Little House on the Prairie was the popular American western drama TV series that captured the hearts and imaginations of an entire generation from the mid-1970’s and into the 1980’s. For years, week in and week out we tuned in to check what was going on with the Ingalls family, as well as others. While everything may have seemed great on the surface, years later, several former cast members released tell-all books about their experiences, good and bad, as child actors on Little House on the Prairie. We’ve successfully uncovered 30 of the juiciest secrets from Little House on the Prairie and we’re excited to share them with you.
Gilbert’s Connection With Landon
Over the years, Melissa Gilbert became very close to Michael Landon, thinking of Landon as a second father.
She took their relationship so seriously that after discovering that Landon was leaving his wife for makeup artist Cindy Clerico, Gilbert stopped speaking with Landon outside of work.
Not As Romantic As They Appeared
In real life, Laura Ingalls was 17 when she married Almanzo James Wilder, who was in his late 20’s. At the time, this age discrepancy may have been socially acceptable.
However, during the filming of Little House on the Prairie, the age difference between 15-year-old, romantically inexperienced Melissa Gilbert, and 23-year-old Dean Butler lead to stress and awkwardness. Chaperones were even brought in to ensure the safety and comfort of Gilbert, who claimed that Butler’s stubble freaked her out.
Alison Couldn’t Take The Heat
The costumes worn on The Little House on the Prairie were based on traditional clothes from the 1800’s. For the girls, this meant stockings, petticoats, pinafores, and Bonnets.
As one might imagine, this didn’t combine well with the high temperatures and strong sun on the California ranch where the show was filmed. The daytime heat often reached into the 90s and 100s. In fact, on the first day of filming, both Alison Arngrim as well as an assistant director collapsed from heat exhaustion.
Mary Was The Mean One
While every cast member may have appeared friendly to one another in front of the camera, there was actually quite a bit of drama and personal issues behind the scenes.
In their tell-all autobiographies written long after the show ended, both Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim talk about how Melissa Sue Anderson was bratty, unfriendly, and cold to her co-workers. Speculations have arisen that Anderson’s mother may have been overprotective and controlling, leading her daughter to behave the way she did.
In her autobiography Prairie Tale Melissa Gilbert wrote about on-set substance abuse issues. Apparently, Michael Landon, along with many of the show’s crew members, would abuse alcohol during filming on a daily basis.
Gilbert herself went on to develop a drug problem after leaving the show. In her book, Gilbert even speculated that Landon’s alcohol abuse may have lead to his untimely Pancreatic Cancer diagnoses. Landon was also a chain-smoker, going through 3 or 4 packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day.
When filming a TV show using child actors and actresses, things don’t always happen according to plan. We saw one of the more extreme examples of this with actress Melissa Gilbert AKA Laura Ingalls.
Filming became rather complicated when Gilbert started going through puberty in real life far earlier than the directors and producers of the show intended for her character, Laura. In order to deal with this dilemma, Gilbert needed to bind her chest in an effort to maintain her young appearance.
While the Little House on the Prairie may have been loved and adored by fans and viewers, the show was never able to impress critics. For nearly a decade while on-air, the show gained lots of popularity but only managed to win four Emmy awards from 16 nominations.
However, The Waltons, a show that was similar to Little House on the Prairie in many ways and that some would argue to be a much less memorable series, won far more Emmy awards.
Alison Arngrim’s Wheelchair Scene
In the episode, Bunny, Laura discovered that Nellie was faking injuries for attention and decided to get revenge by pushing her wheelchair down a hill.
In reality, Alison Arngrim was sporting an actual cast on her arm as a result of a braking her wrist in a skateboarding accident. When Arngrim rode down the rocky slope in the wheelchair, her screams were also real because, just before the camera started rolling, a crew member yelled to her that the safety ropes had broken.
According to the show’s script, Willie Oleson, played by Jonathan Gilbert, is the mischievous and spoiled little brother of Nellie, always causing trouble for Laura Ingalls, played by Melissa Sue Gilbert, and her siblings.
Outside the show, however, Jonathan Gilbert is Melissa Sue Gilbert’s real life adopted brother. Jonathan and Melissa Sue Gilbert are actually two of just a few stars to appear in most of the TV series as well as the two TV movie specials in 1983 and 1984.
Borrowing From Bonanza
Before Michael Landon was Charles Ingalls, he was Joe Cartwright on Bonanza, a popular television show in the 1960’s. Through both shows, Landon gained experience not only as an actor, but also as a writer, director, and producer.
