‘Little House on the Prairie’ behind-the-scenes facts that’ll change how you see the show
Though it never garnered a ton of critical acclaim, Little House on the Prairie is an undisputed classic of network television. Its memorable cast of characters, dramatic storylines, and wholesome values catapulted it to the top of the ratings and into the hearts of audiences everywhere. But what really went on behind the scenes?
Mary and Laura Ingalls clashed on set
Despite the sweet, sisterly relationship between the pair that was portrayed on the show, Melissa Gilbert (Laura) and Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary) had a tense rapport on set. Gilbert thought Anderson was cold and stuck up, and takes a couple of jabs at the actress in her autobiography Prairie Tale.
For her part, Anderson throws shade back at Gilbert, saying she barely even remembers interacting with Gilbert, stating that the two were “very different.” Little House ran for 8 seasons — an excruciatingly long time to spend in close proximity to a coworker you can’t stand. Anderson’s biography is called The Way I See It.
Falling out and reconciliation
After Little House on the Prairie concluded in 1982, Melissa Gilbert (Laura) and Michael Landon (Charles) didn’t speak to each other for nine years. Gilbert didn’t approve of the extra-marital affair Landon had with a makeup artist, Cindy Clerico (who was 20 years his junior). Landon and Clerico ended up getting married after the show ended.
However, before Landon succumbed to a long battle with pancreatic cancer, Gilbert surprised him on during a 1991 appearance of the Johnny Carson Show, where Landon discussed his health condition. Later, she spent an afternoon with him in his Malibu home. Landon died one week later. It’s fortunate that the two were able to reconcile their friendship before it was too late.
Nellie’s wig made her scalp bleed
Nellie Olesen, the spoiled, manipulative, and cruel daughter of Harriet and Nels, is probably just as well known for her perfectly curled blonde locks as her prissy attitude. You may be shocked to learn that actress Alison Arngrim wore a wig the whole duration of the show.
Arngrim’s hair was too fine, and it was impossible for the show’s stylists to get her hair just right. Instead, they elected to have her wear a wig. The wig, unfortunately, was attached so tightly to the young actress’s head that it caused her scalp to bleed on several occasions. Ouch! But it gets worse…
Michael Landon liked having his shirt off
When you’ve got a great physique, why not show it off? Apparently, that was Michael Landon’s rationale throughout his career. He’d often use any excuse to appear on camera sans shirt in Bonanza and later on Little House on the Prairie.
Any time Pa Ingalls would suffer an injury, the road to recovery would begin with Landon removing his shirt. You’ll also notice these injuries hardly ever required him to wear a sling that might cover part of his chest. Somehow Pa Ingalls’ ribs kept breaking, but rarely an arm. Can’t blame the guy for being proud of his body.
Melissa Gilbert had her first kiss on the show: And she hated it
Melissa Gilbert was 15 years old when her character, Laura, married Almanzo Wilder (Dean Butler). Not only was the romance awkward for the pair who were eight years apart, but it was also especially uncomfortable for the young actress who had to have her first kiss filmed for an audience of millions.
While filming the scene of Laura and Almanzo’s wedding night, Gilbert was a nervous wreck. In gentlemanly fashion, Dean Butler commended his costar for her bravery in completing the scene, and added that as nervous as she was, she was not nearly as upset as her mother — who sobbed hysterically as the scene was filmed. In honesty, can you blame her? Luckily, nervousness wasn’t a factor for this next pair…
Alison Arngrim and Steve Tracy had no qualms about kissing on camera
While Melissa Gilbert and Dean Butler struggled to show affection in their scenes together, Alison Arngrim (Nellie) and Steve Tracy (Percival) didn’t seem to suffer from the same uneasiness. In fact, showrunners circulated a memo to the cast trying to get Gilbert and Butler to take some inspiration from Arngrim and Tracy.
It didn’t seem to matter that Steve Tracy was gay, he and Alison Arngrim reportedly delighted in embarrassing poor Melissa Gilbert with their over-the-top acts of PDA. Whenever they’d have a scene together they’d do their best to make Gilbert as uncomfortable as possible. When you work with someone for long enough, you find many creative ways to make them miserable.
The show skirted child labor laws by employing twins to play Carrie Ingalls
You may have noticed that in Hollywood, actors often play characters that are much younger than them. This is often because making television and movies means working very long hours, and the law forbids children from working too many hours in one day.
Rather than having an adult play the part of young Carrie Ingalls, the showrunners decided to cast two twins — Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush — for the role. This way, when the show required them to keep filming they could simply substitute one twin for the other. If you pay close attention you’ll notice Carrie sometimes has a slight gap between her two front teeth.
Fun fact: When Carrie falls down the hill in the scene that came to be used in the opening credits, poor Sidney Greenbush fell for real (she wasn’t hurt). Producers loved the blunder and decided to roll with it.
