When the Bonanza left the airwaves after 14 successful years, Michael "Little Joe" Landon went looking for a new project. NBC execs approached him with the idea of producing a made-for-TV film based on the popular Laura Ingalls Wilder book series Little House on the Prairie. The movie had been a huge ratings hit, and since it had a sort-of cliffhanger ending, the network was deluged with viewer inquiriesÂ asking "What happened next to the Ingalls family?" Thus a series was born. And while the premise of the show was definitely Waltons-level wholesomeness, our mission this week is to go behind the scenes and dish the less-than-vanilla Prairie dirt.
1. Little Hair on the Prairie
The secrets of hair start with Michael Landon, who had gone prematurely grey when he was 20-something during his Bonanza days. If you're wondering how he got that wonderful color, look no further than Clairol Medium Ash Brown- the key to his crowning glory. As for the trademark blonde curls that Alison Arngrim sported as mean girl Nellie Oleson, those were actually part of a wig that was fastened to her scalp so tightly that it often caused it to bleed. Melissa Gilbert also had fake hair to deal with, and was forced to wear girlish braids well after adolescence had added its telltale signs to her body. In fact, she was also forced to bind her chest until the plot line allowed her to "grow up" and become Walnut Grove's premier school teacher.
2. A Very Sick Set
In 1991, Michael Landon was hospitalized for what he thought might be an ulcer. Sadly, medical tests revealed cancerous tumors in both his liver and pancreas. Landon had been a heavy drinker and smoker throughout his life, so although the diagnosis was shocking, it wasn't totally unexpected. However, several years after Little House had stopped filming, many crew members were also diagnosed with rare forms of cancer. LHoTP had been filmed on the Paramount movie ranch near Chatsworth, California. Recent studies have turned up previously suppressed reports that the entire Simi Valley area was exposed to what has been labeled the "worst environmental release of radioactivity ever in the United States" courtesy of an experimental sodium cooled nuclear reactor operated at the time by the Rocketdyne Corporation. Actor Patrick Swayze, who grew up in the Simi Valley area, currently suffers from pancreatic cancer, and Motley Crue singer Vince Neil, who lived in Chatsworth for many years, lost his four-year-old daughter to a rare form of stomach cancer.
3. The Baby Battering Ram
An iconic episode of LHoTP featured the Blind School being engulfed in flames, and Mary's infant son Adam, Jr. trapped in the blaze. As she and her husband waited anxiously outside, TV viewers were treated to a scene that unfortunately, due to the camera angle, looked as though Alice Garvey (who had rescued the baby from his crib) used the infant's head to break the glass. Mrs. Garvey actually had the babe cradled in her arms when she attempted to break the window with her elbow. In any case, let the record show that in real life Mary Ingalls never married and never had children. Actress Hersha Parady, who played Alice Garvey, wanted out of her contract so that she could concentrate on raising her own family. The writers killed her character off in a very dramatic story line that not only "punished" her for leaving (i.e. her character couldn't suddenly reappear years later), but one that also provided for a ratings bonanza.
4. The Blessings of Nepotism
Anyone paying attention to Little House's credits certainly noticed the occasional "family affair" when it came to casting. Some of the branches of the family trees can get a bit convoluted, so pay close attention"¦ Melissa Gilbert played Laura Ingalls. Jonathan Gilbert played Willie Oleson. Both Melissa and Jonathan were adopted as infants by Barbara and Paul Gilbert. (By the way, when Barbara remarried, she and her new husband had a daughter named Sara. Six-year-old Sara saw Melissa get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and decided there and then that she wanted to be an actress, and she adopted her half-sister's last name with hopes of becoming an actress. Sara Gilbert later landed the role of Darlene on Roseanne.)
Interestingly enough, Matthew and Patrick Laborteaux (who played Albert Ingalls and Andrew Garvey) had also been adopted as infants, this time by the Labyorteaux family.
Also, Michael Landon eventually cast one of his daughters, Leslie, in the role of school teacher Etta Plum. Despite having this "foot up" in the acting industry, Leslie chose to instead pursue her education and eventually obtained a PhD in psychology. She currently specializes in grief counseling for children.
5. Kicking Off Those Goody Two-Shoes
Sometimes actors cast in relentlessly wholesome roles feel the need to stretch their acting wings and show the world that they're not really all that goody-goody. Karen Grassle ("Ma" Ingalls) admitted in some late-1970s interviews that she often grew weary of wrapping her hair into a bun and being subservient to Charles. One of her methods of rebellion was to co-write and star in a made-for-TV movie called Battered. The film garnered critical raves for its gritty and sensitive portrayal of spousal abuse in various settings: a blue-collar couple, an upper-middle class lawyer and his wife, and a sixty-something married pair.
Melissa Sue Anderson also felt restless once her character (Mary Ingalls) had gone blind, and the very few story lines afforded to her afterward required her to be ever-so-saintly and patient and kind. In 1979 she decided to shed her "good girl" image by staring in a made-for-TVer called The Survival of Dana, in which she played Dana, a small-town girl transplanted to a high school in the Big City, where she fell in with the wrong crowd and became a sort-of suburban gang-banger. The film employed every Hollywood stereotype of a rebellious teen and was unintentionally hilarious as a result.
>>Here is an opportunity for all you closet Little House viewers to post your questions/comments/complaints. Like, for example, how did that weird guy who molested Sylvia manage to buy a "party mask" at the Mercantile without questions being asked ("I'd like a bag of chicken feed, a dozen eggs, and one clown mask, please.")? Why did Charles Ingalls feel obligated to adopt any orphan that showed up in Walnut Grove instead of spending that money on speech therapy for Carrie? Now is the time to vent!