From 1974-1984, the world tuned in to watch Little House on the Prairie, a warm adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s famous books. What happened behind the scenes of this notable TV show?
Lace up your best corset — here’s the real story of Little House on the Prairie.
Everyone was drinking
While the show was dedicated to depicting a simpler lifestyle, the makers of Little House on the Prairie lived hard. Which is a nice way of saying: They drank like horses.
The crew would often chug through two cases of Coors beers — but tough shooting days would denote “three-case days.”
Writer/producer/director/actor Michael Landon, while playing loving father Charles “Pa” Ingalls, was a classic alcoholic. When he tried to hide his more blatant episodes, he would spike his coffees and sodas with vodka. Landon also smoked four packs of cigarettes a day.
Landon’s hair was not what it seemed
If you recognize Landon from other works like iconic TV western Bonanza, you know his hair was handsomely streaked by silver. But he wanted Pa to have a more traditionally brunette look. So he bought over-the-counter brown dye for the show. Specifically: Clairol Medium Ash Brown.
But when Landon started doing outdoor shoots, the production team found that the sun combined with his maybe-not-so-great-quality dye would result in his hair acquiring a strange purple hue. Thinking Pa shouldn’t look like the lead singer of an emo band, the producers made him start getting it dyed professionally.
There was a strange family connection
Melissa Gilbert played Laura Ingalls. Jonathan Gilbert played Willie Oleson. Those actors’ last names weren’t a coincidence — Jonathan is Melissa’s adopted brother.
We’d bet it made some on set dynamics strange, given that the Olesons and Ingalls were rivals in the narrative.
Unfortunately, since the show wrapped officially with its movie specials in 1984, Jonathan severed ties with Melissa. He even quit the acting business, and moved to New York City to become a stockbroker. Melissa has openly wondered why in her autobiography, Prairie Tale: A Memoir, but received no answer.
Two onscreen siblings hated each other
Ah, the Ingalls clan. A benchmark of family love for all to see on the small screen. Too bad two of the actors couldn’t follow their characters’ examples.
Melissa Gilbert played Laura Ingalls. Melissa Sue Anderson played Mary Ingalls. And the two actors really disliked each other throughout shooting.
In Prairie Tale, Gilbert wrote that Anderson behaved like a brat, icing out her coworkers. However, Anderson was also the only actor to ever receive an Emmy nomination during the series, so perhaps there was some professional jealousy. Some speculated it was Anderson’s controlling mother that made her behave difficult.
One wig made the actor bleed
To know Nellie Oleson is to love to hate Nellie Oleson.
The spoiled, precocious, fiendishly manipulative child was played by Alison Arngrim. A key part of her character was her signature blonde curls — which was a totally fake hairpiece. And the wig was… difficult.
Apparently, the wig attached to Arngrim’s head so tightly, that it regularly caused her scalp to bleed. For an adult actor, we suppose they can decide if temporary physical pain is worth working a job. For an actor who started when she was 12… yikes!
Some say the cast members were cursed
A scary amount of the cast members were diagnosed with cancer after the show. Landon died of pancreatic cancer in 1991, Victor French (Mr. Andrews) of lung cancer in 1989, and Kevin Hagen (Doc Baker) of esophageal cancer in 2005. Charlotte Stewart (Miss Beadle), still alive, is battling breast cancer.
How did this happen?
The reigning theory is that the show’s set was dangerously close to some radioactive chemicals, thanks to a 1959 nuclear meltdown at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory. To this day, there are thousands of pounds of dangerous materials unaccounted for.
Cast members loved pulling pranks
Landon played the Ingalls father, a figure of respect. But as soon as the cameras stopped rolling, he got real silly.
George Clooney has a lot to learn from this Hollywood prankster. Apparently, he would chase around the kids on set the moment production called “cut,” tiring them out.
Also, Gilbert and Arngrim, who were real life BFFs despite their characters’ hatred of each other, loved pulling childish pranks, too. Can you imagine a crew member’s simultaneous disgust and amusement when they discovered the toilet seat covered in saran wrap? They had their young stars to thank.
