Who didn’t watch Little House on the Prairie during the 1970s? Little House was on TV once a week, and we all watched it. Much like The Brady Bunch, the iconic TV series defined the American family. It delivered “family values” packaged in a way all audiences couldn’t help but love. And it invigorated an American West nostalgia that brought the dreamy idyllic of pioneering families settling a homestead to life. From cowboys and Indians dominating TV screens all through the 50s and into the 60s, to something like an American kumbaya at Thanksgiving, the show defined an era. But what was it like behind the scenes? After the scenes? And what happened to those memorable townsmen in real life once the series ended? Keep reading to find out all of the intriguing details!
The beloved TV series aired on NBC from 1974 up until its last episode on May 10,1982. After that, reruns have played weekdays, every single day, for years on end. The appeal just doesn’t go away – the pioneering spirit is etched into American hearts. Based on the adored book series of her family’s frontier life, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the pioneering Ingalls family, Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura and little Carrie, finally settle in a quaint mercantile town called Walnut Grove. The prairie-period Minnesotan town and its little house was actually shot in California, at Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley. It’s there where the TV drama comes to life, with moving scenes between the Ingalls and others of the pioneer-era townsmen, most notably between Laura Ingalls (Melissa Gilbert) and Nellie Oleson (Alison Arngrim). Their bitter and farcical childhood rivalry had everyone taking sides, but mostly against Nellie and for the sweet and kind Laura, who stood her ground against the town’s wealthy bully. Everyone recalls that one time when the girls’ animosity met memorably in the mud fight scene. The riveting dynamic was certainly well played.
Melissa gets irritated
It’ll come as a shock, then, that the two girls didn’t hate on each other off scene. They actually liked each other. And not only that, they adored each other. In an interview with Oprah, Melissa Gilbert opened up and shared the fact that the two girls were the best of friends, and that she hung out with Alison Arngrim exclusively, on and off set. In 2014, Gilbert told the legendary hostess: “We loved each other. We had sleepovers at each other’s houses. We were at each other’s birthday parties.” And things haven’t changed much, now that they’re all grown up, “We’re still really close,” Gilbert said.
So it will be funny to find out the off camera scoop: When Nellie got married and was required to do the kissing scene with her new husband, Percival (played by Steve Tracy), the two took every chance they could find to tease Melissa Gilbert. Steve and Alison knew how squeamish the make-out scene made Melissa, so they practiced in front of her whenever she was around. The fact that Steve, an openly gay man, had zero interest in Alison, made no difference. Their outlandish kissing performances tormented and teased. At the time, 15-year-old Melissa, as Laura, was married to Almanzo Wilder (played by Dean Butler), and, quite frankly, she was mortifyingly averse to kissing scenes. (His 5 o’clock stubble freaked her out). A sweet young innocent thing.
Drugs and alcohol
I bet you didn’t know this. Many cast and crew members of the Little House set battled alcohol and drug addiction off stage. Not surprising? How about on stage? Some fairly established rumors have it that many a cast and crew member drank on set, all day long. Pa, or Charles Ingalls, the show’s main man and ideal dad (played so well by Michael Landon), requested whiskey in his coffee in the mornings, drank beer all day long, and then attended the makeshift bar found propped upon a sawhorse, after filming wrapped for the day. They drank so much beer that high stress days were simply called “three-case days.” Landon admitted in a 1983 interview with WaPo, that he had a valium addiction. But, he said, that was on the set of Bonanza, the show that launched his frontiersman TV career.
In her memoir, Prairie Tale, Melissa Gilbert recalls Michael Landon sipping what she thought was coffee, but which turned out to be vodka in his mug. She also discusses her own struggles with drugs and alcohol, which happened after the show wrapped. She drank a lot! Up to three bottles of wine a night, at one point. She said she realized she had a problem when she woke up one morning and found herself sleeping in the dog bed. Since then, sobriety and a recovery lifestyle have replaced heavy drinking.
Michael Landon was Jewish and he wasn’t named Michael Landon
Eugene Maurice Orowitz was born in 1936, in Queens, New York, to a Jewish dad, Eli Maurice Orowitz, and an Irish Catholic mom, Peggy O’Neill. His parents were both involved in the theatre. Eugene Maurice learned Hebrew, became Jewish, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and fended off racism in a neighborhood area that did not allow Jews until after WWII. This wasn’t the reason he changed his name. As it seems, his dad, an actor and theater manager, was influential to his faith, as well as his career. What happened is Eugene Maurice dropped out of college, found an acting school, and landed a small acting gig in a TV show some months later. At the acting school, he told them his stage name is Michael Landon, he found it flipping through a phone book; and that’s how it happened. In his later years, his Jewish faith fell to the background, he never practiced Catholicism at all, but from then on out, he identified himself as Jewish, and as Michael Landon.
It doesn’t take much to notice that Little House practically bleeds American Christianity. With costuming harking back to a Puritan past, back to the days when religious pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, and with Michael Landon as “Pa Knows Best,” epitomizing a father-of-the-year character to broad and sweeping American appeal, I wonder if his Jewish heritage would’ve affected audience adoration of Pa Ingalls in his little house with his doting family, on the 19th century Midwestern prairie lands? (Not to mention his drinking habits!)