On several occasions, Landon would recycle or reuse old or unused scripts that were originally written for Bonanza. For example, one episode of Little House on the Prairie called A Matter of Faith, was previously an episode of Bonanza called A Matter of Circumstance.
Linwood Boomer’s Untapped Talents
Before becoming a writer and producer, Linwood Boomer started his career as an actor on Little House on the Prairie, playing Adam Kendall, the loving husband of Mary Ingalls. After leaving Little House on the Prairie, boomer went on to create, produce and act in many television series.
He is most famous for creating the Fox sitcom, Malcolm in the Middle. The series ran for seven seasons and 151 episodes, and even earned Boomer a Primetime Emmy Award for his work writing the pilot episode.
Meant To Be
When it came time to cast the part of Laura Ingalls, there were no shortage of hopeful girls vying for the role. Just 9 years old at the time of her audition, Melissa Gilbert stunned Michael Landon and the rest of the casting crew with an emotional and powerful performance in a short scene.
Both Gilbert and Landon felt the on-camera chemistry immediately and Gilbert would discover later in life that Landon chose her without even auditioning any other girls.
It turns out that Michael Landon had some pretty interesting quirks. The 5’9″ Landon wanted to appear as tall and macho as possible on camera. Thats why he wore four-inch lifts in his boots.
Additionally, Landon never shied away from an opportunity to go shirtless and show off his manly physique. In fact, Landon’s character never broke an arm or a leg just so there wouldn’t being anything preventing Pa from losing his shirt. Last but not least, Landon was rumored to have rarely worn underwear.
Michael Landon’s prematurely greying hair didn’t exactly fit the description of Pa Ingalls. In order to fix this, Landon had to use a trick from his days on Bonanza.
The greying star made use of a product called Clairol Medium Ash Brown to add some color. The problem was that the powerful sun in Simi Valley did not interact well with the product and Landon’s hair became a strange lavender color. Eventually, Landon sought professional help to prevent more delays in production.
Initially, Alison Arngrim tried to work with her natural hair, using an old-fashioned curling iron that needed to be heated in an oven. After a few weeks of this painful procedure, the crew decided that it would be best to fit Arngrim with a custom-made wig.
While the wig may have been a less painful option, it was still far from perfect, needing to be held in place with a big metal comb and dozens of hairpins which often caused Arngrim’s scalp to bleed.
Two For One
Before the Olsen twins, there were the Greenbush twins. According to the opening credits, Carrie Ingals is played by “Lindsay Sidney Greenbush.” In reality, the youngest of the Ingalls girls was played by two separate twin sisters, Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush.
Just three years old when they landed the part, the sisters would alternate playing the role of Carrie because child labor laws in California limited the director to switching each twin out on a rotation once every few hours.
Sticking To The Script
Michael Landon often took criticism from fans of the Little House books, from which the 2-hour TV movie preceding the series, and the series itself are based, for taking creative license and altering the original story line to better fit the overall direction in which the show was going.
When asked about it, the always cleaver Landon responded, “Have you read the books? There’s a chapter in there about how to make an apple fritter. I can’t film that!”
The Ingalls’ Diet
The Ingalls family really suffered from a lack of variety in their diets. In just about every scene involving the Ingalls sitting down to enjoy a meal, the food was the same.
If they were eating something that resembled meat and gravy, and even if Ma said it was rabbit or chicken or squirrel, it was actually Dinty Moore brand beef stew. Any time one of the Ingalls were seen eating something that resembled chicken, it was actually from a delicious bucket of KFC.
The Colonel’s Cameo
In some instances, Michael Landon’s freedoms as a writer also involved historical inaccuracies. In the episode, Wave of the Future, a man resembling Colonel Sanders of KFC asks Mrs. Oleson if she would like to start serving only fried chicken in her restaurant.
In reality, Colonel Sanders didn’t open his first KFC restaurant until 1952, half a century after the Ingalls lived in Walnut Grove. Maybe the Colonel’s appearance had something to do with Ma’s fried chicken we always saw the girls eating.
Honoring A Friend
Although Melissa Gilbert had a falling out with Michael Landon following his divorce, she always held onto fond memories of her early years as a child actor and spoke of him with admiration, despite what some might consider to be character flaws.
