Little House on the Prairie and its spin-off Little House: A New Beginning aired from 1974 to 1983, based on the classic series of children’s books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Set back in the late 1800s, the show was about average daily life of a pioneer family and the townspeople in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, but behind the scenes things were anything but average. If you think it was all wholesome family values, read on.
1. The cast and crew would drink alcohol on set
Alison Arngrim spotted Michael Landon enjoying some whiskey one morning, and then found out that the crew would go through two cases of Coors each day. More stressful days were called “three-case days.” After filming wrapped they would bring out the harder stuff. Michael Landon was a chain smoker and a heavy drinker and even Melissa Gilbert struggled with drugs and alcohol after the show wrapped. In her memoir Prairie Tale, Gilbert wrote, “As a kid, I didn’t know [Landon] sipped vodka from his coffee mug … but I’m sure he’s one reason why, as a young adult, I almost always picked men who smelled like alcohol.”
2. Melissa Sue Anderson was the coldest actor on the ‘Prairie’
Melissa Sue Anderson, who played eldest sister Mary, never really opened to anyone or built the friendships that the rest of the close-knit cast shared. They suspected her aloofness came from the fact that she had overprotective parents who divorced when she was 13. In Allison Arngrim’s memoir, Confessions Of A Prairie Bitch, she said Anderson was a “prom queen type” and a “frenemy” to the other girls in the cast. Melissa Gilbert described Anderson as way too serious and stuck up.
3. Michael crushed Melissa when he cheated on his wife
Just like Half Pint and Pa, Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon had a close bond. Melissa has said, “He was very much like a ‘second father’ to me. My own father passed away when I was 11, so, without really officially announcing it, Michael really stepped in.” Towards the end of the series, Michael and his wife Lynn separated because Michael fell for (and eventually married) the on-set makeup artist Cindy Clerico, who was 20 years his junior. Melissa had gotten very close to Michael’s family and stopped socializing with him outside of work after that went down.
4. Landon was a bottle brunette
Those rich and lustrous curls cascading from Pa’s crown were the product of a dye job – Clairol Medium Ash Brown to be precise. Michael Landon went prematurely gray in his twenties, so he touched things up himself. Eventually he used a professional colorist as his own efforts took on an odd violet hue out in the bright sun.
5. People would pass out on set
The outside shots of the show were filmed at the Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley, California, which means that it was hot. The women had to wear a lot of layers of clothing to be in costume, which made things sweaty and uncomfortable. On the first day alone, Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson, and an assistant director both passed out from the heat.
6. Michael Landon liked to show some skin
Michael Landon, aka Charles “Pa” Ingalls, was pretty ripped and liked to appear shirtless on camera (just like he did on Bonanza). Whenever his character suffered an injury it was usually a broken rib as opposed to an arm or something, and off came his shirt. Also, rumor has it he went commando under his prairie pants.
7. Melissa Gilbert struggled with her love scenes
Melissa had her first kiss on set and had only ever kissed three people when she had to shoot the wedding night scene after Laura married Almanzo Wilder. Melissa was only 15 at the time, while Dean Butler who played Almanzo was actually 23. Must have been a little awkward.
8. Alison and Steve would kiss passionately to irritate Melissa
Alison Arngrim played Laura’s arch rival Nellie on the show, but the young actresses were good friends in real life. In later years, Nellie was married to Percival, played by Steve Tracy. Steve was actually gay but the two of them would take their kisses over the top simply to bug the more innocent Melissa Gilbert. A set memo once pointed out that when Nellie and Percival were together they “looked like they f*** like crazed weasels.” This was meant as a good thing, and was pointing out how Laura and Almanzo’s chemistry was lacking. Whoa Nellie!
9. Carrie’s trip was real
Little sister Carrie was played by twins Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush, and the director would switch up the girls to keep up with the child labor laws. Right before the opening credits scene was shot, they had to wake up one of the twins who sleepily stumbled down the meadow hill and took a tumble. The director liked it and used the shot.
