Behind The Scenes Of ‘Little House On The Prairie’

“Little House on the Prairie” was a show full of complex storylines and innocent characters. These qualities made it a huge hit when it premiered in the ’70s. Based on the series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, a famous poet, farmer, journalist, teacher, and writer, the show brought audiences into the late 1800s and showed them a world they had never seen before. Sadly, Ingalls Wilder passed away before she could see her books become live-action.

In celebration of Ingalls’ life and stories here are some interesting facts about the stars of “Little House.”

Melissa Gilbert

melissa gilbert played laura ingalls on little house on the prairie
Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images
Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Melissa Gilbert played the beautiful, young, talented, and gifted Laura Ingalls Wilder on “Little House.” The made her famous, and when it ended, she kept working. Today, Gilbert’s career is still going strong as she makes regular appearances in movies and on TV.

In 2001, Gilbert added a new role to life when she became the president of the Screen Actors Guild. She served two terms in the position. She has also become an accomplished writer, publishing her autobiography, Prairie Tale: A Memoir, in 2010.

Alison Arngrim

alison arngrim was nasty nellie oleson on little house on the prairie
John M. Heller/Getty Images
John M. Heller/Getty Images

From 1974 until 1981, Alison Arngrim played Nellie Oleson on “Little House on the Prairie.” One of the show’s antagonists, fans loved to hate her character, who became the stereotype for “spoiled rich children.”

When the show ended, Arngrim started a stand-up comedy career, where she took out her own anger towards the character. She also published a book about her life on the prairie, but we can’t repeat the title on this website. In 2006, her character was honored by TV Land as a “Character Most in Need of a Time-Out.”

Friction Behind The Scenes?

Because Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim were enemies on TV, many people thought they hated each other in real life, too. The truth is the pair were as close to best friends as possible. They would regularly hang out and even have sleepovers at each other’s houses.

Just because they pretended not to like each other for millions of fans didn’t mean they actually had to hate each other. It was not a job requirement, and these two never turned it into one.

Michael Landon Was A True Family-Man

michael landon played the dad on little house on the prairie
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Michael Landon was cast as Charles Ingalls in “Little House on the Prairie” after Bonanza was canceled. The show would become his second major hit for NBC. Aside from his acting duties, Landon also wrote and directed episodes, proving himself to be a multi-talented entertainer.

Off-screen, Landon treated his co-stars like family. Melissa Gilbert spent much of her childhood in his house, saying after his death, “The house was huge. We ran like banshees through that house, and Mike would hide behind doorways and jump out and scare us.”

Landon Had A Body Obsession

landon

While working on the show, Michael Landon had one major quirk. The actor was reportedly obsessed with his body, and even preferred filming scenes without a shirt on to show off his “chiseled physique.”

Even stranger, Landon, who had creative control on the show, refused to ever let Pa break any bones or get seriously injured. Any plotline like that would be shot down because it wouldn’t allow Landon to show off as much of himself as possible.

Ladies Man

Michael Landon wasn’t just obsessed with his body but was enamored with actresses as well. If there was one guest-starring on the show, it was a good bet that Landon would find a way to date her. One of the only women he didn’t end up dating was Melissa Gilbert.

All of Landon’s fooling around eventually led to his divorce. He was married for 19 years before leaving his wife for Cindy Clerico. At the time she was a makeup artist working on the show.

California Law Required Laura To Be Played By Twins

Because California labor laws tend to be strict when it comes to how long children can work on-set, most shows cast twins in singular roles. Carrie Ingalls, Laura’s youngest sister, was played by Lindsay and Sidney Bush. They were basically the original Olsen twins!

On-set, the girls were given the nicknames “Sugar Lump” and “Foxy Robin.” When Michael Landon was directing episodes and needed to swap out sisters, he would call for a “Fresh Twin.” Onscreen, the twins were credited with the name “Lindsay Sidney Greenbush.”

Filming Was Hot…Really Hot

Being period-authentic with its wardrobe making acting on “Little House on the Prairie” a hot affair. Filmed in Simi Valley, California, actors would sometimes pass out from heat exhaustion under the 90-degree sun.

It was nearly impossible to be relaxed in heavy cotton stockings, pinafored, bonnets, long sleeve blouses, long skirt, and petticoats in those conditions. Of course, filming anywhere else and in a more forgiving climate would have been too expensive for producers to even consider.

A Not-So Beautiful Wig

Of all the cast member, Alison Arngrim might have had it the worst. Not only was she overheating in period-appropriate clothing, but she was also forced to wear a wig that regularly made her head bleed.