For Nellie, the third time was the charm
In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine Nellie being played by anyone other than Alison Arngrim. This is also true in reverse, it’s difficult to picture Arngrim playing any other character on the show. Apparently, that’s exactly how the casting department felt, too.
Alison Arngrim auditioned for not one, but two roles before she landed the part of Nellie. She first went for Laura Ingalls’ part, then Mary’s, before auditioning for the role of Nellie Oleson. Oddly enough, Arngrim is said to have a sweet and kind disposition — a stark contrast to the manipulative and razor-tongued character she played on television.
Michael Landon was insecure about his height
You’d think someone good looking enough to make it onto TV Guide’s list of the “50 Sexiest Stars of All Time” wouldn’t be self-conscious about their appearance. But alas, we all have our insecurities. One feature, in particular, seemed to bug Michael Landon about himself: his height.
While being 5 feet, 9 inches tall is a fairly average height for an adult male, it apparently bothered Landon. To camouflage his stature, Landon frequently appeared in platform boots on set. This gave the Ingalls patriarch the extra couple of inches in height he desired to feel comfortable being filmed. He’d also position himself to look taller in the frame.
Little House on the Prairie seems tame by today’s standards — there’s a clear (sometimes heavy-handed) moral message written into the series. Most of the episodes revolve around the Ingalls family, as they navigate fairly wholesome issues such as jealousy between siblings and spoiled classmates. But it was no stranger to controversy in the time when it aired.
Some episodes dealt with dark topics like poverty, abuse, kidnapping, and racism — all issues you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a predominantly optimistic show popular with children. In fact, some of the episodes are considered groundbreaking for daring to explore these issues.
Melissa Gilbert and her brother, Johnathan Gilbert, aren’t on speaking terms
Casual fans of the show may not know that Johnathan Gilbert, who played Willie Olesen, the spoiled little brother of Nellie Olesen, is actually the adopted brother of Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls). Both were adopted by Paul and Barbara Gilbert.
Melissa Gilbert has stayed in show business after the show concluded, appearing in Dancing with the Stars, voice acting as Batgirl in Batman: The Animated Series, and starring as Ma Ingalls in a Broadway musical rendition of Little House. Johnathan, on the other hand, left the limelight entirely, and currently works as a stockbroker in New York.
According to Melissa Gilbert’s biography, for reasons unknown to her, the two haven’t spoken since Johnathan’s moved to New York in his early 20s.
Michael Landon dyed his hair
You may be surprised to learn that Pa Ingalls luscious brown locks weren’t entirely natural. In fact, his hair began turning gray in his early 20s. The actor relied on over-the-counter hair-dye to complete his look — even while he was on Bonanza.
As his natural hair color went grayer and grayer, the store-bought hair dye wouldn’t cut it anymore. When the light hit his hair it began to reveal an unnatural violet hue. He then had to enlist the professional help to get the color just right. Did you notice his hair looked a little bit different in the later seasons?
Laura and Mary Ingalls dated some A-listers
Despite her goody-two-shoes persona on Little House on the Prairie, Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls) had a thing for Hollywood bad boys. She dated Scott Baio, Tom Cruise, and Michael Landon Jr. She was even engaged to future Parks and Recreation star Rob Lowe, but it didn’t last. Gilbert is currently married to actor Timothy Busfield.
Gilbert’s older sister on the show, Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary Ingalls) has also dated some stars, though none quite as famous as her cast mate. Old flames include Timothy Hutton, Lorenzo Lamas, and Frank Sinatra Jr. Anderson married television writer and Michael Sloan in 1990. The pair currently live in Montreal with their two children.
Was the show cursed?
Sadly, several cast members died of cancer after the show concluded. Michael Landon died of pancreatic cancer, Victor French (who played Isiah) died of lung cancer, Kevin Hagen (Doc Baker) died of esophageal cancer, and Charlotte Stewart survived breast cancer. Due to these tragedies, some superstitious fans have theorized that the show was cursed.
It is a little spooky how many people involved with the show suffered from the deadly disease. However, there may be a more plausible theory as to why. The show was filmed in the Simi Valley desert, close to the site of a nuclear accident that occurred at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in 1959.
Why did they blow up the town?
Fans of the show will remember the series finale, where Laura has the idea to blow up the town for revenge against a greedy developer. Many fans have suspected that there may have been other reasons behind the destruction of the show’s sets. One theory is that Michael Landon was bitter about the show’s cancellation due to a substantial dip in ratings — he didn’t want any other shows to be able to use the sets he and the rest of the cast had used for many years.
Conversely, another theory is that Landon was sick of filming the show and wanted to eliminate any possibility for a reunion in the future.
