Karen Grassle (Ma Ingalls) Reflects on ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ Her TV Kids, Her Mom & More

Karen Grassle, Little House on the Prairie, Season 1, 1874
Everett Collection

“It’s just astonishing for me to realize the power that Little House on the Prairie stills has for people. I mean, we never could have guessed that 50 years from now, you would be wanting to talk to me about Little House,” Karen Grassle, 82, shared with us. “It’s all completely undreamed of.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Little House on the Prairie (1974-83) and several stars of the series, including Grassle, are gathering for a weekend in Simi Valley, California, to celebrate.

For eight years, Karen Grassle portrayed the warmth, patience and strength of frontierswoman Caroline “Ma” Ingalls. In our interview Grassle reflects back on the series and shares some insights on her candid memoir Bright Lights, Prairie Dust.

What episode(s) remain special to you to this day and why?

Karen Grassle: There are a few of them. The first one is the pilot. I love the pilot. I love the simplicity of the story. I love how true it is to the books, and I love it because we were all venturing into a new territory as actors, as cast, as crew, Mike [Michael Landon] as producer/director, and there weren’t a lot of other people involved. We were on location. We were kind of out there, you know, and it gave us a chance to really bond and become this little family. I loved that, and I loved being with the girls around the campfire and building those relationships.

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE (1974-1983) Karen Grassle, Michael Landon, Melissa Sue Anderson, Melissa Gilbert & Lindsay Greenbush

Everett Collection

When it came to being a TV mom to the girls, was one more mischievous than the other?

They were very well cast. Mike had a genius for casting, and Melissa Sue Anderson, when I first met her at a costume fitting, she and her mom were just finishing and they came out, and I was stunned by this beautiful child. She looked like this little princess, and she was very polite, with good manners, very soft-spoken, and so right for Mary. Then on the first day of shooting, this little redhead with pigtails came up to me [Melissa Gilbert] and I thought, “Here comes Laura.” She said, “Have you got your tears ready?” I was like, “Um, this is going to be different.” I had to answer her back really quickly, you know, as if she hadn’t thrown me, and I said, “Yes, I have them in my pocket.” That was our first exchange. I must say that I really treasured getting to know them, and I couldn’t be a mom to them. They had their own mothers, they had their own families, but I could be there as a sympathetic friend like an aunt or something.

Was there a double for you, or did you do all that physical work?

We had a double when it was dangerous. When it was physical work, most of it I could do, but obviously I didn’t do it for 12 hours like Caroline Ingalls. I just did it long enough for the montage and then they sprayed the sweat on me, so I had it easy. I will say that working outdoors, working with animals and children, all kinds of weather, in pioneer clothes, it could be very, very hot. It could be very dusty.

I was always so happy that we had both location and the studio, because as soon as you got tired of the sun, you were back in the studio and everything was protected and controlled. As soon as you got tired of getting up before the birds and going to work in the dark and getting off in the dark, you went back outside again, so that was a very nice balance.

Then because there were children, our hours were shorter than like a police show. Like Angie Dickinson, she’d be downtown shooting ’til two or three in the morning. I mean, I didn’t have to do that.

Was there any part of your own mother that you brought to the role?

I based the entire character on my mother. There was very little about the real Caroline Ingalls at that time. … I knew she had been a one-room schoolhouse teacher. I knew she was committed to giving her girls a good education. I knew she was tough, that she’d been poor, that she’d struggled, and my mother had done all of these things. I said, “I’ve got my research right there.” My mother, I think, was an exceptional teacher and mother, and I’m happy to say that so many people feel that they learned all kinds of things from the character I played. That’s like an honor to my mother.

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, (from left): Mathew Laborteaux, Michael Landon, Karen Grassle, Melissa Sue Anderson, 'Make Them Proud, Part II', (Season 6, ep. 619, aired Feb. 4, 1980), 1974-1983.

©NBC / Courtesy: Everett Collection

You still have a big fan base. What do you hear from people, and what do you cherish most about your connection with people who loved your character?

I didn’t go to a lot of nostalgia shows or fan shows for quite a lot of years, but when I brought my book out, I said, “I have got to get on social media and I’ve got to get out there with people.” It’s been a revelation for me. I never could have guessed how this character of Caroline Ingalls is imprinted on people’s hearts. The reception that I have received from journalists, from fans, from people who said, “You raised me,” has been astonishing.

Karen Grassle_Bright Lights_Prairie Dust, book cover

How long did it take you to write your deeply personal memoir Bright Lights, Prairie Dust?

Oh, mercy. Well, I say 10 years, because I didn’t work every day at the beginning. Then there were times when I went off and did a play or went off and did a movie, or took a long trip. There’d be times when I took a break, or I’d take a break while somebody read it to give me feedback. I would say that the process, the whole thing, was 10 years.


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