Michael Landon had a hair obsession. He also abhorred crowds and bit his nails. He had a traumatic experience once when he was at USC. A bunch of football players pinned him down and shaved his head. Apparently, his full head of rolling dark curls was too long for them. When it started going grey in his twenties, he began dying it himself; “medium ash brown,” by Clairol, if you need to know. He trimmed it himself, too. (Part of the neuroses).
By the time he played Pa on Little House, the stylists had a heck of a time keeping its hue in range. Apparently, outdoor filming under the harsh California rays can cause strange looking chemical reactions. Landon, who died of cancer in 1991, once made this quirky, but now poignant, observation regarding his hair: “My hair will last,” he mused, “My whole body will be gone. It will just be hair in a coffin.”
Little House addressed serious issues
As a heart-warming program centered around the well known frontier family, Little House episodes have dealt compassionately with various issues that affect all people, and families, in particular. Themes such as faith, alcoholism, blindness, adoption, prejudice, leukemia and child abuse have been addressed within plots of the various programs.
One show even brushed bravely upon the terrible situation of rape. Reaching out like this was important to writer and director Michael Landon. Little House, with Pa and his lively fiddle surrounded by his happily dancing family, the generally warm and fuzzy feel-good show dared to address issues that were extremely touchy for people at the time, and they did it with grace and empathy. Commendable.
Real life family on and off set
He’s a NYC stock broker now, but in the 70s, he was Nellie Oleson’s spoiled brat little brother on TV, and Melissa Gilbert’s little brother, in real life. Stay with me. Jonathan Gilbert, better known as Willie Oleson, was adopted into Melissa Gilbert’s family and was cast as Willie, Nellie’s troublesome little brother (and sometimes mean sidekick).
During one episode, Nellie and Willie cruelly teased Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson) about her new glasses, until she “lost” them to escape their heckling. The point is, Melissa Gilbert and Jonathan Gilbert are brother and sister, but they don’t act like it. According to Gilbert’s memoir, Prairie Tale, Jonathan took off for New York in his 20s and she never heard from him again. The siblings are estranged. Maybe one day they’ll patch things up?
Mary and Laura Ingalls did not act like sisters behind the scenes
Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson may have shared a first name, but they didn’t have much more in common in real life. On camera they played loving sisters, off camera they had a rivalry on par with the show’s actual rivalrous characters, Laura and Nellie. Gilbert and Anderson simply did not like each other, and their icy relationship persisted for the duration of the show.
It remains to this day! In fact, in the acknowledgements of Gilbert’s memoir, she even included a suggestion by a friend to title the book, “Nellie Wasn’t the Bitch, Mary Was.” Jeez. Melissa Sue was the only actor who received an Emmy nomination for the show, so there’s that (read: Melissa Gilbert never got one).
Walnut Grove, Minnesota is a real town
Established in 1874, and home to 871 people, Walnut Grove is a bona fide town. It’s home to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, at which you’ll learn Charles Ingalls, the real “Pa,” was the town’s first justice. The set for the Little House series was filmed on a ranch in Simi Valley, in close proximity to Hollywood, obviously.
The real Walnut Grove town was, interestingly enough, the setting of On the Banks of Plum Creek, the fourth book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s auto-biographical series about pioneer and settler life. The real life pioneer family lived in a dugout house built right into the banks of the creek, for two years. They didn’t stay long at Walnut Grove’s nearby Plum Creek. By 1876, they packed up the wagon and headed out.
Nellie’s bloody hair
The hair, the curls. Pa’s were real, Nellie’s came from a wig. Actress Alison Arngrim was blonde, naturally, but her fine locks didn’t hold her curls. In order for the wig with the famously sculpted ringlets to look like her natural hair, the stylists attached it to her scalp so tightly it caused her to bleed occasionally. That’s dedication.
Arngrim, who does stand-up comedy these days, revealed the pain and suffering caused by the wig in her memoir, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated. Donning the Nellie wig on the comedy stage, she affectionately calls the enduring Little House fans “bonnet heads,” and says one of their ten most frequently asked questions is, “was that really your hair?” No. It was a wig.
The cancer conspiracy theory
Sadly, several of the cast and crew of Little House died of cancer. Michael Landon died of pancreatic cancer in 1991, he was just 54. Victor French, who played the dependable neighbor that helped the Ingalls settle, Isaiah Edwards, also died of cancer when he was 54. Merlin Olsen played neighbor Jonathan Garvey, and he died of mesothelioma. Also, Kevin Hagen, the reliable Doc Baker, succumbed to esophageal cancer.
Luckily, Charlotte Stewart, the adored school teacher they called Mrs. Beadle, is a breast cancer survivor. With so many incidents of cancer, many have questioned the environmental hazards of the Simi Valley set. Nearby, at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, there was a nuclear meltdown in 1959. Radioactive waste continued to be dumped at the site into the 80s, during the time the show was being filmed. Radioactive waste is known to cause cancer.