According to producer Kent McCrary, the decision was made mostly for pragmatic reasons. When they first rented the property, they had agreed to leave the area just as they’d found it — completely empty. It would be easier to carry the houses out after they were blown to smithereens. Why not write the explosions into the show?
Nellie and Laura were great friends IRL
Many of the storylines on Little House on the Prairie involved the prickly relationship between Laura Ingalls and her spoiled, bratty nemesis Nellie Oleson. Nellie would play cruel, manipulative jokes on poor Laura and cut her down with her witty remarks.
You may be surprised to learn that behind the scenes, Melissa Gilbert (Laura) and Alison Arngrim (Nellie) were close friends. In fact, the two remain friends to this day and still speak to each other regularly. Who would have known? It is truly a testament to the young actresses’ chops that they were able to play such convincing enemies.
Michael Landon pulled lots of pranks on the cast
Landon liked to keep things interesting on set. To accomplish this, he’d often play jokes on other cast members. Producer Kent McCray said the pranks were constant and hilarious, though he wouldn’t share some of the more off-color tricks Landon would pull on his coworkers.
According to McCray, Landon would scare his cast-mates by surprising them with tarantulas, snakes, and frogs. Sometimes, he’d even have a frog in his mouth, just to freak someone out while they tried to film a scene.
Frequently, Melissa Gilbert would be on the receiving end of these pranks — Landon was fond of telling her to walk further and further away from the camera to the point where she was the full length of a football field away before he’d call her back. Apparently, Landon wasn’t the only prankster on set…
Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim were tricksters as well
As I mentioned earlier, Gilbert (Laura) and Arngrim (Nellie) weren’t actually the bitter rivals they played on TV. To the chagrin of their cast-mates, the young girls liked to get into some mischief together as well. Taking notes from Michael Landon’s playbook, the pair pulled pranks on each other and the rest of the crew.
Arngrim and Gilbert were especially fond of the old saran wrap on the toilet seat gag. Between Michael Landon’s constant pranks and Alison Arngrim and Melissa Gilbert’s mischief, it seems like the whole crew had to keep their heads on a swivel — or end up the butt of one of their jokes.
Sean Penn’s first role was on the show
Award-winning actor Sean Penn began his acting career on Little House on the Prairie. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t notice, it was a very small role. So small in fact, that his name didn’t even appear in the credits to the episode, which aired in 1974.
The young actor has his good old dad to thank for the opportunity. Leo Penn directed several episodes of Little House and pulled a few strings to get his son on the show. Seven years later, Sean Penn’s career would begin to take off when he played a cadet in the film Taps. A year after that he’d become a bonafide superstar by appearing as Spicoli in the comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Nothing wrong with a little nepotism. Speaking of which…
Family members of the crew were frequently cast in minor roles
What do Mrs. Kennedy and Etta Plum have in common? The actresses that played them were related to high-ranking crew members. Mrs. Kennedy was played by Eileen Ryan, who was married to director Leo Penn (they are Sean Penn’s parents). The teacher, Etta Plum was played by Leslie Landon, Michael Landon’s daughter.
Leslie Landon didn’t stick with acting — she’s now a clinical psychologist. But despite only playing a minimal role as Mrs. Kennedy in the first season of Little House, Eileen Ryan has gone one to be a fairly accomplished actress in her own right, appearing in dozens of movies and television shows.
Deja vu all over again
Everybody runs out of fresh ideas eventually, and Little House on the Prairie’s writers were no exception. When writer’s block happens, sometimes all you need to do is find an old idea and put a fresh coat of paint on it.
Little House frequently “borrowed” plotlines from Bonanza, Michael Landon’s previous western show. Notable rewrites include “A Matter of Faith” ripped from Bonanza’s “A Matter of Circumstance,” “The Silent Cry” taken from “The Sound of Sadness,” and“He Was Only Twelve,” which shared a storyline with Bonanza’s “He Was Only Seven,” and many other examples. Even the melody of the show’s theme song first appeared in a Bonanza episode.
Did you ever notice some of the plots seemed familiar?
Storylines on the later seasons got a little wacky
It’s a problem that plagues almost every show that is lucky enough to last a long time: As time goes on, writers struggle to keep things interesting. As a result, they tend to “jump the shark,” coming up with increasingly ridiculous stories.
Unfortunately, Little House on the Prairie suffered the same fate. The plots of some of the later episodes began to run off the rails (seriously, Mr. Edwards adopts an orangutan?). There’s a reason why networks usually only show reruns of the first seven seasons. That being said, some of the sillier episodes sure are a lot of fun.
Alison Arngrim’s runaway wheelchair
Fans of the show may recall a memorable scene where Laura Ingalls pushes Nellie Oleson’s wheelchair down a hill in the episode “Bunny”. When Laura realizes Nellie has been faking injuries for attention, she decides to get some vigilante justice.
