Dig deep enough into the history of the treasured TV series Little House on the Prairie and it’s surprising what one finds. “In Hollywood, they don’t throw anything out,” Alison Arngrim — who played nasty Nellie Oleson on the 1974 to 1983 show — told Closer Weekly in an exclusive new interview. When the production moved from Paramount Studios to MGM in the late ’70s, “They were ripping up the floor of the set, and what Melissa [Gilbert] and I see, lying beneath, was the Yellow Brick Road!” she told Closer. “Melissa and I went nuts. We were dancing around, singing the song, pretending to be Dorothy!”
The Little House cast reunion in 2014.
Karen Grassle, who played Caroline “Ma” Ingalls, added, “It was wild. We were knee-deep in Hollywood history.” It’s fitting that the modern classic should follow in the footsteps of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Both tales feature a tenacious little girl — whose home and family are the most important aspects of her life — struggling to make her way in the world. Little House on the Prairie, Michael Landon’s vision of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, burst onto NBC with a two-hour movie and stayed in the top 30 ratings for nearly its entire nine-year run.
The heartwarming tale of Laura, her pioneer family, and their neighbors in Walnut Grove, MN, became a weekly tear-jerking staple with fans who adored its wholesome storylines and uplifting morals. While the cast credits the show’s success to Michael — who passed away in 1991 at the age of 54 from cancer — some actors have rosier memories than others. But all agree, as Melissa, 53, who played Laura, said, “We were like a second family.” The former child actors share almost uniformly happy stories of life on the set. “There was no real cast drama because Michael would not allow it,” Alison, 55, said. “I think we are the only cast that never had any arrests!”
Melissa and Michael on Little House.
But Karen, 75, told Closer that some of the adults had to cope with grown-up issues. “When we were in the top 10 and I said, ‘Gee, it is time to renegotiate my contract,’ Michael did not want to pay me. It was very difficult.” But Karen also added that she and Michael “had a friendly phone call about the good old days” before he became ill. “I was glad we had that healing.” All agree that Michael — who wrote and directed many episodes, in addition to producing — ran “a very tight ship.”
The stability of the child actors can be attributed to the former Bonanza star and his clear vision for the new show. “He knew exactly what he wanted with every shot and every scene,” Alison shared. And he put a lot of himself into the series. “If you watch Little House, truly it was like watching Michael,” his widow, Cindy Landon, told Closer. “The love that he had for his family, the type of person he was — it was all apparent.” So just as Michael played Charles “Pa” Ingalls with a mix of fatherly warmth and pioneer can-do spirit, he ran the set the same way. “He made every child feel special,” Rachel Greenbush, 47 — who, with her twin sister, Sidney, played Carrie Ingalls starting when they were 4 — revealed. “For all the kids’ birthdays, he would have a cake made and throw a little party.” But she also noted, “When it was time to work, you had to be focused.”
Melissa and Alison on Little House.
When the kids weren’t filming, they were in school or mentoring each other. “Melissa used to come and read us books — such as Peter Rabbit — and hang out with us,” Rachel said. Still, “There were cliques” among the kids, admitted Alison. “Melissa was closest to me and we still are.” Despite the fact that Laura and Nellie were bitter enemies, “We were so tight it made working together even better,” Alison explained. Where was Melissa Sue Anderson, who played Laura’s sister Mary Ingalls? “She was quiet and kept to herself a lot,” Alison said.
Even though much of the show’s success rested on her shoulders, Melissa — who was just nine years old at the start — appreciated the intensity of the work. “It was a great outlet for emotional stuff,” she said. “Let’s face it, I was crying in every other scene!” But the focus required didn’t mean they didn’t take time for laughs, Michael included. “People thought he was extremely religious or serious, but that wasn’t the man at all,” Cindy said. Rachel explained that Michael “was a big practical joker,” and recalled one of her favorite gags. “We used to go with Melissa to catch frogs in the creek. We would bring them back to Michael, and he would put them in his mouth and walk up to people, open his mouth and the frog would jump out! People would freak out!”
The Little House cast.
People also freaked out when, after its long run, Michael decided to destroy Walnut Grove. “He literally strapped dynamite on all those buildings and blew them to smithereens in one take,” recalled Melissa Francis, 44, who played Cassandra Cooper Ingalls from 1981 to 1982. “He wanted to go out with a bang.” And he did. But for the viewers who have tuned in around the world for 43 years to relive those simple days on the prairie, the legacy of Little House still goes on. “It was a bright spot in people’s childhoods,” Karen told Closer. The show satisfies “a longing for community, family, loyalty, and safety. It was a wonderful place to be.”
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Check out the gallery to see the Little House on the Prairie cast then and now!
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