‘Little House On The Prairie’ 8 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, clockwise from bottom left: Melissa Sue Anderson, Michael Landon, Karen Grassle, Melissa Gilbert, Sidney Greenbush (center), (Season 1, 1974), 1974-83. ph: Carl Furuta / TV Guide / ©NBC /
Courtesy Everett Collection

From the moment it hit the airwaves in 1974, the TV adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House on the Prairie book series became must-see family viewing. Little girls begged for sun bonnets and prairie dresses, and big girls were busy making vintage-inspired Gunne Sax dresses for school dances and other formal affairs. The show proved a passion project for Michael Landon, who sought another surefire hit after rising to fame on the long-running Bonanza. Casting himself as the morally upright, fiddle-playing Charles “Pa” Ingalls, Landon was surrounded by spirited newcomers Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls), Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary Ingalls), twins Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush (who shared the role of Carrie to skirt child labor laws). Erstwhile theater actress Karen Grassle signed on as Caroline “Ma” Ingalls. And though Little House usually offered viewers comforting, familiar and often instructive entertainment, the series also boasted secrets and silliness, before and behind the camera. Here are a few.

1Love Thine Enemy

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE -- "The Campout" Episode 9 -- Aired 11/19/1975 -- Pictured: (l-r) Melissa Gilbert as Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder, Alison Arngrim as Nellie Oleson --

NBCU Photo Bank

Though they famously tormented one another onscreen, Melissa Gilbert found an instant and lifelong best friend in Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson). According to Arngrim, among other things, the two bonded over their mutual distaste for the aloof Melissa Sue Anderson, and for the admittedly “juvenile delinquent” behavior that earned them Anderson’s ire, Landon’s affection and made their time on set a ton of fun.


2Little House of Horror

Little House on the Prairie. Sylvia, Horror Episode

Courtesy Everett Collection

With moviegoers’ penchant for horror flicks gaining steam at the dawn of the 1980s (including the 1981 slasher Happy Birthday to Me, which starred Anderson as a killer coed), Landon decided to dip his toe in the genre, too, creating the two-part Little House episode “Sylvia.” In the oddball episode, the title character is viciously raped, nearly worked to death by her own dad and ultimately expires when the rapist strikes again before poor Sylvia (Olivia Barash) can get her happy ending as kindly Albert’s (Matthew Labyorteaux) bride. Where Sylvia’s assailant got his hands on a clown mask in teeny Walnut Grove, Minnesota, is as much a mystery as why Landon thought this icky entry belonged in the Little House oeuvre.


3Reluctant Romance

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, from left: Dean Bulter, Melissa Gilbert in 'Back To School: Part 1' (Season 6, Episode 1, aired September 17, 1979), 1974-83.

Courtesy Everett Collection

While Laura’s chaste courtship with her eventual husband Almanzo Wilder made little girls swoon in the Little House books, the onscreen version played out much differently. In her 2009 memoir and multiple interviews, Gilbert revealed that this was because her own first kiss and Laura’s were one and the same. The inexperienced 15-year-old Gilbert had to lock lips with 23-year-old actor Dean Butler, who played Almanzo, rather than share the milestone moment with a beau of her own choosing. Afterward, Gilbert begged Landon to keep lovey-dovey scenes between the Wilders out of the bedroom and limited to hugs or pecks on the cheek. Gilbert didn’t stay squeamish about the opposite sex for long, dating a parade of teen heartthrobs including Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Scott Baio and even punk prince Billy Idol.


4Michael Landon’s Purple Mane, Puuuuurple Mane

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, Michael Landon, 1974-1983. ph: ©NBC / courtesy Everett Collection

Courtesy Everett Collection

Michael Landon’s luxurious locks had already gone gray by the time he was in his 20s and stealing hearts as rambunctious Little Joe Cartwright in Bonanza. His secret to preserving his hunky looks: Clairol Medium Ash Brown home hair color, which he applied himself. Only after the scorching California sun that baked Little House’s Simi Valley set began to give his bottle-brown mane a noticeable purple cast did Landon give in and let a pro do the dye job.


5It’s Finger Lickin’ Good

Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket 1969

National Museum of American History

Though it supposedly came from the Ingalls’ own flock, Ma’s farm-fresh fried chicken actually arrived on the family table in a bucket courtesy of KFC (which, on occasion, passed for squirrel). Dinty Moore beef stew subbed in for any number of Ma’s other culinary creations, from rabbits and deer to other critters.


6The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Be it frugality or admiration, Landon shamelessly repurposed some of his favorite Bonanza storylines into Little House plots. Among them, Bonanza’s “A Matter of Circumstance” sees Landon’s Little Joe nearly lose an injured arm, and possibly his life, to infection with no one at the ranch to come to his aid. In Little House’s “A Matter of Faith,” an infected wound on Ma’s leg nearly proves fatal before she can join Charles and the girls on a campout.

7A Dynamite Finale

The series’ explosive finale, in which the folks of Walnut Grove opt to blow their entire town to bits rather than surrender it to a greedy land baron who wants to own both town and townspeople, served as more than just memorable farewell. Landon had leased the land on which the Walnut Grove set was built from several large companies and promised to leave the plot just as he found it when filming was done. Demolishing the set minimized the amount of material that would need to be moved out and, said Landon, “it makes for a good, strong pioneer ending.”


8My Mother, Myself

Karen Grassle, of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, on the street, June, 1975.

Jonathan Exley/TV Guide/courtesy Everett Collection

Karen Grassle (who was performing under the stage name “Gabriel Tree” when she was chosen to play Caroline) revealed in her memoir Bright Lights, Prairie Dust: Reflections on Life, Loss, and Love from Little House’s Ma that she based her character’s unflappable nature on her own mother. Grassle, whose father was a mercurial alcoholic, described her schoolteacher mom, Frae, as a tough and determined woman who learned to overcome hard times with grace during the Great Depression. Said Grassle, “It was wonderful to have that strong female role model as inspiration for Caroline.”


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November 2023

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