It was my experience growing up LDS that Mormons have always been eager to point out successful Mormon celebrities where they could. The blog Waters of Mormon explains this phenomenon well:
Having famous Church members in the news in a variety of professional fields–business, sports, singing and dancing — provides a certain comfort to Latter-Day Saints who can see fellow Saints be successful on a national stage, even beyond the simple “good PR for the Church” standpoint.
If I (or one of my kids) wants to be a successful entrepreneur (or musician, or athlete, or writer) it’s nice to be able to point to some famous person and say, “See, he or she is a faithful Church member while also being successful at career X”. Having famous and/or successful Mormons sends the message outwardly that Church members are ‘normal’ and play regular roles in regular society — we’re not all cooped up in armed compounds in southern Utah or Texas or something — but also sends the message inwardly that secular success and spiritual success can mix: that faithful Saints don’t necessarily have to choose one or the other.
Of course, in order for this to really count, those famous Mormons have to be faithful and active also. Just being a member doesn’t mean much: if those famous Mormons are not currently active and practicing — even if the reasons for not being active have nothing to do with their chosen profession — they don’t really work as ‘examples’ for other Saints who might want to believe that they can be successful in their career without being forced to compromise their beliefs somewhere along the line.
In most professions, one can find any number of active and inactive Church members. Acting, however, seems to be an outlier.
It’s true that there just aren’t that many famous Mormon actors. When I was growing up, Merlin Olsen, the former football great turned broadcaster and family-friendly TV star, was frequently identified as a prominent exception. Granted, this is an awfully subjective metric here, but I was always under the impression that he was a Mormon in good standing.
So that’s why I was so sorely disappointed in the coverage of Olsen following his recent death. Olsen’s faith wasn’t mentioned in the Los Angeles Times or USA Today obituaries. And incredibly, for one of Utah’s more famous native sons, it wasn’t noted in the The Salt Lake Tribune. Adding to the confusion, the Los Angeles Daily News does identify him as Mormon. And the The New York Times does bring up his Mormon background, but doesn’t explain much:
“I was raised in a very strict Mormon home and in a Mormon community,” The Post-Standard of Syracuse quoted him as saying when he took the role of the Amish patriarch Aaron Miller. “There are certain things I can lean back on and remember in a family situation that helped me to work as an actor.”
For a guy that was identified as Mormon for decades, isn’t this all a bit odd? It kind of set off alarm bells when even the church-owned Deseret News didn’t discuss Olsen’s faith in their obituary. So I did a little poking around the internet and I saw some claims that Olsen was a non-devout cultural Mormon. He wasn’t an active LDS member, though he was loyal to his family which was still active in the faith. He believed strongly in the Mormon values imparted in him, and as such, perhaps didn’t mind being the face of the church.
That’s an interesting explanation, and if it’s true it would probably make for a fascinating story. Regardless, somebody on the Godbeat ought to get to the bottom of why someone frequently identified as Mormon suddenly wasn’t Mormon when he died.