In 1991, Landon sadly lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. Four years following his untimely death, Melissa Gilbert had a son with Bruce Boxleitner and chose to name her baby Michael, to honor her late friend and mentor.
Pranking On The Prairie
While on camera, they may have appeared to hate one another, the actresses that played arch nemeses Laura Ingalls and Nellie Oleson, were actually best friends. Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim were known to spend almost all of their free time together and even gained a reputation as pranksters among the cast and crew.
Nobody was safe from their antics and rumor has it one of their favorite tricks to play on set was to cover the toilet seat with saran wrap.
Grossing Gilbert Out
As we all know, sometimes friends like to push each others’ buttons and annoy one another. In the case of Alison Arngrim and Melissa Gilbert, this came in the form of Arngrim doing her best to gross out the young Gilbert.
Gilbert couldn’t stand watching Arngrim and her on-screen husband, Steve Tracy, kiss. So naturally, Arngrim made it a point to kiss Tracy as openly and passionately as possible, especially when Gilbert was involved in the same scene or nearby on set.
Keeping It In The Family
As the executive producer, writer, and director, Michael Landon could pretty much hire whoever he wanted for a role. In 1982, when it came to casting someone to play the part of Etta Plum, Landon called on no other than his very own daughter, Leslie Landon.
Leslie Landon was featured on Little House on the Prairie as Etta Plum from 1982 until 1984. She had also previously worked on the show in four other small guest appearances between 1975 and 1981.
Getting Their Start On Little House
One of Jason Bateman’s first legitimate acting jobs was on Little House on the Prairie, playing the Ingalls’ second adopted son, James Cooper Ingalls. On the show, James is an orphaned child brought into the Ingalls family following the untimely death of his parents in a wagon accident.
In reality Bateman was a 12-year-old rocking a fantastic bowlcut! Sean Penn also had his first on-screen role on Little House on the Prairie, appearing as an extra in a 1974 episode directed by his father.
The Birth Of An Invention
In 1979, while filming an episode of Little House on the Prairie, Garett Brown had a conversation with actor and former football player Merlin Olsen about the lack of available camera angles in the NFL, and how this influences the overall viewer experience.
Brown’s chat with Olsen stuck with him and two years later, Brown began developing Skycam, a camera system suspended from a network of cables that can be controlled via computer. This invention revolutionized the way we watch sports.
Third Try Is The Charm
Alison Arngrim originally auditioned for both the roles of Laura and Mary Ingalls but was rejected from both. When she returned for a third time to audition for Nellie Oleson, she was hired on the spot.
Before becoming the “Nasty” Nellie who we’ve all grown to love to hate, Arngrim’s father had a conversation with her, suggesting that acting might not become a lifetime career for her. Thankfully, Arngrim chose not to listen to her father’s advice and proved to us that persistence pays off!
A Sick Set
In 1959, Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory, located in Simi Valley, was the site of a terrible nuclear meltdown.
Considering that nuclear waste was continuously dumped illegally into the area until the 1980’s, and filming began in the very same area in 1974, there’s a good chance that the cast and crew were exposed to harmful radiation while filming. Some have suggested a correlation between the high number of cancer cases among the crew and the known contamination of Simi Valley.
The Explosive Finale
Since the show’s end, rumors surfaced that Landon blew up the set so that no other TV show or movie could use it. This is, in fact, just a rumor.
The truth is that in the crew’s deal with Newhall Land and Development, it was agreed that the land used for the show’s set would be returned to its original state following the end of the series. Landon figured that a good, dramatic, pioneer finale would involve blowing the set up.
Carrie Ingalls Takes A Tumble
During the show’s intro, we see Carrie Ingalls, the youngest daughter in the Ingalls family, take a spill while running down a grassy slope trying to catch up to her sisters.
This clumsy and adorable moment was not actually planned and Syndey Greenush, one of the twins who played Carrie, fell by mistake while filming the scene. Producers chose to use the funny footage of Greenbush’s tumble in the show’s intro. Luckily, Sydney was totally fine and got right back up!
Anderson Wasn’t Into Pera
In the original script, writers planned for Mary Ingalls, played by Melissa Sue Anderson, to marry John Sanderson, played by Radames Pera. Unfortunately there just weren’t any sparks between the two young actors.
Instead of trying to force a romantic chemistry between Anderson and Pera, the writers opted to change the storyline. The new plot involved Mary going blind after contracting scarlet fever and leaving to study at a school for the blind, where she could learn to be dependent.