Little House on the Prairie goes down in TV history as one of the most memorable shows, and for the former child actors who grew up on the set, creating the beloved historical drama was just as thrilling. “We were very lucky,” Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura “Half-pint” Ingalls, exclusively tells Closer Weekly. “We were like a second family.”
Little House’s younger cast members share almost uniformly happy tales of time at Big Sky Ranch, where the series’ exterior scenes were filmed from 1974 to 1983. “It was the best game of dress-up anybody played ever in the history of the world,” Melissa, 57, gushes in Closer‘s latest issue, on newsstands now. “I wore actual high-button shoes. We had wagons to ride, horses, cattle, chickens, and other kids to play with.”
On the show, snobby Nellie Oleson was Laura’s sworn enemy, but Melissa and Alison Arngrim, 59, who played Nellie, became best friends. “I used to say they tried to take our childhoods, but Melissa and I kept stealing them back,” Alison quips to Closer. “We were always doing crazy things, pranking people and carrying on. We liked to go out in public, get recognized and freak people out.”
On set, series star and producer Michael Landon would often join in the pranks. “We used to catch frogs in the creek,” recalls Rachel Greenbush, 51, who split the role of young Carrie Ingalls with her twin sister, Sidney. “We would bring them back to Michael. He would put them in his mouth, walk up to people, open his mouth and the frog would jump out! People would freak out!”
But the majority of the time, Michael ran “a very tight ship,” and when action was called, playtime was over. “He knew exactly what he wanted with every shot and every scene,” says Alison, who adds that on set “there was no real drama because Michael wouldn’t allow it.”
Still, not everyone got along 100 percent of the time. Like a real family, there were hurt feelings and misunderstandings. Melissa Sue Anderson, 58, who played eldest daughter Mary Ingalls, didn’t mix with the other kids. “She was quiet and kept to herself a lot,” Alison says. Melissa Gilbert admits she also never got close to her, even though they played sisters. “There was a distance to her, a coldness, though sometimes I wonder if it was just that I never knew how to get her to let me in,” Melissa wrote in her 2009 book Prairie Tales: A Memoir. “She wasn’t easy to get along with.”
More serious tension developed between Michael and Karen Grassle, 79, who played his wife, Caroline “Ma” Ingalls. “When we were in the top 10, I said, ‘Gee, it is time to renegotiate my contract,’ [but] Michael did not want to pay me,” says Karen. “It was very difficult.”
So much so, that Karen left Little House in 1982. It couldn’t have always been easy for Michael, the show ’s producer, star and sometimes director. Karen describes him as “moody” and notes that he was under a lot of pressure. When Little House’s ratings started to dip in the 1980s, he attempted to save the show by centering plots on the younger cast members.
Around the same time, Michael divorced Lynn, his wife of 19 years, and a year later married Cindy Clerico, who worked on the Little House set in the makeup department. “My family’s allegiance was with Lynn, so my relationship with Mike began to dissolve,” wrote Melissa. “I wasn’t supposed to feel anything because he wasn’t my real father…. I was put in a horribly uncomfortable position.”
Before Michael, a lifelong smoker, died in 1991 at the age of 54, he reconciled with both Karen and Melissa. “We had a friendly phone call about the good old days,” recalls Karen. “I was glad we had that healing.” Melissa also came to understand that the man she once looked up to as a hero was also an ordinary, flawed person. After several years of not speaking, she saw Michael at the wedding of his daughter Leslie. “We bridged that gap instantly with hugs and kisses. It felt so good to have his strong arms wrapped around me again and to breathe in that familiar Mike smell,” wrote Melissa, who paid the ultimate tribute to her television dad in 1995 when she named her youngest son, Michael Boxleitner, after him.
Viewers who tuned in each week to watch the continuing story of the Ingallses and their neighbors in Walnut Creek often came away uplifted by the show’s ability to reflect real-life despite its historical setting. “It was a bright spot in people’s childhoods,” says Karen, explaining that the show satisfied “a longing for community, family, loyalty and safety. It was a wonderful place to be.”
And for the actors who brought it to life, their days on Little House still hold a cherished place in their memories. “There is a whole group of people that I worked with those many years ago, who will not call me anything but Half-pint,” says Melissa. “And that’s perfectly fine with me.”