17 Pioneering Facts About Little House on the Prairie
When the very popular TV series Bonanza left the airwaves after 14 years, Michael “Little Joe” Landon went looking for a new project. NBC executives approached him with the idea of producing a made-for-TV film based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s popular Little House on the Prairie series of books. The movie was a huge ratings hit, and since it had a sort-of cliffhanger ending, the network was deluged with inquiries from viewers asking “What happened to the Ingalls family next?” Thus a series was born. And while the premise of the show was very family-friendly and wholesome, we did find a bit of Prairie dirt to be dished.
1. PA INGALLS’ HAIR COLOR CAME OUT OF A BOTTLE.
Michael Landon had gone prematurely grey while he was still in his twenties, during his Bonanza days, and he used Clairol Medium Ash Brown to color his crowning glory. He continued using the same product once he started on Little House on the Prairie, dyeing his hair himself. But the scorching, unrelenting sun in Simi Valley would turn his hair an odd shade of lavender after a few days, which caused production delays (lights would have to be adjusted so as to not reflect on his head). Eventually Landon gave in and allowed a professional on the set to color his hair.
2. MICHAEL LANDON WAS VERY PROUD OF HIS PHYSIQUE—ALL OF IT.
Landon never passed up an opportunity to appear shirtless on camera, which is why Pa never broke an arm or leg in any of his farming mishaps, only a rib or two. He also preferred to go au naturel underneath his tight-fitting prairie trousers.
3. THE NOVELTY OF PERIOD CLOTHING WORE OFF QUICKLY FOR THE GIRLS IN THE CAST.
All the exterior Little House on the Prairie scenes were filmed at the 10,000-acre Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley, California, where a “cool” day meant temperatures in the low 90s. Most days of filming the mercury hit triple digits, and the young actresses were clad from head to toe in heavy cotton stockings, petticoats, pinafores, and bonnets. Both Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson, and an assistant director passed out from the heat on the very first day of filming.
4. NELLIE OLESON’S PERFECT CURLS WERE ACTUALLY A WIG.
For the first few weeks of filming, Arngrim’s own hair was transformed into a series of sausage curls via a torturous old-fashioned curling iron that had to be heated in an oven. Finally it was decided that a custom-made wig would be more humane, not to mention time- and cost-effective. The wig had to be held in place with an enormous metal comb plus dozens of long, straight, metal hairpins, all of which frequently dug into Arngrim’s scalp and caused it to bleed.
5. LAURA AND MANLY’S WEDDING NIGHT WAS NOT AS ROMANTIC AS IT SEEMED.
Although on the show Laura was 17 when she married Almanzo Wilder, in real life Melissa Gilbert was a very innocent, romantically inexperienced 15-year-old whose first kiss was on a sound stage. Her initial kiss with 23-year-old Dean Butler (the actor who played Wilder) was only the third time she’d kissed a “boy” and it squicked her out because he had the tiniest bit of beard stubble. The thought of having to cuddle in bed with him (after the pair had wed on the series) was even more frightening to the teenager.
In an attempt to try to joke Melissa out of her nervousness, Butler quietly crooned some lyrics from “Strangers in the Night” into her ear before the cameras rolled. Unfortunately his effort had a cringe-worthy opposite effect on Gilbert, and she pleaded with Michael Landon afterward for any romantic scenes between Laura and Almanzo to be limited to hugs or a peck on the cheek.
6. LAURA AND MANLY’S LACK OF CHEMISTRY WAS A CAUSE FOR CONCERN AMONG THE PRODUCERS.
A “secret” memo was circulated at one point discussing the romantic pairings on the show; Laura and Almanzo just didn’t look like they were in love, and couldn’t the actors do something to generate some “sparks” between the two of them? The same memo pointed out that when Nellie and Percival were together they “looked like they f*** like crazed weasels.” Unbeknownst to the production staff, Steve Tracy, who played Nellie’s husband Percival, was gay. But he and Alison Arngrim were great friends and used to swap passionate, open-mouth kisses during their love scenes just because they knew it grossed Melissa Gilbert out.
7. MICHAEL LANDON’S OFF-SCREEN DALLIANCE DAMAGED HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH MELISSA GILBERT.
Melissa Gilbert became very close to Michael Landon’s family after she was hired for Little House on the Prairie, especially his son, Michael Jr., and daughter Leslie. Lynn Landon and Melissa’s mother, Barbara Crane, became best friends and the two families often vacationed together. One day Barbara broke the news to her daughter, “Auntie Lynn and Mike are separating.” Gilbert had noticed that Landon had been extremely attentive to “that makeup girl” (as makeup artist Cindy Clerico, 20 years Landon’s junior, was referred to by some cast members) on the set, but she’d never dreamed that he’d leave his wife of 19 years for her.
Gilbert remained polite and professional while working with Landon on the set after he married Clerico, but she stopped socializing with him after hours. After Little House on the Prairie ended, she didn’t speak to Michael again until she saw him at Leslie Landon’s wedding in 1990. Landon’s highly publicized breakup with Lynn also cost him some lucrative endorsement deals, including his long-time Kodak contract.
8. KAREN GRASSLE WAS ASKED TO CHANGE HER NAME WHEN SHE WAS CAST AS “MA.”
Actually Michael Landon asked her to change back to her real name, which is Karen Grassle (pronounced “Grass-lee”). When she auditioned for the role of Caroline Ingalls, she did so under her stage name at the time, Gabriel Tree.
