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Little House on the Prairie' Star Richard Bull Became Actor by an Accident as He Never Gave 'a Serious Consideration' of It

Esther NJeri
Sep 23, 2021
07:30 P.M.

For most actors in Hollywood, making it on the silver screens is often a childhood dream, but for some, such as the "Little House on the Prairie" star Richard Bull, it started out accidentally.

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Richard Bull played shopkeeper Nels Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie." His strong character and astute judgment saw him solve misunderstandings, especially with his wife, with fairness and grace.

His firmness saw him keep his family on the right path by avoiding conflict with his menacing wife, Harriet, and exerting the appropriate punishment to his two spoiled kids.

"Little House on the Prairie" star Richard Bull | Source: Getty Images

"Little House on the Prairie" star Richard Bull | Source: Getty Images

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WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

Bull was born to Ralph William Bull and Pearl Smith in 1924. He came from the small town of Zion in Illinois. A few years after he was born, the family relocated to California, which worked in Bull's favor as he was now exposed to the world of movies.

Initially, Bull's parents only allowed him to watch a single movie a week, but after moving, he went to the theatres up to three times a week. He said he could not get enough.

Dean Butler as Almanzo James Wilder, Richard Bull as Nelson 'Nels' Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

Dean Butler as Almanzo James Wilder, Richard Bull as Nelson 'Nels' Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

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Richard's career in acting came by as an accident as he never really considered a career in acting. His interest in music led to his music study as a senior in high school, but then a friend coerced him to try theatre, and he fell in love with acting. He recalled:

"A friend suggested we attend the Goodman Theater School. In two weeks the friend dropped out, but I was hooked."

He would soon join the Army Corps as a radio presenter, but after being discharged, he went back to Goodman Theatre School to continue his studies.

Richard Bull as Nelson "Nels" Oleson on season 6 of "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

Richard Bull as Nelson "Nels" Oleson on season 6 of "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

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MAKING A NAME FOR HIMSELF

Bull's career began with "The Greatest Story Ever Told," where his character had a two-line part. This became the genesis of his career, and in his own words, the part opened numerous doors.

After his two-line part, George Stevens, a director, saw him and was impressed with his talent, and he cast him in "The Satan Bug" as an F.B.I. agent.

Bull would go on to appear in movies such as "High Plains Drifter," "The Andromeda Strain," and "The Stalking Moon." And yet, his skill was not limited to movies.

Michael Landon as Charles Philip Ingalls, Lindsay/Sidney Greenbush as Carrie Ingalls, Richard Bull as Nelson "Nels" Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

Michael Landon as Charles Philip Ingalls, Lindsay/Sidney Greenbush as Carrie Ingalls, Richard Bull as Nelson "Nels" Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

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He also made a name for himself, acting in various series such as "The Virginian," "The Streets of San Francisco," "The Man from U. N.C.L.E." "The Fugitive, "Peyton Place," "My Three Sons," "Mission: Impossible," "Mannix," "I Spy," and "Gunsmoke."

1965 was a good year for Bull. His career began to take off after being cast for the role of a doctor in "The Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." But it was his chance meeting with Michael Landon when shooting "Bonanza" that saw him land a role in the "Little House on the Prairie."

Richard Bull as Nelson "Nels" Oleson, Suzanne Rogers as Molly Reardon on "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

Richard Bull as Nelson "Nels" Oleson, Suzanne Rogers as Molly Reardon on "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

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Before his acting career became a hit, and while still studying at the Goodman Theatre School, Bull met a beautiful young actress, Barbara Collentine, and soon after, the two were engaged.

"LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE"

The long-running series came about as an inspiration from Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiographical musings, and it aired between 1974 and 1983 on N.B.C.

He played the role of a frontier shopkeeper who ran his "franchise" with his nagging wife Harriet, a character played by Katherine MacGregor.

Richard Bull as Nels Oelson on "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

Richard Bull as Nels Oelson on "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

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Together, they had a daughter Nellie and a son Willie, and despite being a loving and dedicated father to his kids, he would not back down when it came to instilling discipline in his children.

And while his role was brilliant, he seemed to deflate and act stupid in the presence of his overbearing wife. Bull always commented on how sorry he felt for his character for some of the things he had to go through.

Richard Bull as Nels Oleson, and his on-screen wife Harriet Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

Richard Bull as Nels Oleson, and his on-screen wife Harriet Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

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Audiences hooked on the show could also see the challenges Nels Oleson had to go through under the hen-pecking character of his wife. He once said about his character:

“I sometimes feel sorry for Nels Oleson. I couldn’t take some of the things he does."

Suffice to say, Bull enjoyed working on the show, but most importantly, working alongside Michael Landon, who directed the show and acted as the family patriarch Charles Ingalls.

 Richard Bull as Nels Oleson on Episode 16 of "Little House on the Prairie" - "Family Quarrel" aired 01/15/1975 | Source: Getty Images

Richard Bull as Nels Oleson on Episode 16 of "Little House on the Prairie" - "Family Quarrel" aired 01/15/1975 | Source: Getty Images

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After the show came to an end, Bull went on to appear in several series such as "Designing Women," "Hill Street Blues," and "Knots Landing" before reuniting with Landon to do "Highway to Heaven."

MEETING THE LOVE OF HIS LIFE

Before his acting career became a hit, and while still studying at the Goodman Theatre School, Bull met a beautiful young actress, Barbara Collentine, and the two fell in love. Soon after, they were engaged.

Collentine is known for her roles in the 1972 "The Streets of San Francisco," the 1961 "Everglades!" and "Hunter" in 1984. The lovebirds were soon taking up roles together in the theatre.

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Scottie (Katherine) MacGregor as Harriet Oleson, Richard Bull as Nels Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

Scottie (Katherine) MacGregor as Harriet Oleson, Richard Bull as Nels Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

[Bull's] legacy, however, lives on, and he will always be remembered for his role as the kind-hearted shopkeeper on the "Little House on the Prairie."

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They continued doing plays together, and after a few years of trying to make their way into the movie world, they moved to Los Angeles.

They appeared in "A Day in a Life" in 2000, a movie that chronicled the lives of five elderly friends trying to cope with life after retiring and the challenges that came with advanced age.

Scottie (Katherine) MacGregor as Harriet Oleson, Richard Bull as Nels Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

Scottie (Katherine) MacGregor as Harriet Oleson, Richard Bull as Nels Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie" | Source: Getty Images

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MOVING BACK TO CHICAGO

After doing "A Day In a Life," Bull and his long-time wife relocated back to Chicago but continued taking up roles, even appearing in the 2003 theatre production of "Man from Nebraska."

A few years in Chicago and the duo moved once again, this time back to California where they lived in a retirement home ran by the Motion Picture & Television Fund.

In February 2014, Bull succumbed to pneumonia-related complications in Calabasas in California. He is survived by his wife of then-66 years. His legacy, however, lives on, and he will always be remembered for his role as the kind-hearted shopkeeper on the "Little House on the Prairie."

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