Puberty is inconvenient
Working with child actors can be trying, and also full of surprises. That’s what happened when Melissa Gilbert began looking less like the little girl character Laura Ingalls she was supposed to play, due to her new developments in the chest area.
To keep her childish appearance in line, Melissa was forced to bind herself with corset-like ties, and this on top of stockings, and petticoats, and pinafores! Puberty can be humiliating!
A known practical joker
Michael Landon was an incessant jester. His son, Michael Landon, Jr. who spent much of his childhood happily loping and scampering all over the rural Simi Valley outdoor set, described how his dad would do weird things, like hide a frog or a lizard inside his mouth, and then approach people with a handshake and a greeting, which would reveal the reptilian surprise. He sure knew how to freak people out.
As a perpetual prankster, many an outtake was a result of Michael’s doing - intentionally flubbing a line or busting a scene. Off scene he was constantly joking, teasing and poking fun, he was just a playful and fun guy.
“The Last Farewell”
No special effects necessary in this episode. They actually blew up the set. They exploded Walnut Grove, literally, with dynamite. It was a huge blast! In this final take and post-series special, “The Last Farewell” aired in 1984, the townsmen are up in arms, pitchforks in hand, about a developer who wants to take over their land.
What happened was, land developing tycoon Lassiter had acquired the rights to the entire township. The infuriated townsmen tried to fight him off in court, but lost the legal battle. At that point, Laura, mad as all heck, leads everyone to the drastic solution of blowing up the entire town, in order to take Lassiter’s rights away and restore justice. In real life, under contract, the land that provided the set for Walnut Grove had to be returned to its original condition. So it was Michael Landon’s directorial decision that blew the town to smithereens.
Girls can be mean
By all accounts, the set of Little House was a tight-knit group that was described as a second family by many cast members. Except Melissa Sue Anderson, the actress who played Mary Ingalls. About her, it was said, she was standoffish, aloof, or else stuck-up and mean. In her memoir, The Way I See It, which came to press around the same time as her childhood castmates’ Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim’s books, rounding out a Little House memoir trilogy, she avoided mentioning the offstage relationship between the two Ingalls TV sisters.
In an interview, when asked about the omission, Anderson replied that the reason she didn’t mention Gilbert in her book was because the two of them were, quite frankly, not friends. She also pointed out that they were two “very, very different” people. Everyone knows Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim were BFFs on the set and off, always having a wonderful time. Arngrim has been quoted saying, “Melissa and I were wild and fun loving,” but “Melissa Sue just looked at us and shook her heard.” A much more serious and mature actress. Clearly.
Melissa G.’s falling out with “Pa”
The tight-knit set was like a second family to Melissa Gilbert. In her memoir, she recounts the experience saying Alison Arngrim was like a sister to her, and Michael Landon was like a surrogate dad. Melissa’s real dad died when she was 11, so her relationship with Landon became very close, he was a father figure to her.
So when he got divorced and remarried, Melissa reacted like many daughters. She got angry and disowned her dad, distancing herself from the Landon family. In the end, they were close, he was like a mentor to her, and when he died she was very sad.
“I’m feeling faint!”
Walnut Grove, the fictional town that we all recognize as the prairie landscape, is actually a 10,000 acre ranch in Simi Valley and, like any non-coastal area of Southern California several miles in from the sea, it can get hot, hot, hot. It’s 90 degrees on an average day.
On the first day of filming, sweltering under stockings, petticoats, pinafores and bonnets, Alison Arngrim swooned and passed out. She wasn’t the only one. An assistant director fainted from heat stroke as well. It’s always sunny and beautiful out there, but too much sun can be dangerous.
Landon’s penchant for exhibiting his brawn
Much like the “Vlad” Putin, Michael Landon also never backed off from any opportunity to showcase his stuff. If there was a reason to go shirtless on camera, he took it. It was the same when he played “Little Joe” Cartwright on Bonanza.
If the camera’s on, the shirt’s off - if the occasion presents itself. On Little House, any injuries Charles sustained, like a broken arm or rib, meant showtime; time to show off his masculinity.
We already know how uncomfortable make-out scenes were for Melissa Gilbert. Recall the relentless teasing from Alison and Steve when their characters Nellie and Percival got married. So when Almanzo Wilder and she tied the knot, her character becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, she dreaded the intimacy scene that night in the conjugal bed.
Making out, consummating their marriage, it was totally awwkwaaard. Imagine. A 15-year-old girl in bed with a 23-year-old man. She was not having it.
Melissa's wild side
Melissa Gilbert played a very sweet, conscientious young girl, and by all accounts, she was very similar as a child. When she got older, her TV star lifestyle caught up with her and she lived some tumultuous times.
She partied a lot, drank too much, and dated celebs Billy Idol, Scott Baio, Tom Cruise and Michael Landon, Jr. At one point she was engaged to Rob Lowe, but it didn’t last. She’s been married three times to husbands Bruce Boxleitner, Bo Brinkman and Timothy Busfield, her current husband.
