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 show itself was very family-friendly and wholesome, the antics behind the scenes of the long-running series weren't always so PG-rated.
1. Pa Ingalls’ hair color came out of a bottle.
Michael Landon had gone prematurely grey during his Bonanza days, while he was still in his twenties, and 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, California (where the series shot) 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 asked Karen Grassle to change her name when she was cast as “Ma” Ingalls.
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 as Gabriel Tree, her stage name at the time.
3. The novelty of period clothing wore off quickly for the young 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. On most days, 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. Most of those dinners Ma served were really Dinty Moore beef stew.
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.
5. 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 both 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.
6. Sean Penn made his acting debut on Little House On The Prairie.
The season 1 episode “The Voice of Tinker Jones” was directed by Leo Penn, who cast his wife, Eileen Ryan, in the episode—and also brought in his 13-year-old son Sean to play an uncredited schoolboy.
7. Michael Landon kept the young actors entertained.
According to People, Michael Landon would pretend to pick lice out of Melissa Gilbert’s hair after an emotional scene. Frogs were also a big hit. “We used to go with Melissa [Gilbert] to catch frogs in the creek,” Rachel Greenbush, who played Carrie Ingalls, told Closer Weekly. “We would bring them back to Michael, and then he would put them in his mouth and walk up to people, open his mouth and the frog would jump out! People would freak out.”
8. Charles Ingalls’s manly swagger was the result of 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.
9. No one ever got very close to Mary Ingalls.
Both Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim reported in their autobiographies that Melissa Sue Anderson (known as “Missy” on the set), who played Mary Ingalls, 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.
10. 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 3 years old when they were cast 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.
11. Michael Landon was very proud of his physique.
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 reportedly preferred to go au naturel underneath his tight-fitting prairie trousers.
12. Jason Bateman starred in 23 episodes.
In 1981, future Emmy-winner Jason Bateman landed the role of James Cooper Ingalls; it was his first TV role. Like Landon, Bateman became a TV director—in 2019, Bateman won an Emmy for directing himself in Ozark. "The only thing that I remember really soaking in was that first big job on Little House on the Prairie,” Bateman told Variety. “That group of actors had been together since Bonanza, and the way in which everybody functioned was very familial. It was a warm place.”
Bateman said that Landon influenced him both as a director and as a sort of father figure. “He was the George Clooney of that time. The crew loved him, the industry loved him, guys wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him,” Bateman said.
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. Michael Landon’s off-screen affair permanently 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 that, “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 Landon again until 1990, when she saw him at Leslie Landon’s wedding. Landon’s highly publicized breakup with Lynn also cost him some lucrative endorsement deals, including his longtime contract with Kodak.
15. Adult beverages were regularly imbibed during the workday.
Alison Arngrim often caught a nap in the prop truck during her breaks, 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 Arngrim and Gilbert said that despite all the alcohol consumption going on, no one (neither cast nor crew) ever appeared to be the least bit tipsy, nor did their work suffer.
16. Victor French briefly left the to show to star in a short-lived sitcom.
Victor French, who had starred in Gunsmoke and Bonanza, played Isaiah Edwards on Little House and directed a few episodes. He left the show in 1977 to star as a small-town Georgia police chief in sitcom Carter Country, which was sort of a comedic version of In the Heat of the Night. In 1979, when ABC canceled Carter County after two seasons, Landon welcomed French back. And in 1984, French joined Landon in Highway to Heaven. In 1989, French died of cancer, two years before Landon’s own death from cancer.
17. Mary INgalls's blindness was challenging for Melissa Sue Anderson.
During the fourth season, Mary Ingalls went blind. “It was the only time in the history of television that a series regular had lost their sight and not gotten it back … ever,” Melissa Sue Anderson, who played Mary, told Albany Daily News. “Therefore, it was exciting and challenging at the beginning … but a very difficult thing to sustain over a period of years.” At first, Anderson thought the plotline was used as a way to write her out of the script. But Landon assured her “to trust me,” he told People.