The bonkers, explosive finale came from a practical reason
In 1984 movie special Little House: The Last Farewell, the peaceful series ends as you might expect: with everyone literally blowing up Walnut Grove. Wait, sorry, what?!
It’s true: Little House on the Prairie ends with the characters emotionally paying tribute to their city by blowing up their favorite building.
The producers had a deal that they needed to return the location to its natural state. And if everything was blown up into pieces, it made it all a lot easier. There’s another rumor, too — Landon was reportedly unwilling for other productions to use their sets.
There was a complicated relationship between two stars
During shooting, Gilbert grew to view Landon as a mentor and father figure, especially since her real dad died when she was 11. The feeling was mutual for Landon. He even told her, “Do you know how much I love you?” before filming emotional scenes. But things started to sour.
In 1982, Landon left his real-life wife to pursue a relationship with show makeup artist Cindy Clerico. Gilbert was so upset, she ceased contact with him — until his diagnosis of cancer. They reconciled before his death, and Gilbert named one of her children Michael in his honor.
The first day of shooting had some issues
If you’ve never been to southern California, we can describe it to you in one word: Hot. It gets real hot.
And even when shooting outdoors in Simi Valley, California, all of the women on the show had to wear period-appropriate, multi-layered clothing and corsets. It all culminated badly.
On the very first day of shooting, the 12-year-old Arngrim got so flustered by the Cali sun and her clothing, that she passed out. And that wasn’t the only time Arngrim would — she later said in the 110-degree shooting days, she “passed out from heat stroke more than once.”
Gilbert was a party girl
On the show, Gilbert’s Laura Ingalls, based on the famous author of the books being adapted, was our center. She observed her family members survival and interpersonal skills, growing and learning how to function as her own person.
Off the show, Gilbert behaved… a little differently.
Frankly, she was a party girl. She was notorious in the tabloids for her Hollywood exploits and hard-living lifestyle. She hung with (and dated) bad boys like Billy Idol, Tom Cruise, and even Landon’s son, Michael Landon Jr. She even got briefly engaged to fellow hard-partier Rob Lowe.
One opening credits moment was unplanned
In the opening credits, one charming moment stands out above the rest. Little Carrie Ingalls is running down a hill with her two sisters — but she accidentally takes a tumble, before getting up and running again. This was completely unplanned — the actor actually fell, and the producers threw it in.
Also, did you notice that the opening credits have “Lindsay Sidney Greenbush” over this footage? That’s not one actor’s name: Carrie was played by twins, Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush. This was to avoid child labor law disruptions, as kids can only film for a certain number of hours.
Landon gave his onscreen wife some advice
A woman named Gabriel Tree auditioned for the part of Caroline “Ma” Ingalls. Landon and the other producers agreed she was the right actor for the part, and she got it!
But for Landon to work with her, he needed her to do one thing.
Change her name.
You see, “Gabriel Tree” was actually a stage name chosen by Karen Grassle. Landon hated it, thinking it was too hippy-dippy. So, Grassle officially went back to her birth name, and she and Landon were an onscreen couple for the show’s entire run.
Some of the scripts were total ripoffs
Before Little House on the Prairie, Landon became famous appearing on Bonanza. He played Little Joe Cartwright, a hot-headed cowboy who had a lot to learn.
But Prairie and Bonanza have more in common than the same leading actor — they used some of the same scripts.
Landon would bring in both unused ideas and completely produced scripts from Bonanza and straight up recycle them for Prairie. Some blatant examples: Bonanza’s “A Matter of Circumstance” became Prairie’s “A Matter of Faith.” And Bonanza’s “He Was Only Seven” became Prairie’s “He Was Only Twelve.”
Third time’s the charm
Before Little House on the Prairie, Arngrim had been working steadily as a child actor in print ads and commercials, and appeared in 1974 family film Throw Out the Anchor! But her first high-profile TV gig needed a bit of extra effort.