One of the most memorable images from Little House depicts the youngest sister, Carrie, running alongside her sisters and then taking a stumble and tumbling down the lush hillside. Carrie was played by two girls, Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush.
As twins, they would take turns shooting scenes so that labor laws for childhood actors wouldn’t be violated. During the running scene, the fall was completely unscripted. The three girls were being filmed bounding down the hill when one of the little twins fell. The director loved the shot, and it lives on in perpetuity.
Ma’s real name
Caroline Ingalls, a tough-as-nails pioneer woman, known adoringly as “Ma,” the kindest, most gentle mom that ever did grace the small screen, was played by Karen Grassle. For some reason, she thought a stage name would be better. As a theatre actress she used her real name, but for TV she came up with “Gabriel Tree” when she auditioned for “Ma” on Little House.
Michael Landon let her know it was ridiculous, and way too hippie for the times. As it turns out, she was born and raised in Berkeley, and a UC Berkeley theater student, too. He was right on the money. She dropped the stage name, and starred as Karen Grassle.
Borrowing from Bonanza
Michael Landon, as ‘Little Joe” Cartwright, began his career as a western actor on the immensely popular western TV show, Bonanza. The NBC program ranks in the top ten of the longest running television series, at 14 consecutive seasons. Bonanza was filmed on “Ponderosa Ranch,” at a little silver mining town called Virginia City, located near the California Nevada border.
When NBC exec Ed Friendly approached Landon with the Little House story, Landon agreed to write and direct the pilot movie, on one condition: that he could act the lead role (and, of course, take his shirt off whenever possible). So it comes as no surprise that many of the Little House episodes were heavily borrowed from some of Bonanza’s. Script recycling is common in the television world. One of the storylines that Landon recycled from Bonanza was season two, “A Matter of Faith”, which was based on the Bonanza episode, “A Matter of Circumstance.”
Playing the snooty, scheming, mean-girl antagonist was not Alison Arngrim’s first choice, but she was determined to land a Little House role. Alison came from a show business family. Her dad, Thor Arngrim, was a Hollywood manager and her mom, Norma MacMillan was an actress who voiced Casper the Friendly Ghost, as well as other characters.
When the auditions were announced, Arngrim just had to be a part of the quaint, prairie country show. First she went for the lead, obviously, but she didn’t make the cut to play Laura. She then auditioned for Mary, but lost out to Melissa Sue Anderson. Finally, she read from Nellie’s script for the first episode and took the crown, or the wig, as it were. A perfect fit.
Pa wasn’t really that tall
Add it to the list of quirks and obsessions. Michael Landon was a handsome man of 5’9”. But 5’9” was not tall enough for him. In order to appear tall, dark and handsomer, he schlepped around on stage in boots, with a four-inch high platform.
If you watched the show much, you’ll have noticed Pa is often set upon ladders or mounds, any perspective to make him look like the towering woodsman he really wants to be. Just part of the perks of writing, directing, producing and starring in your own show.
Michael Landon didn’t start writing and directing on Little House, he first tried his hand when he was on Bonanza. When Bonanza was in its sixth season, it topped the chart. It remained the number one show for three consecutive years. Landon noticed that he was receiving more fan mail than any other member of the cast. Based on his popularity, it seemed to him that he should have more of a stake in the show. Landon approached the executive producer of Bonanza and NBC about writing.
He wrote his first script in 1962. He directed his first episode in 1968. He did well. So well, that he was tapped to write and direct for Little House, after Bonanza came to the end of its long run. If you watched both shows, you might’ve recalled some familiarity between episodes on the two programs. This is because Landon often borrowed from previous scripts. Both shows touched on broader social issues and focused on the love, care, and support of close family life, so it was easy to recycle scripts. Season five episode of Little House, “Someone Please Love Me” was script-borrowed from the Bonanza episode, “A Dream To Dream.” “The Silent Cry” from season seven was based on the Bonanza episode, “The Sound of Sadness.” And so on.
Little House on the Prairie has never left syndicated air. In fact, it has played for over 40 continuous years! And, it has been shown in syndication since the show’s explosive finale. Audiences love the program. It runs weekdays on INSP, Hallmark Channel, and on NBC’s syndicated offshoot COZI, where it plays four times a day! It’s so popular, that one of its episodes made TV Guide’s “Top 100 Episodes of All Time” list.
It’s broadcast in over 30 countries around the world, as well. And, get ready for it, Paramount is currently working on a Little House on the Prairie movie. The big screen reboot of the original Little House TV pilot is coming soon. Interestingly, Little House became a smash hit in Spain. During the 70s, Spanish audiences were so wild about the show they called, “La Casa de la Pradera,” that it won high acclaim on Spanish TV award shows. It was one of their most popular TV shows, too.
What happened to “Pa” after Little House?
