Unless you’re an avid consumer of business news, you probably haven’t heard of Melissa Francis. Last week, the FOX Business Network announced that the Harvard graduate will soon anchor a 5 p.m. news program covering Wall Street, stocks, bonds, and other grown-up things that I know nothing about. But here’s someone you probably have heard of: Avery Jessup, 30 Rock‘s conservative media personality and Jack Donaghy’s wife/baby mama. It’s been reported that Francis, a former child actor who appeared on Little House on the Prairie, was the inspiration for Elizabeth Banks’ Avery. Here, she talks about her acting past and sets the record straight about the Avery Jessup character.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you first get into acting?
MELISSA FRANCIS: I was a child actor the whole time I was growing up in Los Angeles. My first thing was a Johnson & Johnson commercial that I did when I was less than a year old. I did more than 100 commercials, three TV shows, and a lot of movies.
And why did you decide to quit?
By the time I was in high school I felt like I’d already been doing this for a lifetime. I started to wonder if there was something else out there for me. That’s what inspired me to go all the way to Harvard for college. I thought, “I’m going to put a significant amount of distance between me and Hollywood and see if I really yearn to go back, or see if I’m tempted to do something else.”
Did your acting experience prepare you for your anchoring duties?
Television and news are so dramatically different. There are no rehearsals. There is no safety net. No one’s telling you what to say. It’s your face on the line, and you can’t even blame it on your character. When you make a mistake, it’s you on YouTube. We’ve all been there. There’s almost no overlap at all between acting and news.
Your first big role was on Little House on the Prairie. Tell me about that character and your experience on the show.
I was Cassandra [Cooper Ingalls]. Jason Bateman was my brother. They wrote us in and adopted us at the end [of the show] when they were running out of little kids and wanted to keep the series going. We were orphans who showed up because our parents were killed in some sort of tragic wagon accident — I’m not even kidding. [Michael Landon’s Charles Ingalls] adopted us on the spot. I went back and watched it recently with my 5-year-old son. I hadn’t seen it in a really long time. There’s a lot of crying involved.
What was it like working with Michael Landon?
Michael Landon was a hoot. He always used to entertain us. He would go to say a line — and this happened a number of times — a live frog popped out of his mouth just to surprise us. He did stuff like that all the time. Another time, he took off his hat and was looking very stoically out at the prairie. It was probably another crop failure or something like that. Anyway, he took his hat off and a tarantula that he had found just went walking down the front of his face. We all screamed. Somewhere, somebody saved all those outtakes.
So were you really the inspiration for 3o Rock‘s Avery Jessup?
There’s a lot of debate about that. I’m a huge fan of the show, of course. It’s one of the best shows on television. I worked at CNBC, and there were so many people who got to do cameos. We were all angling for ways to get on the show. I knew [30 Rock producer] Rob Carlock from college. I was always sending him ideas and trying to get him to put me on the show. At some point, I pitched something about Jack, who is such a straight-laced kind of guy, falling in love with a business anchor from CNBC. I thought, “Hey that could be me!” I hounded [Carlock] for a long time, and low and behold Avery Jessup shows up. But I have to say in all fairness, Rob’s wife [Jen Rogers] is also a fantastic reporter. So it could be her too. But I did pitch the idea. What I really wanted was to be on the show. But they needed a real actress to do the actual Avery Jessup role.
So there’s no hope of a 30 Rock cameo in the future?
Well, they let me do a quick little bit that they used in one episode. But they only used my voice and not my picture. I was just reading the news. In the long run, I lost out. But we can all dream. [Laughs]
Francis has an exclusive interview with JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon today at 1 p.m. ET.