The wig was secured to Arngrim’s hair with large metal combs and hairpins. They were very tight to make sure the wig wouldn’t move. Sadly, the comfort of the actress was not taken into consideration as the fasteners dug into her scalp causing bleeding. That… doesn’t sound very fun to us!

The Truth Behind The Food

On “Little House on the Prairie” the food the family ate always looked spectacular. Sadly, the truth about what the actors wasn’t nearly as delicious as the lies. Their beef dinners, for instances, were actually nothing more than Dinty Moore canned beef stew.

And those chicken drumsticks that Laura always had in her lunchbox. They definitely weren’t homemade, although they did include 12 secret spices. Yep, Kentucky Fried Chicken was used in place of homecooked chicken. We guess it kept the budget free for more expensive things?

Goodbye Walnut Grove

The iconic show ran for nine seasons, which is pretty incredible when you think about. What’s even more incredible was just how explosive the finale was. For years, the crew said they wanted to go out with a bang. When it came time to end the series, Michael Landon made sure that happened.

Landon believed the set would be easier to clean up if the building were already broken down, and convinced producers to literally blow up Walnut Grove. When asked about it, Landon remarked, “I think it makes for a good strong pioneer ending.”

Walnut Grove

If you’re sad that Walnut Grove was blown up on the show, fear not, you can still visit it in real life. When Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her books, she based Walnut Grove off of her hometown in Minnesota where she grew up.

Many of the other locations in the books and show are based on real life places, too. It is this kind of authenticity that helps keep “Little House on the Prairie” grounded in reality. Without it, who knows if the show would have the same lasting impact!

Growth Problems

One of the biggest challenges any television show revolving around families must deal with is what to do as the kids grow up. Oftentimes the actors grow up faster than their characters, which was the case with Melissa Gilbert.

The actress hit puberty younger than expected, so the show had to get creative with how to keep her as young as possible. We won’t get into details about what they did, but it couldn’t have been comfortable for the young women to go through the experience so publicly.

An Emotional Reunion

little house reunion one missing
D Dipasupil/Getty Images for Extra
D Dipasupil/Getty Images for Extra

Little House on the Prairie” turned 40 years old in 2014 and celebrated with a cast reunion on The Today Show. The reunion became understandably emotional, with Melissa Gilbert admitting, “It’s a very emotional experience, especially because we were together for so long, and it was an intense experience. We were a family there.”

While the reunion featured several main cast members, one big one was missing; Michael Landon. Landon passed away in 1991, although he was not forgotten. Karen Grassle said, “I wish Michael could see what it means still to people.”

Karen Grassle

karen grassle played th emother on little house on the prairie
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Karen Grassle is most famous in her career for playing Caroline Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie.” She appeared in 183 episodes of the show from 1974 until 1982. When she auditioned for and got the part, Michael Landon asked that she change her name from Gabrielle Tree back to her real name.

Today, Grassle still acts in the San Francisco Bay Area and has traveled with critically acclaimed shows like Driving Miss Daisy and Cabaret. She has also appeared sporadically in films, most notably “Wyatt Earp” in 1994.

Melissa Sue Anderson

Melissa Sue Anderson played Mary Ingalls and appeared in 163 episodes of “Little House on the Prairie.” She left the show after the seventh season but returned for two episodes in 1981. She as nominated for “Best Leading Actress in a Drama Series” at the 1978 Emmy Awards.

After a long career in westerns, Anderson was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1998. The museum is located in Oklahoma City and was opened in 1955.

Dean Butler

Dean Butler wasn’t an original cast member of “Little House on the Prairie.” He was brought on for the final four seasons and became the major love interest for Laura. When the show concluded he starred in the spinoff series and three television movies.

When his duties on the Prairie ended, Butler settled into life as a character actor. He appeared in guest roles on several shows, but never struck gold with a second major role. Staying busy, Butler also works behind the camera and has produced two documentaries.

Before 90210, She Was Brenda

shannen doherty got her start on little house on the prairie
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for Paramount Network
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for Paramount Network

Before becoming a star on “Beverly Hills: 90210” playing Brenda Walsh, Shannen Doherty was a star in the making as Jenny on “Little House on the Prairie.” Doherty was cast in the show as an 11-year-old thanks to having guest-starred on “Father Murphy,” which was produced by the same person as “Little House.”

After “Beverly Hills 90210” ended, Doherty nabbed the role of Prue in “Charmed,” which became one the flagship shows for The WB Network (now The CW). Most recently she returned to the area code that made her famous in a FOX summer mini-series.

The Talented Jason Bateman

Most people know Jason Bateman from his breakout role of Michael Bluth on “Arrested Development,” but did you know he got his start in 1981 on “Little House on the Prairie?” He played James Cooper Ingalls and appeared in 21 episodes at the end of the series run.