On TV Guide’s “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time” list, Michael Landon as “Pa” ranked No. 4. What next? Well, I will tell you. Next, Michael Landon went on to play an Angel who comes down from heaven to help folks. What else? As writer, director and executive producer for Highway to Heaven, it was his show. Victor French, who played his Little House neighbor, Isaiah Edwards, co-starred. After six seasons, Edwards was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1989, and Landon called it quits. NBC fired him. By 1991 he was starring in a CBS TV movie, Us, playing a wrongly convicted man who was freed from prison after serving 18 years.
He also wrote and directed a TV movie called Where Pigeons Go to Die, in the meantime. The same year, sadly, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died on July 1, 1991. Upon receiving his diagnosis, he quipped, “I want my agent to know that this shoots to hell any chance of doing a health food commercial.” A wise-cracker until the end.Another TV Guide list Landon made, was the “50 Sexiest Stars of All Time.” No surprise, then, that he was married three times and had nine children between them all. When he died, he was married to his third wife, Cindy Clerico, who he married in 1983. She was his stylist off the set of Little House. Fun fact: The affair with Cindy and the divorce from his second wife caused Melissa Gilbert to disown him as a surrogate dad.
What happened to “Ma” after Little House?
Karen Grassle’s portrayal of Caroline Ingalls is forever immortalized. Today, no one can read the Little House on the Prairie book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and not see Grassle’s face when ‘Ma’ speaks. Although she is also immortalized as an American TV star, theater was her first love. In 1968, she debuted on Broadway with her first role in a show called The Gingham Dog. Her performance scored her a nomination for Best Newcomer. Moving to television, she temporarily used the stage name Gabriel Tree, and auditioned for Caroline Ingalls, but took Landon’s advice and kept her real name.
When Little House ended, she returned to Broadway and appeared in many a regional and touring production. She dedicated herself to the Resource Theatre Company she co-founded, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She lived in New Mexico until she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she continued to pursue her love of theatre with the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Although she left Hollywood for the stage, she did return to California for a role in Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp (1994). She continued with some television work, like showing up for a Love Boat episode, and a couple of Murder, She Wrote shows, but has stayed with her first love, the Bay Area and theatre, where she continues to perform.
What else has Melissa Gilbert been up to post-Little House?
Melissa Gilbert was America’s sweetheart, the girl next door, and Pa’s little darlin’ half-pint. While her childhood looked ideal, the reality was more dysfunctional than functional. At age 20, when most people are setting off to their lives and careers, nine years of Little House was just wrapping up. In her 20s, she went through a wild period, dating and partying with the celeb elite. It was the 80s, after all, an era known for its excesses. Continuing her work in television, she won the lead role in Choices of the Heart, a 1983 production, and in 1986, she starred in the TV movie, Choices. She also appeared in television shows Providence and Nip/Tuck, and voiced Batgirl for Batman, the Animated Series. In 1985, stardom turned immutable when her star was embedded into the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was one of the youngest actresses ever to receive a star.
Melissa loved acting and television, although she also played “Ma” on stage, in the 2008 touring production, Little House on the Prairie, the Musical. She joined Dancing with the Stars in 2012, but was eliminated by the eighth week. In 2001, she ran for president of the Screen Actors Guild, and won. She was president of SAG until 2005. She’s been married three times and has four sons, one from the first marriage, and one from the second, plus two step-sons from the second marriage. Currently, she’s married to actor and director Timothy Busfield. They live in Michigan. In 2016, she ran for Michigan’s 8th congressional district and won the Democratic primary. Gilbert dropped out before being elected to congress, due to a head and neck injury - although, it may have had something to do with the $360,000 in back taxes she owed.She’s published two books, her tell-all memoir, and a prairie themed cookbook for Little House fans.
Jason Bateman as James Cooper Ingalls
After Little House, the actor who went on to have one of the most successful careers in Hollywood is Jason Bateman. (I bet you didn’t even know he was little James). He played James Cooper-Ingalls, a darling orphan boy adopted by the Ingalls. Bateman appeared in just two seasons, the final two, which served as a very powerful springboard to his career. His Little House accolades are literally buried under his cumulative life work.
His many roles populated all kinds of popular TV shows: Silver Spoons, Knight Rider, It’s Your Move, Mr. Belvedere, St. Elsewhere and The Hogan Family, to name a few. He’s also been in over 40 big screen films, including Juno and Horrible Bosses. He won a Golden Globe and a Satellite Award for his deadpan comedy role as Michael Bluth in Arrested Development. Currently, he’s a director and producer for the Netflix crime series, Ozark, in which he stars as well.
Life after Little House for Alison Arngrim
Arngrim has cleverly capitalized on her famous role by transforming the anti-popularity of Nellie Oleson into a writer/comedian career. As a child actress, prior to starring on Little House, she went on to do some television work after the show ended as well, guest-starring on hit TV series, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Additionally, she was a frequent panelist on the game show, Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour. During the Little House days, Arngrim and her TV husband Percival, Steve Tracy, became very close. Like her on-set relationship with Melissa Gilbert, Tracy and Arngrim became BFFs as well. When Tracy was diagnosed with AIDS, Arngrim stood by his side and advocated for AIDS awareness. She became involved in AIDS Project Los Angeles, using the popularity of Nellie’s character to open up discussions about the disease. Due to the tragic and painful loss of her dear friend Steve Tracy to AIDS, in 1986, she is still very much active in the gay community.
