'Late Night's' Carl 'Oldy' Olsen dies at 76

by Erik Tanouye | 7/16/98 5:00am

The year was 1994.

A baseball strike had crippled the nation's sports fans.

A fledgling ex-"Simpsons" writer was struggling to survive in David Letterman's old spot on NBC's "Late Night."

And the small legion of Conan fans was introduced to the comic talents of William Preston, now known to millions of television viewers as Carl "Oldy" Olsen.

Preston, who brought a Santa Claus beard and maniacal laugh to the role of Oldy Olsen, died Friday at the age of 76.

Conan O'Brien's first years at "Late Night" were shaky, to say the least. But despite taking beatings from the critics and the ratings, he developed a loyal, if minuscule, fan base with first-rate comedy sketches that mixed the topical and the surreal: take the 1994 Major League Baseball Strike, for example

O'Brien had been on the air less than a year when the labor dispute forced baseball games off NBC and television altogether.

While other shows made jokes at the expense of players and owners, "Late Night" looked for a solution -- the show staged replacement games which pitted a team of senior citizens ("The White Stockings") against a team of eight-year-old boys ("The Turbo Ninjas").

The bit worked mostly as a visual gag: short little kids running around with frail old men. And every game ended with a bench-clearing brawl.

The frailest of the old men was Carl "Oldy" Olsen. We would see Oldy in the post game interviews muttering "White Stockings!! White Stockings!! Ha ha ha ha ha!!"

Olsen eventually became the Larry "Bud" Melman of O'Brien's "Late Night," appearing in a variety of roles and segments. Any sketch was funnier for his presence.

There was, however, a morbid aspect to Olsen's appearances. Part of the humor was the mere fact that a man could be so old, so near death, and still participate in the show. But his death never seemed too imminent, regardless of the situation, because unlike Bud Melman, Olsen appeared to understand the jokes and his role in them.

You didn't feel bad laughing at the show because you felt he was laughing along with you, in his treacherous way.

Olsen cemented his legacy in "Late Night" history when he appeared in the landmark bit commemorating the anniversary of "We Are the World." To mark the occasion, O'Brien tried to stage another charitable recording session, "Famous Helping People."

It was, of course, a hilarious disaster. The only people who showed up were O'Brien, his sidekick Andy Richter, musical director Max Weinberg, Carl "Oldy" Olsen and Sting.

Sting and Olsen's duet still ranks as one of the funniest moments in "Late Night" history -- on the same plateau as Andy's Woodstock appearance or Conan's trip to Houston.

Olsen later showed up in a white tuxedo at Conan's Third Anniversary Special to introduce a video montage of violent moments from the show.

"You've been a big part of the show," O'Brien told him.

"So I have," he replied. "But so has violence, and the next clip is all about violence. Violence, violence, sweet violence!" And then his trademark laugh.

Afterward, on the way to commercial, O'Brien was only partially exaggerating when he said, "God love you, Oldy, we couldn't do it without you."

If it seems, at times, difficult to distinguish William Preston the actor from the character "Oldy" Olsen, it is because Preston inhabited the comic role so thoroughly.

Even when he was playing characters in a more serious vein, it was difficult for "Late Night" fans not to think of him as Olsen. The small minority of "Late Night" viewers present in Spaulding Auditorium for the premiere of "The Crucible" in 1996 were pleasantly surprised to see Preston's familiar face in a supporting role.

Fans could also see him on stage and in "Waterworld" and "Blue in the Face," among other films.

Despite his skills as an actor, however, most college students will fondly remember William Preston as Oldy Olsen, who showed that you could still be wildly funny and play ball, no matter how old you are.