One of the last times TV viewers saw the home of Charles and Caroline Ingalls was on Feb. 6, 1984, when NBC aired the penultimate Little House on the Prairie movie special, Little House: The Last Farewell. The film found the citizens of Walnut Grove faced with a hostile land-grab from a greedy tycoon — and they fought back by blowing the whole town to smithereens. The explosive finale was a tidy effort by executive producer and star Michael Landon to both end the story and speed up the wrap process: The producers did, after all, promise the landowners that they would return the Simi Valley, Calif., property to its natural state.
But two sets were spared from Landon’s shock-and-awe send-off: the town church — because no one thought it prudent to destroy a house of worship on a family show in prime time — and the titular little house itself. When it came time to decide the fate of the humble Ingalls homestead, a sentimental Stan Ivar — who joined Little House in season 9 as handsome blacksmith John Carter — asked if he could keep the set. Landon agreed, so Ivar took the (disassembled) keepsake to his home in rural Los Angeles County, and entertained grandiose plans to rebuild and relocate the abode someday for fans to visit and enjoy. “People felt better, knowing the little house was safe,” says Alison Arngrim, who starred as the snobby, sausage-curl-sporting menace Nellie Oleson for seven glorious seasons. “We’ve all said it would be great to see it in the Smithsonian.” More than 35 years later, it’s still in Ivar’s backyard. (More on that later.)
There have been surprisingly few efforts to resurrect Little House on the Prairie, the long-running drama about Laura “Half-Pint” Ingalls (Melissa Gilbert) and her family’s life on the farm in the late 1800s. While beloved period pieces like Little Women continue to inspire new interpretations by Hollywood, the other Little — based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of auto-biographical novels — has been mostly overlooked during our current reboot-happy era. (A forgettable mini-series aired as part of The Wonderful World of Disney in 2005, and a touring stage musical ran from 2008 to 2010.) But interest in the franchise has never diminished. Reruns of the 1974-83 series continue to air in 30 countries worldwide, including U.S. networks like Cozi TV, UPtv, and Hallmark Drama, where it remains the most-watched program excluding movies. Family Guy has parodied the show’s iconic opening and closing credits twice. And on Dec. 29, PBS will devote an installment of its American Masters docuseries to Ingalls Wilder, which will cover everything from her libertarian politics to the lingering suspicions that her daughter, Rose Lane, did some (or all) of the writing. “It seems like a very simple story. This woman grew up traveling all over the Midwest and sat down one day and wrote a bunch of books about it,” says Michael Kantor, American Masters’ executive producer. “But the reality is a complicated story about the division between truth and fiction, and her daughter’s involvement.”
The journey of Ingalls Wilder’s intellectual property after her daughter’s death is equally fascinating: Ivy League-educated attorney Roger Lea MacBride — who called himself the “adopted grandson” of Rose Lane — inherited the Ingalls Wilder estate, including all literary rights to the books, in 1968. He sold the TV and film rights to Laugh-In producer Ed Friendly a few years later; Friendly pitched the show to NBC in the early 1970s and hoped that Landon, then a big star from Bonanza, would direct. Landon agreed, but only if he could star and exec-produce as well. (Landon died in 1991, followed by MacBride in 1995 and Friendly in 2007.)
Friendly’s son Trip is now the keeper of the rights — a job he’d been preparing for his whole life. “My mother read the books to us when we were children,” recalls the former Ticketmaster exec. “My father went into my sister’s room when she was home sick from school and found her rereading them. He borrowed one and went on a business trip. He bought a Time magazine at the airport so no one could see he was reading a kids’ book on the airplane. By the time he landed, he immediately called his lawyer.” Though Friendly may have held the rights, Landon deserves some of the credit for the show’s sweet tone. “The Ingalls never had a lot, but there was food on the table, the house was clean, and there were shoes on their feet,” says Dean Butler, who played Laura’s husband, Almanzo Wilder. “They were dealing with issues, but they were fundamentally happy.”
After the Little House stage musical, Trip Friendly tried to get another project off the ground. In 2012, Sony put a Little House movie into development with Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) in talks to write the script and David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) to possibly direct… but the film ended up in turnaround when Sony chairman Amy Pascal exited the studio in 2015. (Paramount considered picking up the script, but the deal never came to pass.) “We came close but not close enough,” Friendly recalls with disappointment.
But he hasn’t given up. He says he is currently developing another reboot, but is not ready to go into details. In the meantime, his daughter Rebecca operates a popular Little House website that features an episode guide, “prairie-inspired” recipes, biographical information about the Ingalls family, and a “Which Little House on the Prairie Character Are You?” quiz. The site’s recent uptick in traffic has convinced the Friendly family that folks are ready for a return to Walnut Grove. “It was something that I talked with my father about before he passed in 2007. I really felt it would be exciting to reboot the material,” he says. “Fans are eager to see Little House on the Prairie come back to the screen, and we agree the time is right. We feel optimistic that this will happen.”
When it does, there’s at least one actor ready to make a cameo. “I’m just the right age to play Mrs. Oleson,” says an eager Arngrim, who wrote a best-selling 2010 autobiography, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. “I’m totally there. I have no shame.” The actress is keeping the pioneer spirit alive through the pandemic by reading from the Little House books on her Facebook page. “Alison really carries the mantle for the cast on a day-to-day basis,” says Butler, who directed the 2015 documentary The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
The actual little house, meanwhile, continues to lie dormant in California, awaiting its next close-up. Years ago, Ivar tried to donate the house to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, Minn. — he says he even had the support of then governor Jesse Ventura — but Ed Friendly allegedly nixed the idea. “I’m not familiar with [Ivar having the house],” says Trip Friendly, who was in boarding school and college when the original series was in production. “It would have been the property of NBC, and so it would have been up to them to decide what to do [with it]. But I think it’s a wonderful thing if it can be done. There has always been a great deal of interest in Little House and in a reboot, particularly this year.” Butler agrees: “We are facing challenges that nobody has ever seen. It’s a wonderful time to inspire people with stories about a time when life was simpler.”