As a stand-up comedian, she has headlined shows at the Laugh Factory, the Comedy Store and the Improv in Los Angeles, filling packed houses across the nation. She started out in 2002 at NYC’s Club Fez, with her jokes about what it’s like being known as the world’s most hated girl. “It’s like having PMS for seven years,” Arngrim laughs. In 2010, she published her memoir, a book-version of her stand up routine, called, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated. She’s still active in TV, film, stage, and has even delved into French cinema, with a role in the French detective comedy, Le Deal. Traversing beyond traditional production, she’s recently fulfilled a childhood dream: starring in a horror flick. It’s a supernatural web series, called The Mephisto Box. She plays a satanic high priestess.
Melissa Sue Anderson, after Mary Ingalls
Prior to Little House, Anderson made appearances on TV shows Bewitched, The Brady Bunch and Shaft; and showed up on The Love Boat, ABC Afterschool Special, CHiPS and Fantasy Island, during the years she played Mary Ingalls on NBC. Out of all the child actors starring in Little House, Anderson has arguably fared best. She happens to be very much like her gentle “Mary” character - shy, kind, and to herself - so much so, she stood aloof and excluded from the tight-knit cast.
According to Alison Arngrim, “Melissa and I were wild and fun loving, Melissa Sue just looked at us and shook her head". Anderson married TV producer Michael Sloan, in 1990. They have two grown children, a daughter and a son, Piper and Griffin. They’ve been living in Montreal as Canadian citizens since they were naturalized in 2007. Anderson says she preferred to be a stay-at-home mom rather than act, but she continued acting, with roles in films such as Dead Men Don’t Die, Veronica Mars, and The Con Is On.
Todd Bridges as Solomon Henry
Todd Bridges appeared on only one episode of Little House, however, his ill-fate ranked up with the worst of the child actor cast list. In 1977, he starred in “The Wisdom of Solomon” as Solomon Henry, an 11-year-old son of a Mississippi sharecropper who ran away from home and stayed with the racially-inclusive Ingalls family for a short time, happy to be allowed to attend school as a black boy. The episode is an example of how Little House meant to address social issues with a bleeding liberal heart.
Bridges began his acting career as a child, starring in the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes as Willis, the wildly popular older brother of equally famous Arnold. When the two black brothers from Harlem move in with wealthy, white, Park Avenue businessman Phillip Drummond, hilarious escapades ensue, all three of them became household names. Like Melissa Gilbert, fame came early to Bridges. Adult life found him with severe drug addictions and several run-ins with the authorities. He’s alleged to have tried to kill an L.A. drug dealer. In 2010, he opened up with Oprah, saying he’d been sexually abused as an 11-year-old child. Hence, the addiction issues.Recently, he’s starred on Everybody Hates Chris, and on TruTV Presents: World’s Dumbest, as a comedic commentator.
Ernest Borgnine as Jonathan
Ernest Borgnine is yet another famous actor who also played a role on Little House. Borgnine made a special guest appearance on episode 114, “The Lord is My Shepherd,” which aired in 1974. He played a heaven-sent stranger named Jonathan, who helps Laura get over her jealousy, anger and guilt about refusing to accept a newly born baby brother into the family. When the baby dies, Laura runs off, overcome with guilt. Jonathan helps her back to her family.
Ernest Borgnine’s acting career took off in 1951 and spanned six decades. By 1955, he had won an Academy Award for Best Actor in the film Marty. In 1960, he got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. At age 92, he received his third Primetime Emmy Award nomination, which he earned for his performance in the 2009 season finale of ER. He died of kidney failure in 2012, at the ripe old age of 95. Until then, he was the oldest living Best Actor recipient.
Merlin Olsen as Jonathan Garvey
First he was an NFL superstar, and then he was a Hollywood superstar. Until his role on Little House kicked off his acting career, Merlin Olsen was most well known as Pro Football Hall of Famer, NFL defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams. His voice was also well known on the airwaves as a NFL sportscaster for NBC.
As Jonathan Garvey on Little House, Olsen chilled with “Pa,” engaging in serious man-talks, and taking the place of Pa’s former rugged, frontiersman sidekick, Isaiah Edwards (Victor French), who went off to do his own thing. The bromance went on for three seasons, season four through season seven. Sadly, Olsen died of stomach cancer in 2010. Before succumbing to the disease, he sued NBC for carcinogen exposure.
Dean Butler as Almanzo Wilder
Dean Butler is remembered as Laura’s husband during the later years, appearing on the last four seasons of the program. After Little House ended, he made frequent TV appearances, and played Buffy’s dad on the obsessively popular genre niche TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer - the show that single-handedly invented the concept of “fandom”. Currently, he’s a writer/director, and can be found behind the camera producing entertainment, sports and documentary programming.