First, she auditioned for Laura. No dice. Then, Mary. Nothing. Finally, she auditioned a third time for Nellie Oleson. This time, she got it. Arngrim went on to say she was grateful to get Nellie over the Ingalls parts, as it’s more fun to be typecast as evil than good.
The original books may not have been written by who we think
The show is based on the series of Little House books by author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wilder wrote autobiographically, using details from her own life, and straight up naming her characters after the real people.
But some historians believe despite all this, Wilder is not the true author.
Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was a notable author in her own right. Alongside Ayn Rand, she wrote and published politically-minded works like The Discovery of Freedom. And some professionals, using a number of techniques and analyses, think she was a ghostwriter of the Little House books.
A number of celebs made their way through the Prairie
Known now for his work on Arrested Development and Ozark, Jason Bateman played new Ingalls child James in seasons 7 and 8. Also, Beverly Hills, 90210’s Shannen Doherty played Laura’s niece Jenny Wilder in season 9 and two movies. But they’re not the only famous faces you’ll see.
Guest stars throughout the series include Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks, A Christmas Story’s Peter Billingsley, Hollywood icons Ernest Borgnine and Burl Ives, and even country legends Johnny and June Carter Cash.
Before he was famous, Sean Penn even appeared as an extra in an episode directed by his dad.
There have been lots of strange adaptations
Often, Japanese anime shows are action-packed. But in 1975, a quiet anime adaptation called Laura, the Prairie Girl debuted. And in the early 2000s, two made-for-TV movies called Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder aired — and were criticized for being untrue.
In 2005, ABC Family aired a new Little House on the Prairie miniseries. Shot in Canada, it used a variety of relatively unknown Canadian actors, and was written by Miss Congeniality writer Katie Ford. DVD Talk called it an “impressively accurate depiction of the great hardships of frontier life.”
Gilbert had her first kiss on screen
During the middle of the show’s production, Gilbert was an inexperienced 15 years old. A costar, Dean Butler, was a more experienced 23. Their real-life characters, Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder, eventually got married. So, they were supposed to kiss. And Gilbert was freaked out.
She had never kissed anyone before, and the whole thing made her worried — even little things like Butler’s beard stubble. Adult chaperones had to come on set to make sure everything went okay and Gilbert stayed safe and comfortable.
Bet you feel better about your awkward first kiss story.
“Bunny” had some unsafe circumstances
In the season 3 episode “Bunny,” Laura finds out Nellie was lying about an injury involving her beloved horse. To get revenge, Laura then pushes Nellie in a wheelchair down a hill for revenge. Simple, right? But the real life shoot was more complicated.
During shooting, Arngrim had a real-life cast on her arm due to a broken wrist from a skateboarding accident. And to elicit as real of screams as possible for the wheelchair scene, crew members shouted that the safety ropes were broken right when cameras rolled.
One actor became a success in a surprising way
From seasons four through eight, Linwood Boomer played Adam Kendall, Mary Ingalls’ husband. But after this acting experience, Boomer shifted behind the camera, working regularly as a TV writer/producer on shows like Night Court. Then, he created one of the best known sitcoms of the 2000s.
As Little House on the Prairie was inspired by Wilder’s life, so too was Malcolm in the Middle inspired by Boomer’s.
The Fox show starred Frankie Muniz as a middle child living with an eccentric family, including a pre-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston.
Landon had some interesting requests
Landon was 5’9”. A pretty reasonable height, right?
But the powerhouse actor/writer/producer/director decided he wanted to appear even taller on screen. So he put four-inch lifts in his boots and appeared on elevated ground in as many shots as possible.
That wasn’t the only oddly specific request Landon had. He also wanted to — how can we phrase this delicately? — show off his hot bod. So if a scene could culminate in Landon removing his shirt, it would.
Not that any viewer who had a crush on Pa Ingalls was complaining.