Since getting his humble start in the west, Bateman has become a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. Not only did he star as Bluth in the iconic cult show, but he has also worked as a writer, director, and producer. Have you seen “Ozark” Netflix? He has directed six episodes of the award-nominated show.

Those Were Simpler Times

One of the reasons critics and television historians believe the show was a hit and is still beloved today is because of the world it gave us. It was a simpler time in the late 1800s; a time without technology getting into the way of everyday life.

Even when the show originally aired technology was becoming the main form of entertainment for young people. Record players, the birth of video games, and other things gave us distractions that weren’t afforded to older Western culture.

Family Ties

This is going to sound confusing at first, but if you stick with us we’ll clear it all up. In the show, Willie Oleson with Nellie’s brother and an early love interest for Laura. In the real world, the actor was Jonathan Gilbert and he was Melissa Gilbert’s adopted brother.

Luckily for everyone involved, he was never made a serious love interest. That would have made family reunions really awkward! Not to mention filming, too! That’s probably why writers kept the pair from getting serious on-screen.

Bonanza

Before starring in “Little House on the Prairie,” Michael Landon starred in “Bonanza.” As it happened, the shows were similar enough that when Landon needed new material, he would repurpose old scripts for “Bonanza” that never got filmed. That’s one way to save money!

He would take the script and re-work it to fit his new show. Now we dare you to watch both shows, and then figure out which “Little House” episodes were originally intended for “Bonanza.”

Passing Out From The Heat

As you know, it was incredibly, uncomfortably hot on the set of “Little House on the Prairie.” Not only was the cast forced to wear heavy cotton clothing, but they also shot outdoors in the blazing heat of inland Southern California.

While most of the time this situation could be monitored for the safety of the performers, that wasn’t always the case. Alison Arnigram paid a heavy price one day when she passed out from the heat.

Tell All Books Followed

Years after the show ended, three actresses, Melissa Gilbert, Alison Arnigrim, and Melissa Anderson decided to write their own tell-all books. Each book told the reader about their lives on and off-set, leaving few details to the imagination.

The books were hits, and the actresses profited from their past exploits. Of course, putting themselves back in the public eye could have been detrimental to their acting careers. When was the last time you saw them on your screens?

Keeping The Gray Away

For as well as Michael Landon took care of his body, there was one thing he had no control of; when his hair started turning gray. By some reports, it began as early as his twenties. To keep the truth from getting out, the makeup team was tasked with turning his gray hair back to brown.

It could have been worse, though. Instead of going gray young Landon could have started balding prematurely. While there is nothing wrong with bald, it’s not the standard look associated with Hollywood leading men.

Lying About Friendship?

While previously we revealed that the Ingalls sisters were not enemies in real life, that might not be the whole truth. While there was zero tension reported between them while filming, the actresses biographies told other stories.

The real question now becomes who to believe. Were they really frenemies on set who couldn’t stand each other, or did they lie in their books to help hype the release? What do you think? We may never actually know the truth, which makes it all the more fun to think about!

An Evil Destiny

No child wants to play the villain, even if they are perfect for the role. When Alison Arnigrim originally auditioned for “Little House on the Prairie” it wasn’t to play nasty Nellie Oleson. She actually auditioned for two roles; Laura and Mary, but didn’t get either.

Fate it turned out, had other plans for the young actress. She wound up being cast as Nellie and proved to be perfect for the role. Some of us are born to play the hero, others are born to play the villain. What’s important is she wasn’t a bad person in real life.

Switching Things Up

“Little House on the Prairie” was a huge hit when it came it out. Ratings for the first season were spectacular. The second season, however, did not repeat the trend. Ratings for the show fell so much that NBC even considered canceling it.

Instead of giving the axe to the show, the network switched what night it would air. The ratings came back to life, and the show ran for another seven years. Not too shabby! Not every show is able to rise from the grave to find new life!

Awards All Around!

During its run “Little House on the Prairie” became an awards magnet. The show was nominated for 17 Emmy Awards, two People’s Choice Awards, and three Golden Globes. Most notably the actors won several awards for their performances.

When NBC decided to make three television movies after the show ended, they probably thought more awards would be on the way. Unlike the show, the movies did not connect with fans and critics the same way.

Healthy Competition

In total, “Little House on the Prairie” aired 205 episodes. Not every actor or actress was in every episode, and the numbers between them became a healthy competition. The rivalry, at the time, was unspoken and took place between Karen Grassle and Melissa Gilbert.

