In 1974, TV audiences were introduced to the Ingalls family, a frontier clan living in a rustic cabin in the Minnesota wilderness during the 1870s and ’80s. America was in the middle of its Me Decade, with an exhausting war and general upheaval at home. The weekly dramas of a farmer and his children—based on the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder—were an irresistible look at a simpler time when people based their lives around family, home, and church. (All nine seasons are available on Digital HD on Amazon; seasons 1–3 are also available on Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate.)
EW’s Reunions shoot reunited many of the residents of Walnut Grove. There were the Ingalls kids—Laura (Melissa Gilbert), Mary (Melissa Anderson), Carrie (Lindsay Greenbush, who split the role with her twin sister, Sidney), and Albert (Matthew Laborteaux)—plus town bully Nellie Oleson (Alison Arngrim), Laura’s husband, Almanzo Wilder (Dean Butler), kindly schoolteacher Miss Beadle (Charlotte Stewart), and, of course, Ingalls matriarch Caroline (Karen Grassle). It was the first time much of the cast had seen one another since 1991—the year the show’s director/executive producer/star, Michael Landon (Charles Ingalls), died.”They’ve all grown into such lovely people,” Grassle says. “There’s so much love in this group.”
For Gilbert, who was arguably the most famous child actor in the world while the show aired, Little House was “an adventure and one of the most formative parts of my life.” With more than 200 episodes, there were memories to spare from the cast. Here, we asked them to talk about a few key moments.
Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls): I do remember my audition—it was when I met Michael Landon for the first time. I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t know what Bonanza was. It was just another audition until I walked in the room with him. He had this unbelievable glow that was captivating. It’s trite to say, but he had me at hello. I wasn’t even 9 years old yet.
Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson): I originally auditioned for the part of Laura. But I think everybody read for the part of Laura. It was like the search for Scarlett O’Hara for kids. But playing Nellie was so much more fun than being one of the nice people. When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, I wanted to be beautiful and a sex symbol. But being a sex symbol is temporary. Bitch is forever.
Lindsay Greenbush (Carrie Ingalls): I auditioned a couple of months before I turned 4. My earliest memory is shooting the opening credits—where my sister falls down that hill. When people who aren’t super familiar with the show ask, “Which one was Carrie?” I can always tell them the little one that falls down the hill. They know exactly who I mean.
GROWING UP ON TV
Melissa Anderson (Mary Ingalls): The Paramount lot was an incredible playground for us kids. Melissa [Gilbert] and Alison were always running around together. I was more friendly with the crew. The set felt like home.
Arngrim: [Anderson] looked at Melissa Gilbert and me like we were total juvenile delinquents. I think she thought we would get her in trouble if she hung out with us, which is perfect for her character because Mary was such a little narc.
Gilbert: We’d play together on the set all the time. There were some epic games of tag and Red Rover. Alison and I also hung out a lot when we weren’t shooting—sleepovers and birthday parties. The two of us would go places together, and people would try to protect me from her. Even when I was 10 I’d want to say, “Come on, it’s a TV show.”
Matthew Laborteaux (Albert Ingalls): Melissa [Gilbert] was the ringleader. Alison was the co-ringleader. They’d have lunches in their trailer, and we’d go in and goof around.
Karen Grassle (Caroline Ingalls): I was closest to Karl Swenson [Lars Hanson]. He was an exceptionally smart man, and I always loved it when he came on set. There was a lot of old-boys’-club stuff going on. Every Monday it was like, “How about those Rams?” That wasn’t my scene.
In season 6, the character of Almanzo Wilder was introduced. Readers of the books knew him as Laura’s future husband. Gilbert was 15; Butler was 23.
Gilbert: I look back now and watch episodes from when I was 15 or 16 and go, “Whoa—there’s an awkward stage.” [When Almanzo was introduced], it was the third time I had ever kissed a boy—and all three times were on TV. I was kissing a man who had to shave that morning, and I hadn’t even ever shaved my legs. It’s bizarre. I mean, he was a grown-up person with a car. He golfed!
Dean Butler (Almanzo Wilder): It was challenging. And Melissa was being watched very closely by everybody on set—she’d grown up around these people. She had to take on this relationship with no experience. She is one of the most fearless people I’ve ever known. She has that quality today, and she had it in spades as a 15-year-old girl.
Gilbert: I would catch frogs, and Mike would put them in his mouth and walk over to people, and they’d jump out. That was our big trick. [Laughs] Our relationship was very close, and it grew even deeper when my father passed away [in 1976]. Our families got close. We went on vacation to Hawaii together every Easter. His son Mike Jr. was my prom date.
Arngrim: He did love children. It’s a good thing because he certainly had enough of them.I mean, he was a taskmaster. If you show up and you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll probably get yelled at. I didn’t have issues with him, but some of the grown-ups did.
Butler: When I walked into the room to meet Michael Landon, it was clear he was a big-time star. To be around him was as far from Charles Ingalls as you could get. The hair was the same—no one touched his hair. It was a bit of a thing, I think he cut it himself. But then you add the skintight jeans and the snakeskin boots and the shirt opened halfway down his chest with a gold chain around his neck, and the sunglasses and cigarettes.
Laborteaux: He treated kids differently. As long as you showed up on time, knew your lines, worked hard, and, you know, gave a s—, you were aces in his book. He’d treat you like another actor, not talk down to you. He had a strong personality. As an adult, now I can look back and have sympathy for anyone trying to go up against a force of nature like Michael Landon.
Greenbush: He was like Superman to us kids, and it’s still really hard now to think of
him not being here. He was the one person nothing could ever happen to.
Charlotte Stewart (Miss Beadle): You could tell how admired he was by the fact that the crew stuck with him from [show to show]. That’s true loyalty. He made sure we all got home for dinner, unlike so many other shows.
GOING OUT WITH A BANG
On Feb. 6, 1984, the two-hour TV-movie finale, Little House: The Last Farewell, dealt with the discovery that Walnut Grove’s land is owned by a tycoon. The people of the town decide they’d rather destroy it, so they blow it up. The actual sets were detonated.
Gilbert: I was glad that they were doing it because it gave us closure, but it was sad. Saying goodbye wasn’t easy. The cast and crew were family. I still weep whenever I watch it.
Grassle: I thought it was a shame. We could have done annual specials about the characters. But once you blow up the town, you can’t do that.
Laborteaux: The story I got, that Michael intimated, was that he didn’t want to see all the structures from Little House used on other shows. I couldn’t be there on that day, but when I saw Michael a few weeks later he said, “I have something for you.” And he pulled out a big chunk of wood. He had saved a piece for me. I still have it.
Butler: There wasn’t much said that day. It was powerful for all of us. I don’t think Michael really directed anybody that day. I don’t think he needed to.
Arngrim: I thought it was funny. I love the part when you can see the blind school blow up—it’s so huge, and it was the first thing they blew up, and they used too much explosive. But I thought it was a great idea.
Greenbush: To this day I haven’t been able to watch that episode.
Stewart: I have never watched that final episode, and I never will. It’s too awful.