Going back to his roots, he narrated a six-part documentary called The Little House Phenomenon. Butler also independently produced two documentaries about the show: Little House on the Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura. Additionally, he co-produced Pa’s Fiddle: The Music of America, for PBS. Thanks to mentor Michael Landon, he met his real wife, Katherine Cannon, at an audition for Landon’s Father Murphy TV series.Going back to his roots, he narrated a six-part documentary called The Little House Phenomenon. Butler also independently produced two documentaries about the show: Little House on the Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura. Additionally, he co-produced Pa’s Fiddle: The Music of America, for PBS. Thanks to mentor Michael Landon, he met his real wife, Katherine Cannon, at an audition for Landon’s Father Murphy TV series.
Shannen Doherty as Jenny Wilder
Shannen Doherty is yet another of the cast members whose time on Little House served as a springboard to a Hollywood career, but she’s the only one of the cast who bared it all for Playboy. Doherty joined Little House for the final season, as Almanzo’s young niece, who had become orphaned. Laura and Almanzo raise Jenny as their own, and Doherty played Jenny in the post-series Little House TV movies as well. She scored the role as Jenny, when she heard about the casting notice, while she was working with Michael Landon, appearing for guest spots on Father Murphy. She was 11-years-old at the time.
After that, she became super-famous. On Beverly Hills 90210, her portrayal of Brenda Walsh brought a worldwide spotlight to her career, and she earned a Young Artist Award nomination for Best Young Actress Starring in a Television Series. She took a lead role in Mallrats, and cameoed in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. She received Best Actress nominations for her role in Charmed, as well. A good part of her work consisted of made-for-TV movies. Currently, she’s a producer/director as well as an actress. Doherty is a breast cancer survivor. She was diagnosed in 2015. In 2017, she announced that her cancer was in remission.
Kyle Richards as Alicia Sanderson Edwards
Kyle Richards also set off on her Hollywood success story as a childhood actress on Little House - she was only 6-years-old. In the show, Alicia’s mom dies, leaving her and her two siblings orphaned. In a typical Landonesque happy ending of sorts, Isaiah and Grace marry and adopt all three. Her role appeared sporadically during most of the show’s TV run.
After Little House, Richards appeared in a few horror films and several more TV shows, but she’s best known for her role in the reality TV series, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Paris Hilton calls Kyle Richards auntie, but these days, Richards works for Hilton, starring in her programs, The Simple Life and My New BFF. Richards became Jewish when she married her second husband, Mauricio Umansky, in 1996. They have three daughters. In requisite, high celeb fashion, Richards and family reside in Bel Air.
Melissa Ann Francis as Cassandra Cooper Ingalls
Melissa Francis was thrown into the limelight early on. At six months, she was featured in a baby shampoo commercial for Johnson & Johnson. She had one of those mothers. Her role on Little House was small, she played Charles and Caroline Ingalls’ adopted daughter, Cassandra. Francis has been involved with television and film her whole life.
She veered off the Hollywood route in the 90s, and attended Harvard University. Francis graduated with an economics degree, and landed a job as an anchor at FOX News. She’s also a business commentator for the network. In her 2012 book, Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter, A Memoir, she reveals what it was like having one of those mothers. Her abusive mom once threw her down the stairs, pilfered her acting wages, and, out of sheer malice, had a neighbor’s dog put to sleep. Talk about a dysfunctional family.
Sean Penn as an extra
Hollywood immortal, Sean Penn, graced the set of Little House as a kid. And it was his first gig. Of course, his dad Leo Penn was a director on the show, but no one knew then he’d become an industry legend. Then, he was an extra, a 14-year-old kid hanging out in the school yard with some other children, later he was the audacious slacker Spicoli, ruling over Ridgemont high school. The role made him an icon.
After the smoke cleared over his stoner-dude persona, Penn became a serious actor and director, making films of meaningful commentary upon humanity and modern life - in his own in-your-face style. He’ll tell you, “There’s a mental health problem in this country. It’s rage over reason. There’s a lot going on that was going on in Nazi Germany,” to explain how Trump got elected. He’s also been very vocal against wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other U.S. led humanitarian disasters. In 2003, Penn won an Oscar for Best Actor in Mystic River, and for Milk, in 2008.
Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush as Carrie Ingalls
The identical twins were child actresses adored for portraying little Carrie, the cute baby sister who tumbles down the wildflower sprinkled hillside while the intro rolls. Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush debuted their acting career on the TV movie, Sunshine. Little House was their second television part. After the show, the twins continued acting different roles in their separate lives, and both ended up taking leave of acting. Lindsay, who goes by Rachael, retains one special link to Little House.
In 1977, while filming the show, Rachael met a boy named Danny, who was hanging out under a tree. Thirty years later, the two were married under that same tree. Sidney maintains her prairie house frontier-days connection by competing in professional rodeos. For the record, it is Sidney whose tumble is memorialized in the opening credits. Married life for Sidney was less than idyllic, in 2009 her husband committed suicide, days after she asked for a divorce. Sadly, the girls had a rather negative experience working for Landon, who could be very demanding of the young girls.