Alison Arngrim’s screams of terror in that scene weren’t acted. Before they started rolling the cameras, a crew member shouted to Arngrim that the brakes had been cut on the wheelchair. A bit cruel perhaps, but it made for a convincing performance.
Fun fact: The cast Nellie is wearing in that scene is also real. Arngrim had broken her hand in a skateboarding accident. No wonder she was so scared rolling down the hill!
How closely did the show follow the books?
Not very. It was never intended to a faithful adaptation — lots of characters were added or changed, and many of the plots were completely fabricated by the show writers. Some fans of the book series were rubbed the wrong way by all the liberties taken by the showrunners.
When confronted by angry bibliophiles, Michael Landon once responded, “Have you read the books? There’s a chapter in there about how to make an apple fritter. I can’t film that!”
It’s probably for the best Landon and crew didn’t take the criticism to heart. Many of the show’s most iconic characters, such as Nellie, Willie, and Harriet Oleson had very small roles in the book series.
Walnut Grove is a real place
The real-life Laura Ingalls-Wilder, who wrote the Little House on the Prairie book series that served as the inspiration for the television show, based many of the stories on her family and life experiences. The town that serves as the backdrop for the Ingalls family adventures is a real place. The television series, however, was shot in Simi Valley, California.
Walnut Grove, Minnesota has its own museum dedicated to the prolific author — she spent part of her childhood next to Plum Creek, which runs just north of the small city. If you’re a super-fan of the series and would like to visit the Ingalls’ home, or if you just would like to learn more about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, consider visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum in Walnut Grove, Minnesota.
Melissa Sue Anderson and Radames Pera had no chemistry
Originally, the script had Mary Ingalls (played by Melissa Sue Anderson) marrying John Sanderson, (played by Radames Pera). It quickly became clear to the cast and crew that Anderson and Sanderson didn’t seem to have a connection. Rather than force the romance, the writers decided to follow the plot of the book.
Poor Mary Ingalls contracted scarlet fever and went blind. As she lost her eyesight she also lost her shot at love, and she spent most of the remainder of the show bedridden before leaving to go study at a school for the blind. Melissa Sue Anderson wasn’t too thrilled with the development of her character. In an interview with Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Anderson said, “Either I was just there not doing much or going through some tragedy. I couldn’t take it anymore. It became too soap opera-ish.”
Michael Landon ruled with an iron fist
Alison Arngrim credits Michael Landon as instilling her the work ethic and discipline she needed to succeed as a child actor. Despite battling self-destructive habits throughout most of his life, Landon had no tolerance for his cast exhibiting any harmful behaviors of their own.
Alison Arngrim told The Globe and Mail “He expected his child actors to be professionals. He tolerated no drama. I always like to describe the cast of Little House as ‘No arrests. No convictions.’ And it was because of the discipline instilled by Michael Landon.” It’s nice to know that Pa Ingalls continued his fatherly role toward the cast off the camera, too. But there was at least one cast member that wasn’t a fan of Landon’s overbearing style…
Harriet Oleson didn’t get along with Pa Ingalls IRL
Harriet Oleson (played by Katherine MacGregor) didn’t mesh well with others in Walnut Grove. Apparently, she and Pa Ingalls weren’t too friendly behind the camera, either.
Katherine MacGregor didn’t appreciate Landon’s controlling nature. From what other cast members have said, he was stubborn about getting the scene just right, even if it meant shooting many takes.
MacGregor, a prolific actress in her own right had her own opinions and wasn’t afraid to share them. The clashing personalities led to some friction between the pair. Nine seasons is a long time to deal with a domineering boss!
Katherine MacGregor passed away in 2018 at 93 years old.
Puberty is cruel and merciless
Puberty is tough on all adolescent boys and girls, but it can be especially hard on child actors who rely on their young looks to play their beloved roles. Little House was filmed over a nine-year period — plenty of time for a young child to grow into a young adult.
Poor Melissa Gilbert had to wear tight, uncomfortable binding around her chest to hide her changing figure. Keep in mind that this show was filmed in the desert — temperatures were known to climb above 100 degrees. It’s hard to imagine someone looking forward to spending hours in the blazing heat, let alone with extra clothing. Speaking of the heat…
It was so hot on set that people fainted
While set in the small Minnesota ranch town of Walnut Grove, the series was actually filmed in Simi Valley, California. The wide-open space and rural backdrop made it ideal for filming the late 19th-century pioneer drama. But there was one major problem — the sun was brutal. It would get hot. Really, really hot.
Actress Alison Arngrim passed out in the 100-degree weather while filming the second episode. Poor Nellie, having to wear that hot wig along with the heavy clothing designed to fit the time period. But she wasn’t the only one to succumb to the heat — the assistant director also fainted. Maybe the heat is to blame for this next actor’s wardrobe choices…