Where the Hell is James Olson???

It’s actor James Olson’s birthday (born 1930).

As it is with so many, the face is far better known than the name. Olson may have received his most widespread attention as the Father in Ragtime (1981)…but probably almost as much negative flak the very next year for Amityville II: The Possession. His most critically acclaimed performance was in Rachel, Rachel (1968), a wonderful drama with Joanne Woodward of the type no one makes any more. He’s also in Blake Edwards’ western Wild Rovers (1971) and Commando (1985) with Arnold Swartzenegger. Another major hit was the Michael Crichton plague thriller The Andromeda Strain (1971).

That would have been one of the first movies I ever saw him in, and it is typical of the KIND of thing one saw him in a lot. He was understated but intense, restrained but very likable, mild but could rise to a yell when the moment called for it. Though he’s in many movies, what I mostly associate him with is lots and lots and LOTS of TV. I essentially grew up watching him, in guest shots on shows like Ironside, The Bionic Woman, Columbo, Cannon, The Streets of San Francisco, The F.B.I., Barnaby Jones etc.

Facts about him are scarce. He’s from Evanston, Illinois, went to Northwestern, and got his start in Chicago. His first Broadway credit, in a stage adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald stories called The Young and Beautiful, was in 1955. Eight other Broadway roles followed, perhaps most notably in the original production of Tennessee Williams’ one acts The Mutilated and The Gnadiges Fraulein, presented as the double bill Slapstick Tragedy in 1966. He was also in a 1964 revival of The Three Sisters that was made into a film. His tv and film credits begin in 1956.

And then in 1990 — he vanishes. He appears to have retired. The thing is though, in that year, James Olson was only 60 years old! I haven’t been able to find anything out online about why he disappeared  — no announcement, no feature article or interview.  He seems to have given the entire public an Irish goodbye! Was he sick? Did he, who got tantalizingly close to being a star (especially with Rachel, Rachel and Ragtime) get tired of getting shitty character parts and never becoming a household name? I’d be glad to know the answer because I am SUCH a fan of his acting, which was so solid and fun to watch, always the linchpin in whatever was going on. I am never anything but happy to see him turn up in anything. He was so PERFECT in Ragtime, where his character has this evolution from ramrod straight conventional man to a guy whose goodness compels him to do the right thing. He had the necessary gifts to hit both those notes, and to gradually move from one to the other. Where ARE you, James Olson??? You have fans, and they have missed you, lo, these many years.

15 comments

  1. Years ago when the IMDB still had message boards, someone posted that he was Olson’s nephew and implied that Olson had dementia or Alzheimer’s. He said his uncle had no social media presence and would be surprised and pleased were he to learn that fans missed him.

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    • Thank you! yes the Illinois location and the SAG membership lead me to suspect as much but weird for it to have been so quiet! How can it be? Millions of people knew this guy’s work if not his name precisely. If it’s him, he deserves more, to put it mildly

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  2. Back in 2007, over on the old Usenet alt.obituaries group, Jim Beaver (the actor from Deadwood, Supernatural, etc.) said that he heard that Olson had health problems and that’s why he dropped out of the industry. He couldn’t recall any other details, though.

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      • Watching columbo, season 2, episode 1 and saw james. I too wondered where he is? I’m glad he’s still alive. Hope he’s healthy and happy, good, good actor, very underestimated!!!

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  3. wow! good, thoughtful points, all! All I can think is that maybe he got sick or something? It’s very rare for someone to be able to KEEP this level of privacy in this day and age. It only whets my appetite to know the answer. And very apt your comparison to John Saxon. Thanks for writing!

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  4. My sentiments exactly! I miss the guy so much, his looks, acting, all top notch! I think he would have been awesome on some of today’s crime dramas as well like any of the ‘CSI’ series and even on ‘Law & Order’. Between him and another favorite cult-icon of mine, John Saxon, they would have been great either together like they did in ‘Strange New World’ or separately on any of those shows. There’s something about the both of them that make me fall head over heels. I could easily see Olson playing that of SS General Reinhard Heydrich very easily instead of Kenneth Brannagh if they were to have done a film about him or some similar wartime drama. He has all the tools, qualifications, not to mention looks and attitude to match and skills to make it work in his favor, I think. Just imagine if you will if you had Olson filling in Brannagh’s shoes in that role in the HBO remake ‘Conspiracy’. It would definitely be downright chilling, to say the least! And since Olson has been often portrayed in numerous TV crime-shows and dramas as the shady psychopathic malcontent type, why not? I have nothing against Brannagh as an actor, but I think Olson would have made an even better choice as Heydrich and not just from a theatrical point of view, but perhaps from a historically more accurate one. I could also see Olson play various serious roles as the Iago-type in a few things as well. When I heard he had ‘disappeared’ from the public eye regarding TV and films, I was crushed and wondered whatever became of the guy. At least Saxon is still making movies, mostly foreign-made and independent ones…and I can’t say that I blame him for that considering the politics involving Hollywood-made films having to meet some radical half-crazed social and political agenda of the acting crew, producer, director, etc. it’s all enough to make one puke! At least with independent films, one doesn’t have to worry about offending someone or agreeing with one’s political stance, it’s all about enlightening and maybe entertaining the viewers for a change instead of forcing one’s political or morality down someone’s throat because that’s how the world should be according to their values. Maybe Olson felt the same way, of not catering to one’s politics, and he decided, ‘Okay, enough already…I’ve had it up to my neck in putting up with somebody else’s brand of ‘politically correct’ BS and putting it to film or on TV.’ I sure would love to talk with both axon and Olson about that away from the press and public eye sometime, if I could and not necessarily as a journalist, but as a friend and confidante at the time and place of their choosing, even if it was at my place over dinner…I could make a decent Italian dinner or Swedish meatballs with all the fixin’s…starting with a decent antipasto and a sweet finale of dessert with some capuccino along brandy or aquavit…and let nature take its course from there! XOXOXO When I saw Olson in the film ‘Rachel, Rachel’ alongside Joane Woodward, there were some parts of the film I could relate to that it moved me to tears at times, bringing back so many memories of my misspent youth, to say the least. Other films that Saxon made(plus many others over the years) also made me feel the same way too.

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