In 1978, Anderson’s performance garnered her an Emmy nomination, but a few years later she left the show. “As far as what Mary could do, my character became limited because she couldn’t see … This, ultimately, is the reason why I decided not to stay with the show and only do three episodes in the eighth season,” she said.
18. Michael Landon didn’t want to pay Karen Grassle more money.
Despite the set being mostly drama-free, Grassle did have one issue with Landon. “When we were in the top 10 [TV shows] and I said, ‘Gee, it is time to renegotiate my contract,’ Michael did not want to pay me,” Grassle told Closer Weekly. “It was very difficult.”
19. They filmed on the same set as The Wizard Of Oz .
In the late 1970s, the production moved from a Paramount soundstage to MGM. “They were ripping up the floor of the set, and what Melissa [Gilbert] and I see, lying beneath, was the Yellow Brick Road!” Arngrim told Closer Weekly. “Melissa and I went nuts. We were dancing around, singing the song, pretending to be Dorothy!”
20. Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks played a criminal.
Nearly 30 years before he played Mike Ehrmantrautin Breaking Bad (and then on Better Call Saul), Jonathan Banks played a frontier criminal in the 1980 Little House episode “Darkness Is My Friend.” Banks’s Jed and two other guys take Laura and Mary hostage at Mary’s school for the blind. Thankfully, Pa Ingalls saves the day.
21. Wildfires have destroyed the Little House on the Prairie sets—more than once.
In 2003, a fire swept through the Simi Valley, California set, known as Big Sky Movie Ranch. The fires destroyed a replica of the Ingalls' homestead, which had long been a tourist attraction. It also wiped out a lot of cattle. In May 2019, lightning propelled another destructive fire on the ranch.
22. 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 or proven 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) died 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.'
23. 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 her paralysis just to get attention. She gets her revenge by taking Nellie to the top of a hill in her wheelchair and giving her an almighty shove. In reality, 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 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.
24. 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 Gilbert 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.
25. 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.
26. Michael Landon directed almost half of the series’ episodes.
Not only did Landon play a lead role, but he also wrote, directed, and produced many of the episodes. Out of 205 episodes, he directed 90 of them, including the two-hour pilot, the final episode, and additionally TV movies Little House Years and Little House: The Last Farewell . He continued his directing and producing career in Highway to Heaven , which debuted in 1984.
27. Michael Landon didn’t "tinker" with perfection.
In her book Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, Arngrim wrote about what kind of director Landon was. “Michael was very much a fan of the ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ philosophy, and if something worked well enough in the first take, don’t bothering tinkering with perfection—just say ‘print’ and move on.”
28. NBC and Michael Landon canceled the show because Melissa Gilbert was all grown up.
In 1984, Landon told The New York Times why he and the network decided to end the show. One reason was partly because of declining ratings, and the other had to do with Melissa Gilbert’s Laura. “I didn't think a married woman should still be coming to her father for advice,” he said. “But when we started this show, we never imagined it would last this long.”
29. When filming on Little House On The Prairie finished, they blew up the sets.
In 1984, Landon directed the last TV Prairie movie, The Last Farewell, which involved the townspeople blowing up Walnut Grove so a land baron couldn’t have it. In real life, Landon ordered the sets to be blown to bits. Producer Kent McCrary explained that NBC leased the land from Getty Oil Company and the Newhall Land and Development Corporation and had to return the land back to its “original state,” meaning it had to look like it did before production moved in. McCrary suggested demolition, however, Landon said: “What if we blow up the town? That would get the buildings all in pieces and you still can bring in your equipment to pick up the debris and cart it away.” So he wrote the explosions into the script but made sure to leave the homestead and church untouched.
“I think it makes for a good strong pioneer ending,” Landon said. “It was also a nice catharsis for the cast and crew. There were lots of tears when we finally blew up the town. The actors had all become very attached to their own buildings, so it was very emotional.”
30. they did test runs before they blew everything up.
