and Willie (Jonathan Gilbert), and husband of town busy body, better than everyone Harriet Olsen (Scottie MacGregor).
Despite his constant status of being hen-pecked, in his portrayal of the character Richard Bull (1924-2014) managed to take a relatively small presence early in the series and brought all of us to know that Nels was an upstanding, caring individual who loved his family and worked to bring out the best in them despite their own shortcomings. That caring reached out across Walnut Grove as he operated the Oleson Mercantile leaving no doubt in the viewers minds that Nels stood on equal footing with Charles Ingalls (Michael Landon 1936-1991) and the other community pillars.
As the series continued over the next decade, Bull became another stable father figure on television who imparted wisdom, encouragement and caring, sometimes in the face of some of the greatest comedic opportunities shared within a drama series.
Bull was a seasoned television veteran when he landed the role on Little House with nearly 20 years of work sharing his talents in roles in many classic TV shows including “My Three Sons,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” “Bewitched,” “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”
While he often played several different roles in the same series over time, Bull found recurring roles in series such as the doctor in “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” “Judge Thatcher” in “Nichols,” and “Mr. Ryland” in “Apple’s Way,” it was “Nels Oleson” that made his face and name known to millions around the world.
He continued appearing in film and television as opportunities arose until his role in the series “Boss” in 2011.
He and his wife of 65 years plus actress Barbara Collentine both starred in the film “A Day in the Life” in 2000.
While as a child, I often thought of Little House as a show for girls because there were so many girls on it. Even though Laura Ingalls (Melissa Gilbert) was a bit of a tomboy, it was the antics of Willie and later after the adventures of Albert (Matthew Labyorteaux) that drew me to watch the show as kid.
Like the lessons shared on “The Waltons,” I learned a great deal as Charles and Carolyn (Karen Grassle), Nels, Isaiah (Victor French 1934-1989), Jonathan (Merlin Olsen 1940-2010) and Rev. Robert Alden (Dabbs Greer 1917-2007) guided through the ups and downs of prairie life in the 1800s.
Among the cast, I was only honored to know Dabbs and like Richard, though he had many roles he played it was Rev. Alden that endeared him to millions.
I wish we had new network shows today that were sharing the types of lessons, experiences and positive uplifting guidance for all ages like those shared on “Little House on the Prairie.” Thanks to all the great actors and actresses that moved us on that show!