Obituary: James R. Olson

Photo courtesy.

James R. Olson 


James Olson died peacefully at his home in Malibu Sunday, April 17, at age 91. Born in Evanston, IL, Olson was a graduate of Evanston Township High School and Northwestern University. From the mid-1950s until his retirement in 1990, Olson had a distinguished career as an actor on stage, film, and television. Beginning his career as a child actor recording radio jingles in Chicago, Olson started working in theatre while still an undergraduate at Northwestern. 

After serving in the U.S. Army, Olson moved to New York to study in Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio. He subsequently starred in several Broadway productions in the 1950s and 1960s, including J.B. (1958), Romulus (1962), The Three Sisters (1964), and Of Love and Remembrance (1967). He also appeared in numerous touring productions throughout North America.

While theater was always his first love, Olson became a familiar face in film and television, appearing in over 90 productions. His film credits include The Sharkfighters (1956), The Strange One (1957), The Three Sisters (1966, reprising his role from the Broadway production), Moon Zero Two (1969), Wild Rovers (1971), The Mafu Cage (1978), Amityville II: The Possession (1982), Commando (1985), and Rachel River (1987). He co-starred with Joanne Woodward in the 1968 academy award nominated best picture, Rachel, Rachel, and had memorable starring roles in The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Ragtime (1981). From the late 1950s through the 1980s, Olson was a recognizable guest star on numerous television shows, including Kraft Television TheatrePlayhouse 90, Route 66IronsideMannixLancerHawaii Five-OThe F.B.I., McCloudColumboMcMillan and WifeBonanzaMaudeThe Streets of San FranciscoBattlestar GalacticaLittle House on the Prairie, and Murder, She Wrote. He also co-starred in numerous TV movies, including The Missiles of October (1974), Someone I Touched (1975), The Spell (1977), The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer (1977), and The Silent Lovers (1980). After his retirement, he remained an avid follower of film and theater, regularly traveling to London and New York to see productions. He enjoyed sharing reflections on his acting career with his family.  

Olson is survived by two nieces, Susan Baker (Chuck Baker) and Robin Olson (Christopher Evans), a nephew, David James Olson (Caryn Olson), and three grandnephews, Peter Olson Evans, Andrew Olson Evans, and Calvin James Olson. He is predeceased by his parents, Leroy and Florence Olson, and a brother, Lee Olson. He is also survived by longtime friends from their days together at Northwestern, Inga and Lowell Harris. 

A celebration of Jim’s life is planned for a later date this spring.