Richard Bull made over 100 film and TV appearances in his long career, none so notable as his roles as Doc on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Nels Olesen on Little House on the Prairie.
But despite his storied career, Bull actually fell into acting by accident. He and a friend attended the Goodman Theater School as seniors in high school, but within two weeks, his friend dropped out. “I never gave a serious consideration about becoming an actor,” Bull has said, “but I was hooked.”
He went on to have a long, impressive career in film and television. But what were his biggest, most memorable roles?
Richard Bull’s Film Roles
His first role was a two-line part in The Greatest Story Ever Told, but director George Stevens thought he was a great talent. This recommendation from Stevens led to a role as FBI agent Eric Cavanaugh in 1965’s The Satan Bug. Bull claimed that first role in The Greatest Story opened many doors for him in the acting world.
He also had a role in The Andromeda Strain in 1971 as an Air Force Major, as well as in High Planes Drifter in 1973 as Asa Goodwin. He had bit parts in 1967’s Hour of the Gun, about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday’s gunfight at the O.K. Corral; 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair, the story of a thief’s and insurance agent’s cat-and-mouse romance; and in 1968’s The Stalking Moon, about an Army scout and a white woman he finds living among an Apache tribe.
In 1978 he had a role in A Different Story starring Perry King and Meg Foster, and then didn’t have a movie role again until 2000. Instead, he mostly had parts in television through the 80s and 90s.
Bull’s Biggest Roles Were in Television
Richard Bull had guest roles on Gunsmoke and My Three Sons in 1962. In 1964, he starred in various episodes of Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea as the Doctor, or simply Doc. The show lasted from 1964 to 1968 and followed the crew of the nuclear submarine the S.S.R.N Seaview as it attempted to fulfill its mission to protect Earth from threats domestic and extraterrestrial.
In 1965 and 1966, Bull’s career really started to take off; he had guest roles on Mission: Impossible, Mannix in which he played 4 different characters over 7 episodes, Gomer Pyle, USMC, Bonanza, and Columbo.
But it was in Little House on the Prairie in 1974 that he really found his footing. Bull played Nels Olesen, who ran a frontier shop with his overbearing wife and their two children. Bull actually felt a deep sympathy for his character, saying, I sometimes feel sorry for Nels Oleson. I couldn’t take some of the things he does.”
Olesen put up with a lot from his nit-picky wife Harriet, and he seemed to turn into a buffoon in her presence. But, he endured, and Richard Bull enjoyed playing the role and especially working with Michael Landon. He has said that is was a “pleasure” to work with Landon, and that he made the experience “relaxed and fun.”