Was Michael Landon as Wholesome as Pa on the ‘Little House’ Set?

Michael Landon (1936-1991), US actor, poses with his arms crossed and resting on his knee with a log cabin the background in a portrait issued as publicity for the US television series, 'Little House on the Prairie', circa 1974. The drama, adapted from the novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), starred Landon as 'Charles Ingalls'
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“If you would have told us 50 years ago that this show would remain timeless, we would have thought you were crazy,” said Alison Arngrim, who famously played mean girl Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie. Many of the surviving cast members of the show reunited for a Little House on the Prairie festival in Simi Valley, California recently to celebrate the show’s 50th anniversary. Arngrim, who has led the way in keeping the show in people’s minds, opened up about what the set was really like.

LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 16: Actor Michael Landon on February 16, 1977 spotted on the set of "Little House on the Prairie" at the CBS Television City in Los Angeles, California.

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Despite the wholesome image of the show, set back in the 19th-century Midwest, and the set containing children, it wasn’t always family-friendly. Arngrim revealed, “It was the ‘70s. People drank, people smoked. [Michael Landon] did all of these things. It was kind of strange you’re… on set and people are standing around with cigarettes and glasses of gin. It seemed odd, but that was TV in the ‘70s. It was like ‘Mad Men.’ [Landon] was so not Pa. But then, if you think about it, what a brilliant performance. Here was this man who came to work in his unbuttoned shirt, in his gold chains, in his Ferrari with his Marlboros, and then he turned into Pa Ingalls in a matter of minutes.”

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, Melissa Gilbert, Michael Landon, 1973-84

Everett Collection

While Landon was beloved by the cast and crew, they were also devastated when it came out that he was having an affair with Cindy Clerico, who was the stand-in for Melissa Francis’s character Cassandra Cooper Ingalls. Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls Wilder, was particularly upset because she looked up to Landon as a father figure in real life too, and was very close with his wife and children.

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE -- "Blind Journey: Part 1 and 2" Episode -- Aired 11/27/78 and 12/4/78 -- Pictured: (l-r) Melissa Sue Anderson as Mary Ingalls Kendall, Michael Landon as Charles Philip Ingalls

NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Arngrim added, “Michael in many ways was a Hollywood person. Yes, he owned a Ferrari. He had fast cars. But… the show was therapy for people. And I believe it was therapy for Michael in a lot of ways… [What surprised me] was that… insecurity, because he was so powerful. He was the executive director. He was the producer. He was the writer and star of the show. He was everything. He was loved by millions, absolutely gorgeous, very much in charge… He’d be cracking jokes. He had a wonderfully twisted, warped sense of humor. He was hilarious.”

Landon sadly passed away in 1991 from pancreatic cancer and many of the cast, including Arngrim still view him with a complicated lens. After all, the larger-than-life figure was still human. No one can really live up to his character Pa in real life.

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