Gilbert appeared in 191 episodes, while Grassle was in 172. Both numbers are incredibly high, but Gilbert takes the crown as queen of the prairie. Hopefully, Grassle doesn’t hold a grudge about it!

The Documentary

In 2015 “Little House on the Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder” was released. The documentary gave fans an inside look at the life of the late author as well as the iconic show based on her books. The inside look is a real treat for true fans!

To make sure the filmmakers got the facts right, they interviewed scholars and historians and showed archived photography and paintings. They also included reenactments of the show, which must have been a blast for actors to do! Dean Butler narrated the documentary.

The Truth Behind The Music

The catchy, nostalgia-fueled theme song for “Little House on the Prairie” was written by David Rose, who also wrote the theme music for “Father Murphy,” “Highway to Heaven,” and “Bonanza.” Outside of his work in television, Rose has released several albums,

Sadly, Rose passed away in 1990 after suffering a heart attack at 80-years-old. His granddaughter, Samantha James, carried on his musical legacy. In 2007 she even topped the Billboard dance charts with one of her tracks.

A Theatrical Reinvention

Before becoming a TV series, “Little House on the Prairie” started out as a series of books. After the show ended, it was only natural the story would find new life in a new medium. But could anyone have predicted that new life would have been on the stage in a theatrical musical?

The musical was created by Rachel Portman with music by Donna DiNovelli. It began its first official tour in 2009 and traveled the United States. Oddly enough, this wasn’t the first odd adaptation of the series. A Japanese animated adaptation was made in 1975. It was called “Laura the Prairie Girl” and had 26 episodes produced.

Perfect From The Start

Sometimes casting decisions are difficult. It couldn’t have been easy to tell Alison Arnigrim that she wasn’t right for two fo the roles she auditioned for. Other times, an actor steps up and you know they are perfect. That’s what happened with the casting of Melissa Gilbert.

The first time Landon saw Gilbert, he knew she was the right actress to play Laura. When she was finished reading for the part, Landon canceled every audition after. He knew she was special and didn’t need to see anyone else.

Michael Landon Had No Limits

Just when you thought we ran out of things to say about Michael Landon, this happened. Not only did Landon famously not like wearing a shirt while filming, but he also hated wearing underwear! You read that correctly, the man liked filming his scenes while going commando.

The good news is he did wear pants. We doubt the show ever would have made it to airwaves if Michael Landon appeared in every episode entirely in the buff. It definitely would never have aired on NBC if that were the case.

From Screen To Writer

From 1978 until 1981 Linwood Boomer played Adam Kendall on “Little House on the Prairie.” He was featured in 35 episodes, in arguably the biggest role of his career. For Boomer, his real success after he stopped acting and started writing.

In 2000 he created “Malcolm in the Middle” which aired for seven seasons on FOX and was nominated for seven Golden Globes awards. The comedy starred Frankie Muniz as Malcolm, the middle child in a dysfunctional family. His dad, Hal, was played by Bryan Cranston, who went on to play Walt White on “Breaking Bad.”

Breaking The Rules

When any piece of fiction is adapted from one medium to another, fans tend to point out the differences, both good and bad. “Little House on the Prairie” was no different, and one storyline in the show irked fans of the books a lot.

That plotline followed a serial killer. Readers were livid and complained that the themes of the story would have never been used by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her books. While this may or may not be true, loyal fans will always believe their own opinions instead of the author of the original work.

Alcohol On Set

Alcohol isn’t always a good thing, and it became a bit of a villain on the set of “Little House on the Prairie.” Michael Landon was addicted to it, and having it so easily accessible was not helpful, especially as he battled with pancreatic cancer.

At the time, alcohol was common on television sets. Drinking with the cast helped loosen them up and be comfortable with each other. Today, this practice is not as common, but it was a different world in 1974 when the show first aired.

Forcing Tears

How do you make yourself cry when you need to? Maybe you’ve never actually been in this kind of situation, but actors face the dilemma constantly. Michael Landon learned a special trick to help his younger co-stars cry, and now we’re going to tell you what it was!

Before he needed them to cry, he would start crying himself, then turn to them and “do you know how much I love you?” The trick worked every time. We guess he was just that good of an actor. If only you could win an Emmy for making someone else cry!

Adding Height

Michael Landon was not a tall man. He stood at a modest five feet and nine inches, a height he wasn’t comfortable with on-set. To ensure he was taller than his co-stars, Landon wore four-inch-thick platform shoes. He also made sure he had the “high ground” in every shot.

Every inch matters! Landon isn’t the first actor to find tricks to make himself taller on screen. Tom Cruise also stands smaller than his co-stars, but still finds ways to become taller than them when the cameras start rolling.