10. Nellie’s wig made her bleed
Instead of curling Alison Arngrim’s hair everyday, they had her wear a wig. The only problem was it required a big metal comb and a bunch of hairpins that would regularly make her scalp bleed. The actress is proud that she ranked number three in in the TV Guide’s 2005 list of “TV’s Biggest Brats.”
11. Family ties IRL
Willie Oleson, the mischievous little brother of Laura’s nemesis, was actually played by Melissa Gilbert’s real life adopted brother Jonathan Gilbert. Apparently the two had a falling out and are now estranged. Their other sister is Sara Gilbert, who went on to Roseanne and The Talk fame.
12. Was there a cancer curse on the set?
Sadly, six of the actors and crew members got cancer and most of them died from it. This includes Michael Landon who died of pancreatic cancer, Victor French (Isaiah Edwards) of lung cancer, Merlin Olsen (Jonathan Garvey) of mesothelioma, and Kevin Hagen (Doc Baker) of esophageal cancer. Charlotte Stewart (Miss Beadle) is a breast cancer survivor. It was never proven, but many suspect that it was because of the chemical and radioactive contamination that was disposed near the set until the 1980s.
13. Alison Arngrim auditioned for three different roles
Persistence pays off! The first time that Alison Arngrim auditioned for the show was for the role of Laura, for which she was turned down. Then she read for Mary which was also a no. But when she came back to read for nasty Nellie she nailed it. Fun facts: Alison’s father was Liberace’s manager and her mother was the voice of Casper the Friendly Ghost.
14. Michael Landon always wanted to look as tall as possible
Michael Landon was only 5’9″ and wanted to appear tall at all times, so he wore boots that had a four inch platform on them. He would also stand on mounds or stairs whenever possible, and that hat added a few inches to his stature too.
15. Melissa Gilbert dated some big stars
Melissa Gilbert wasn’t much like her alter-ego with the buckteeth, bonnet and braids. She had a bit of a wild streak when she grew up, and dated a who’s who of Hollywood hunks. She was briefly engaged to actor Rob Lowe (she claims she miscarried his baby after he dumped her), and also hooked up with Tom Cruise, Scott Baio and Michael Landon Jr. She later married actors Bo Brinkman, Bruce Boxleitner, and current husband Timothy Busfield.
16. Melissa Sue Anderson also dated some big stars
Melissa Sue Anderson dated Lorenzo Lamas, Timothy Hutton and Frank Sinatra Jr at different points in time. She was offered the lead role in The Blue Lagoon, but turned it down. She continued to have an acting career throughout the 1980s and 90s, and her last known credit was for a film called Marco Polo in 2007.
17. Ma had a trippy stage name
Karen Grassle won the role of wholesome Caroline “Ma” Ingalls, but when she auditioned she worked under a different stage name. She called herself Gabriel Tree, which Michael Landon thought sounded a bit too out there. He asked her to go back to her real name, and she complied.
18. Guess which future Oscar winner got his first acting gig on Little House?
Before he found fame in films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mystic River, I Am Sam and Milk, Sean Penn cut his acting chops as a nameless kid on the prairie. It helped that his dad, Leo Penn, directed the episode. Other Oscar winners who graced the set are Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Patricia Neal, Eileen Heckart, Burl Ives, Lou Gossett, Jr. and Ralph Bellamy.
19. Pa didn’t get Along with Mrs. Oleson
The character Mrs. Oleson didn’t get along with most people, including her husband Nels, but the actress Katherine MacGregor had some tension with Michael Landon, too. He was a bit of a control freak who served as writer, director and producer on the series. MacGregor had her own ideas and often liked to do things differently, so they frequently clashed. Today, she is still alive and ticking at 91 years old.
20. Michael Landon blew up Walnut Grove
The story goes that Michael Landon blew up Walnut Grove when the show ended because he didn’t want anyone else using it as a film set. The Ingalls’ house was not blown up in the process, but it actually burned down in 2003 when it got swept up in a wildfire.
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