“We did quite a few tests first to make sure nobody would get hurt,” Landon told The New York Times . “So when we finally blew everything up, it went off like clockwork. We did it all in one day.”
31. Actor Stan Ivar kept his homestead.
During the final season, a new family, the Carters, move into the homestead. Ivar played head-of-the-family John Carter. Landon didn’t want the homestead destroyed, so according to Laura’s Prairie, Ivar disassembled the set and took it home with him. He supposedly has the set in storage or in his barn. At one point he tried to donate the set to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, but Ed Friendly, the owner of the Prairie brand, blocked it. The replica home might be gone, but at least the original still exists.
32. Little House on the Prairie gained a cult following in France.
Today, Little House on the Prairie can be seen in 140 countries, including France. Arngrim spends a few months a year touring the country. “It’s similar to David Hasselhoff and Germany,” she told The New York Times. “They don’t think Nellie is mean. They just think she’s French.”
33. Alison Arngrim learned to embrace "Nasty Nellie."
In 2017, Arngrim said that she gets “recognized more now than I did when the show was running.” And somehow she has not tired of her most famous role. "I thought I’d be sick of it, but now, it just makes me smile."
34. Baby Grace published a book called Prairie Devotional.
Wendi Turnbaugh (a.k.a. Wendi Lou Lee) was literally a baby when she was cast to play Grace Ingalls, the youngest Ingalls child. In August 2019, she published a faith-based book about the show. “My husband actually gave me the idea, probably about 10 years ago,” Turnbaugh said. "I thought it was a really good idea. But I didn't have the confidence.” But when she was recovering from a brain tumor, she started writing the book. “It started out as a blog just to inform people of my health and what was happening, and it became this,” she said.
35. Wendi Turnbaugh was also a twin.
Identical twins Rachel and Sidney Greenbush played Carrie Ingalls, and Turnbaugh also had a real-life twin (named Brenda).
36. One viewer really hated Nellie.
Nellie made quite the villain, and one person in particular took their hate too far. Arngrim explained that when she was 16, a person threw a half-filled cup of orange soda at her head while she was participating in the Hollywood Christmas parade. “I was actually impressed,” Arngrim said. “I mean, how good did you have to be to make someone so angry? I won’t ever forget it. Maybe that person will finally come forward and confess.”
37. Wendi Turnbaugh thinks people are drawn to the show’s faith.
Little House debuted 45 years ago, yet it still resonates with fans. In an interview with The Christian Perspective, Turnbaugh explained why she thought people still gravitate toward the series. “People are starving for family values and faith-filled content,” she said. “I think people might say that they don’t want that or need that. But that is what draws people in.”
38. Nellie became a gay icon.
For decades, Arngrim has immersed herself in the gay community. Her father was gay, and she worked for an AIDS charity. She told The New York Times how gay men adopted Nellie as one of their own. “I turned toward the people who were still clapping the loudest for her,” she said. She performed a one-woman show “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch” at a gay resort in Orlando and sold copies of her book at Nellie’s Sports Bar. “Little Nellie was hilarious with that hair and those petticoats, kind of like a drag queen in training,” Lady Bunny, a DJ, told The New York Times. Most recently, Arngrim was a part of Los Angeles DragCon.
39. The show may have led to more people reading books.
In a 1974 interview with People, Landon mentioned that book stores and libraries kept calling him and praising him. “Because of the show,” he said, “there are going to be an awful lot of kids reading.”
40. Alison Arngrim wants to play Mrs. Oleson if the show is ever rebooted.
Arngrim said that fans constantly request for the cast to reunite. “There’s only so much of us left, but we’d definitely all do it,” she said. She suggested casting Stranger Things’s Millie Bobby Brown to play Nellie, and the old cast could make cameos. “Also, I am the correct age now to play Mrs. Oleson and I’m available, so I have no shame,” she said. “I would play her in a second. I would totally do that,”
41. A Little House on the Prairie feature film was announced.
In 2016, Paramount was working on a Little House movie, but no word if that project is still happening.
42. 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.
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