Melissa Gilbert Is Making Her Big Return to the Theater: ‘There Are so Many More Opportunities’
Much of Melissa Gilbert’s new life in Manhattan revolves around eating. She loves going to brunch with her husband, actor Timothy Busfield. There’s also a Chinese spot she visits downtown to sip wonton soup and a Japanese noodle house that she adores for its ramen. Sometimes, she doesn’t even leave her apartment to enjoy these pleasures.
“One of the things I love most about living in NYC,” she has said, “is the ease with which one can have anything delivered from pretty much anywhere.” It’s a big change for Melissa, who has spent the past five years living a quiet life in rural Michigan.
Exhausted by the demands of Hollywood, the actress was able to rediscover herself — and what she loved — while away from the spotlight. “Everybody has their own journey,” Melissa, 54, previously explained to Parade. “It was a conscious decision on my part to come back to do theater [in] New York … because there are so many more opportunities for women my age onstage.”
Despite her enviable childhood on TV, Melissa endured a lot of trial and error to get to this place. She remembers the years she spent on Little House on the Prairie playing Laura Ingalls, aka “Half-pint,” as idyllic. “It was a great place to grow up if you are a child performer,” said Melissa. “It was fun and amazing.”
The years of TV stardom and coddling left grown-up Melissa unprepared for the reality of becoming just another out-of-work actress after Little House ended in 1983. By age 20, she had undergone three nose jobs and a breast enhancement to try to fit the starlet mold. “I went down the road that everyone else does — nose job, boob job, fillers and Botox,” she previously recalled to First For Women, and later told Megyn Kelly, “I fell right into that trap.”
Meanwhile, her partying and an on-again, off-again romance with Rob Lowe in the 1980s drew breathless — and increasingly humiliating — attention from the tabloids. She admits she found herself drawn to handsome men who liked to drink, like her TV dad Michael Landon.
“As a kid, I didn’t know [Michael] sipped vodka from his coffee mug,” Melissa recalled in her 2009 memoir, Prairie Tale. “I’m sure he’s one reason why, as a young adult, I almost always picked men who smelled like alcohol.”
Just seven weeks after she and Rob called it quits, Melissa wed her first husband, Bo Brinkman, in 1988. They endured a six-year marriage weighed down by alcohol, drug abuse and infidelity.
By 2012, when Melissa started dating Timothy, best known for his roles on The West Wing and Thirtysomething, she was sober, twice divorced and the mother of two sons, Dakota Brinkman, 29, and Michael Boxleitner, 23 (from her second marriage, to actor Bruce Boxleitner). She’d been able to remain an actress, but she never reached the same heights as her time on Little House and had considered changing careers.
“Though I am lucky enough to earn a living at a job I love, I’m also thinking of going back to school to get my RN,” she confessed.
Melissa and Timothy, 61, had known each other casually for nearly 20 years when a chance meeting paved the way for a brunch date. They immediately clicked. “I met my wife, and I said, ‘There’s good news and maybe bad news,’” Timothy previously recalled at the Field of Dreams 25th Anniversary Celebration. “‘The good news is, I’m really into you, but I live in Michigan.’” Melissa, however, was ready for a change. “I said, ‘No, that’s the good news — please get me out of Los Angeles,’” she once remembered to Newsday.
In 2013, the newlyweds and Melissa’s younger son, Michael, moved into a rented 1890 Victorian home in Howell, Mich., Timothy’s home state, where they tried to blend in with varying success. “For the first few weeks it was a bit like living in an exhibition in Jurassic Park. People would drive by really slow looking at the house. It felt like we’re the T. rexes,” Melissa previously remembered to FOX News, who tried to put her neighbors at ease by volunteering for civic activities.
Though Timothy spent time away on acting jobs, the couple’s small-town life felt perfect — until the IRS came knocking on their door! Melissa owed more than $470,000 in back taxes to the Feds and the State of California. According to a statement she gave to Entertainment Tonight, she blamed this predicament on a “perfect storm of financial difficulty” involving her 2011 divorce from Bruce Boxleitner and a lack of acting opportunities due to the recession. She negotiated an agreement to pay all she owes in installments ending in 2024.
To help ease the financial strain, Melissa began to work more. Among her 2015 jobs, she earned $1,094 for an appearance on The Steve Harvey Show. The family also moved to a more remote part of Michigan that year. “We’ve got a three-story log house on 25 acres in the woods,” Melissa previously gushed on The Kitchen. “I live in farm country. I get eggs, I get milk, I get butter. I have a friend who raises beef cattle.”
Around this time, Melissa also tried to enter politics, announcing her candidacy for Congress. She ended up withdrawing from the race for medical reasons relating to head injuries she suffered in two 2012 accidents, including the concussion she sustained on Dancing With the Stars.
After five years in Michigan, Melissa reinvented herself again, with a move to New York’s Upper West Side last summer. “We are starting over in NYC,” she announced on Twitter in July. She and Timothy left behind much of their old lives with an online sale of most of the contents of their home, including Little House memorabilia. “Everything goes,” Melissa crowed via Twitter. “Need to travel light!”
Yet she carries in her heart the priceless memories she made during her Michigan period of self-discovery. “I’ve been safe and comfortable and happy and at peace and content,” she gushed. “This has been the perfect place to have that.”
Despite his love for his home state, Timothy encouraged Melissa to chase after her New York dreams. “I wanted to challenge myself and stretch,” the actress once said to TheaterMania, who has starred in several off-Broadway productions. In her private time, Melissa indulges in dance classes and Sunday afternoon trips to museums with Timothy.
She joins other veteran Hollywood actresses like Meg Ryan and Sally Field finding a warm welcome in New York. “There is much more opportunity and more of an appreciation for a woman my age in New York than Los Angeles,” said Melissa, and she added to Parade, “[In LA] there is such pressure on women to stay young. But women get stronger as they age. I feel more centered and valuable now than I did when I was in my 20s.”
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