Madeleine Stowe as Annie Crane
The actress who went on to have one of the most successful careers in Hollywood after Little House, is Madeleine Stowe. Making a guest appearance as a friend of Laura Ingalls on the 1980 episode, “Portrait of Love,” she had already landed several appearances on television and made-for-TV movies. Currently, she’s famous for her lead role in 12 Monkeys. Prior to that, she handled the lead antagonist of Revenge with masterful precision. Her socially conscious contributions include sitting on the board of Artists for Peace and Justice, an organization she helped found.
Today, Stowe is one of the most successful actresses from the show since she landed the female lead in 12 Monkeys, the 1995 sci-fi noir film. She transitioned into TV shows and played the lead role in Revenge as Victoria Grayson.
Matthew Labyorteaux as Albert Ingalls
Adopted in real life by Los Angeles parents Ronald and Frances Marshall Labyorteaux, Matthew also played Albert, Caroline and Charles’ adopted son. His role was added to the Laura Ingalls Wilder prairie stories, found in her eponymous book series. (I guess Landon really wanted Charles to have a son).
This may be his greatest claim to fame, unless you count his role as video game extraordinaire. He finished 10th in Centipede, at the Atari’s 1981 world championship, and in 1982, he became PacMan champion at People Magazine’s tournament. Notably, he founded the Youth Rescue Fund, a charity organization that helps kids in crisis.
Victor French as Isaiah Edwards
Victor French played Charles’ rugged and dependable neighbor, the longtime trustworthy friend of the family who helped them settle their land, when they first pulled up to Walnut Grove in their covered wagon. In real life, he was good friends with Landon, and a co-director for Little House.
After the show, they worked together on Landon’s Highway to Heaven. Victor French played his friend once more. It was during this program that Isaiah Edwards died of lung cancer, at age 54. He and Landon were notorious for their heavy smoking.
Leslie Landon Matthews as Etta Plum
As Michael Landon’s daughter, Leslie worked on the sets of Little House and Father Murphy. On Little House, she played the role of school teacher from 1982 to 1984. Television acting would become a back burner pastime to her career as a clinical psychologist.
She graduated from Pepperdine with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Psychology, and then went on to earn her doctorate at the California Graduate Institute. She married Brian Matthews in 1990. In 2001, she published When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving and Other Losses.
Jonathan Gilbert as Willie Oleson
Jonathan Gilbert also chose a professional career other than show biz. Little brother, in real life, to Melissa Gilbert, both kids were adopted by Barbara Cowen Crane and Paul Gilbert. Sadly, they both lost their dad early in life.
The siblings don’t do much talking these days, but when they were kids they spent a lot of their childhoods together out at the Simi Valley ranch set. And for audiences, his bratty, troublesome little brother persona is indelible. However, today, as a private person, it seems he’d rather avoid the limelight. Currently, he lives in NYC as a stockbroker.
Bonnie Bartlett as Grace Snyder Edwards
Bonnie Bartlett is an actress best known for her role on St. Elsewhere. Before she landed the role of widow Grace Snider on Little House (later becoming Grace Edwards, Isaiah’s wife) she appeared on The Patty Duke Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, Emergency! and Gunsmoke.
She started it all off in the 50s, playing Vanessa Raven on CBS daytime soap opera, Love of Life. During her most successful TV run, she and her actual husband (William Daniels) played husband and wife on St. Elsewhere. They were convincing. In 1986, both won Emmys for their married couple role, Dr. and Mrs. Mark Craig.
Lucy Lee Flippin as Eliza Jane Wilder
Lucy Lee started her career in NYC, doing commercials and theatre work, but moved to Los Angeles at the advice of her agent. She’s best known for her role as Almanzo’s sister, Eliza Jane Wilder. Her performance launched her acting career, and she appeared in popular TV shows Golden Girls, Newhart, Full House, Mr. Belvedere and Beverly Hills, 90210.
Today, she’s back at her home state of Pennsylvania. Salacious fun-fact: She appeared as an obscene phone caller on the 1971 X-rated movie, Telephone Book.
Katherine MacGregor as Harriet Oleson
In her role as Harriet Oleson, the greedy, rich, gossipy baddy we all loved to hate, Katherine MacGregor defined her career. Previous to that, she was landing small parts in TV shows like Emergency!, Ironside, and All in the Family. Disappointed with so many small parts, she was just about ready to leave Hollywood for good, when she got a call from someone named Michael Landon. The rest is history.
Post-Little House, MacGregor preferred theatre and taught children’s theatre at the Wee Hollywood Vedanta Players. As a devout Hindu (and recovering alcoholic) she took a pilgrimage to India. MacGregor passed away at the ripe old age of 93, just last year. Melissa Gilbert had these words to share on Instagram: “She was outspoken and hilariously funny.” And, “The thing people outside our prairie family didn’t know, was how loving and nurturing she was to the younger cast. I really loved her and I find great comfort knowing that she is at peace and, per her beliefs, her soul has moved on to its next incarnation.” Were you a fan of Little House on the Prairie? SHARE this article with your fellow fans!