9. CARRIE INGALLS WAS PLAYED BY A SET OF IDENTICAL TWINS.
Rachel and Sidney Bush (credited onscreen as “Lindsay Sidney Greenbush” and known as “Sugar Lump” and “Foxy Robin” to everyone on the set) were just three years old when they were signed to play the youngest Ingalls daughter. That’s Sidney falling down while running during the opening credits; the director rotated the girls every few hours in accordance with California labor laws for such young children. In this case, just prior to filming the hillside running scene, he had called for a “Fresh twin, please!” and Mrs. Bush hastily awoke the napping Sidney and quickly put her little shoes back on … unfortunately, on the wrong feet. Michael Landon thought it was adorable when she tripped and hit the ground and left it in the sequence.
10. SEAN PENN MADE HIS ACTING DEBUT ON LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE.
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The season one episode “The Voice of Tinker Jones” was directed by Leo Penn, who not only cast his wife, Eileen Ryan, in the role of Mrs. Kennedy, but also brought in his 13-year-old son Sean to play an uncredited schoolboy.
11. CHARLES INGALLS’ MANLY SWAGGER WAS DUE TO HIS SPECIAL BOOTS.
Michael Landon was just 5-feet-9-inches tall and didn’t want any other actor to tower over him, so he wore four-inch lifts in his boots. If that boost wasn’t quite enough in a particular scene, he would make sure that Charles was positioned on a staircase, a ladder, or even a slight mound of dirt.
12. MOST OF THOSE DINNERS MA SERVED WERE REALLY DINTY MOORE BEEF STEW.
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Any dinner scene that showed some sort of generic meat and gravy on the family’s plates—regardless of whether Ma announced that it was rabbit, chicken, or squirrel—actually consisted of canned Dinty Moore brand beef stew. Those instances when Laura was seen pulling a drumstick out of her tin lunch pail at school? Well, those came not from the Ingalls’ chicken coop, but from Kentucky Fried Chicken.
13. NELLIE AND LAURA WERE ACTUALLY BEST FRIENDS.
Mean ol’ Nellie Oleson got her lights punched out more than once by rival Laura Ingalls, but in real life Alison Arngrim and Melissa Gilbert became the best of friends shortly after they first met in the makeup trailer. They had sleepovers at each other’s homes and became partners in crime when it came to playing pranks on their co-stars.
14. NO ONE EVER GOT CLOSE TO MARY.
Both Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim reported in their autobiographies that Melissa Sue Anderson (known as “Missy” on the set) remained somewhat cold and aloof during her time on Little House on the Prairie. There were rumors among the guardians on the set that Missy’s mother was overprotective and controlling and that was the reason the young actress tended to keep to herself.
15. NELLIE’S BROKEN ARM AND SCREAMS WERE BOTH REAL IN THAT FAMOUS RUNAWAY WHEELCHAIR SCENE.
“Bunny,” the episode where Nellie gets thrown from the horse she’d won from Laura in a previous episode and ends up paralyzed, is a fan favorite. The climactic scene occurs shortly after Laura discovers that Nellie can, in fact, walk and has been faking just to get attention. She gets her revenge by taking Nellie to the top of a hill in her wheelchair and then giving her an almighty shove. In reality, Alison Arngrim had recently broken her wrist in a skateboarding accident, so the plaster cast on her arm was real. And while a stunt double was used for the shot where Nellie flew out of the chair and into the pond, Arngrim was required to ride in the rickety 1870s-era wooden wheelchair down a rocky slope so she could be filmed screaming for the close-ups. The chair was attached to safety ropes, but just prior to the second take, as the director yelled “Action!” one of the crew members cried out “Oh no, the rope broke!” It hadn’t, but Arngrim didn’t know that and her terrified screams as she bounced and rolled down the hill, struggling with one hand to stay in the chair, were authentic.
16. ADULT BEVERAGES WERE ENJOYED BY CAST AND CREW DURING THE WORKDAY.
Alison Arngrim often caught a nap during her breaks in the prop truck, and it was there while she was hunkered down on the front seat that she overheard Michael Landon say “Hit me” to propman Ron Chiniquy at the rear of the truck. She lifted her head to peek and saw Chiniquy pour the requested four fingers of Wild Turkey into Landon’s coffee cup, even though it was only 10 a.m. She later found out from Ron that the crew usually went through two cases of Coors beer per day while working. Particularly stressful days, when rewrites and retakes were necessary, were referred to as “three-case days.” After filming was wrapped for the day, a makeshift bar with hard liquor was set up on a sawhorse for the “real” unwinding to begin. Yet both Alison and Melissa Gilbert report that despite all the alcohol consumption going on, no one (cast nor crew) ever appeared the least bit tipsy, nor did their work suffer.
17. THE SIMI VALLEY RANCH MAY HAVE BEEN A “SICK” SET.
Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory was the site of one of the worst nuclear meltdowns in U.S. history back in 1959, and illegal disposal of nuclear waste continued in the area until the 1980s. No actual link has ever been admitted publicly, but there have been murmurings for years that the number of cancer cases among Little House actors and crew members may have some connection to the chemical and radioactive contamination in that area. Michael Landon died of pancreatic cancer, Victor French (Isaiah Edwards) of lung cancer (he and Landon were heavy smokers, though), Merlin Olsen (Jonathan Garvey) died of mesothelioma, Kevin Hagen (Doc Baker) succumbed to esophageal cancer, and Charlotte Stewart (Miss Beadle) is a breast cancer survivor.
BONUS: And, just because, here’s disco Half Pint as we never saw her in Walnut Grove.
We hope you enjoy the singing and dancing talents of Melissa Gilbert on this 1978 installment of the short-lived variety series Dick Clark’s Live Wednesday.
Additional sources: Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, by Alison Arngrim Prairie Tale, by Melissa Gilbert The Way I See It: A Look Back on My Life on Little House, by Melissa Sue Anderson Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter, by Melissa Francis Interview: Alison Arngrim Interview: Melissa Gilbert Interview: Karen Grassle