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.