Everyone’s a critic
Whenever a book series is adapted for the screen, fans of the original will likely find something to dislike in the result — just ask writers of HBO’s Game of Thrones. So when fans of Wilder’s original books voiced their displeasure with Landon’s deviations, his response was priceless.
“Have you read the books? There’s a chapter in there about how to make an apple fritter. I can’t film that!”
Honestly, we would’ve liked to see Landon try. Apple fritters are delicious, and we’re always down for a new recipe.
Their period food was wildly inaccurate
Ah, Missouri frontier food. Meat, potatoes, milk — all caught and homemade. The good old American way. Except — the cast was actually eating modern fast food in every dinner scene on Little House on the Prairie. What, did the Postmates delivery people use horses?
If the Ingalls family was enjoying some kind of meat/gravy combo, whether or not it was supposed to be chicken or rabbit or even squirrel, it was just Dinty Moore beef stew. And any time they were eating chicken, it was straight up KFC.
And speaking of KFC…
Colonel Sanders made a bonkers cameo
In season eight episode “Wave of the Future,” a guy who looks a heck of a lot like Colonel Sanders comes into Mrs. Oleson’s restaurant and asks if they want to make a business deal where she would only serve fried chicken.
This is, from a narrative standpoint, pretty obviously insane, even if the figure was only credited as “Bearded Man.” But from a purely historical standpoint, KFC didn’t exist until 1952, many, many years after the Ingalls family even existed in Walnut Grove.
Kisses made one actor quite upset
Arngrim’s Nellie wound up marrying Percival Dalton, played by Steve Tracy, who had appeared on popular procedural Quincy, M.E. Tracy was gay, but that didn’t stop the two from a particularly pointed joke they kept pulling on Gilbert.
Gilbert, who had her first kiss on the show (and was, you know, a teenage girl), still felt uncomfortable with shows of affection. So Arngrim and Tracy would, with no cameras rolling, kiss each other wildly and passionately, just to get Gilbert’s goat.
In a word: Yuck.
Weirdly, the show revolutionized how we watch football
Before playing Jonathan Garvey on Prairie, Merlin Olsen was a hall-of-fame football player for the Los Angeles Rams. And one day on set, he was chatting with film camera pioneer Garrett Brown about a lack of good camera angles while watching football. Which gave Brown an idea.
The Skycam — an invention that put a camera on a series of suspended wires that gave it the illusion of flying. Invented by Brown, first used for NFL games, all thanks to a random chat on the set of Little House on the Prairie.
One potential love story was scrapped for a strange reason
Originally, the writers wanted Mary Ingalls, played by Melissa Sue Anderson, to marry John Sanderson, played by Radames Pera. But when the two actors started performing the material that was supposed to hint at their romance, producers started scrambling. Why?
Anderson and Pera had no chemistry. And everyone knew. So producers changed the story, instead deciding that Mary should go blind from scarlet fever, and find love at a school for the blind. That two-part episode, “I’ll Be Waving as You Drive Away,” is widely considered the best of the series.
One actor grew up to play a different role in the Ingalls family
We all knew Gilbert as Laura. And it was a huge deal for her, saying, “It’s impossible for me to tell where Half-Pint ends and Melissa begins.” But when Little House on the Prairie: The Musical was produced in 2008, Gilbert naturally evolved.
She played Caroline “Ma” Ingalls in the musical, which went up in Minneapolis. The show was produced in association with charities Habitat for Humanity and The Seeing Eye. It focused on the Ingalls time in South Dakota, and it sold out its entire run.
Two auditions were immediate successes
When the show began production, many young girls across the country were auditioning to play Laura. But when Landon and the producers saw Gilbert in her first audition, they immediately stopped seeing anyone else. The screen test Landon and Gilbert did together solidified it.
Similarly, when Karen Grassle auditioned to play Ma, Landon said, simply: “Send her to wardrobe!” If only acting auditions were always that immediately easy.
Grassle later influenced the young actors on the show with her warm-ups and theatre-trained techniques.
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