Unbelievable Behind-the-Scenes Facts from Little House on the Prairie
From 1974 to 1983, fans tuned in every week to watch what happened next to the Ingalls family on Little House on the Prairie. Based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s bestselling children’s books, the television series inspired viewers with heartwarming, dramatic tales of families and friends living on the western prairie during the late 1870s.
To this day, fans still love the show’s memorable cast, unforgettable storylines and wholesome values. However, like many shows, Little House on the Prairie had its share of behind-the-scenes secrets. Here are 30 unbelievable facts you never knew about America’s favorite pioneer show.
Mary and Laura Ingalls Weren’t Exactly Friends
Mary and Laura Ingalls seem to have the best sisterly relationship on the show. They are sweet and can always confide in each other about anything that’s happening in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. However, Melissa Gilbert (Laura) and Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary) weren’t exactly best friends on set.
Pa and “Half-Pint” Had a Falling Out
It’s hard to imagine anyone not wanting to talk to Michael Landon (Charles). He played everyone’s favorite TV dad on the show, but after Little House on the Prairie ended in 1983, Melissa Gilbert didn’t speak to him for eight years. She didn’t approve of his extramarital affair with makeup artist Cindy Clerico, whom he later married.
Nellie’s Wig Was Very Painful
Nellie Oleson (Alison Arngrim) is one of the most iconic "mean girls" in pop culture. She was the spoiled, manipulative rich kid who loved to bully Mary and Laura Ingalls at school. The daughter of Nels and Harriet, Nellie is known for her perfectly curled blonde locks. Although you may have thought the hair was completely natural, Arngrim wore a wig to create the look during the run of the show.
Michael Landon Loved Taking His Shirt Off
Michael Landon knew he had a good physique, which is why he loved showing it off on both Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. He would often use any excuse to take his shirt off. The actor was definitely made to play in western TV shows.
Melissa Gilbert Hated Her First Kiss
Some of the most beloved fan favorite episodes of Little House on the Prairie tell the story of Laura Ingalls falling in love with Almanzo Wilder (Dean Butler). Laura had a crush on the older man until he finally noticed her. Melissa Gilbert was just 15 years old when Laura married Almanzo. At 23, Butler was eight years older than her.
Nellie and Percival Were Very Close
Although Melissa Gilbert struggled with first kissing Dean Butler on camera, Alison Arngrim and Steve Tracy (Percival Dalton) had no problem showing affection for each other. Nellie and Percival’s relationship developed quickly on the show after starting out as a mutual hatred toward each other, and Arngrim and Tracy didn’t mind all their kissing scenes.
Carrie Ingalls Was Played by Twins
Hollywood tends to cast multiple actors to play really young characters. This is because child labor laws forbid very young children from working too many hours in one day. This is difficult in the entertainment business because long workdays are very common. Producers of Little House on the Prairie found a way around this law in what is now a relatively common way.
Alison Arngrim Auditioned More Than Once
It’s hard to imagine anyone playing Nellie Oleson besides Alison Arngrim. At the same time, it’s difficult to picture Arngrim playing another character on the show. She was simply born to play Nellie Oleson. Apparently, the casting department felt the same way.
Michael Landon Thought He Was Too Short
Although Michael Landon knew he was attractive — especially shirtless, remember? — he still had his insecurities. Even though he has been ranked on TV Guide’s list of the 50 Sexiest Stars of All Time, Landon was self-conscious about his height and thought he was too short.
Taking Risks with Dark Topics
Little House on the Prairie might seem tame by today’s standards, but the show was produced in the 1970s and 1980s — a completely different era when it comes to what was appropriate on TV. Many of the episodes focused on fairly wholesome stories and issues, including gatherings with family and friends and religious themes, but the show pushed the boundaries several times throughout its nine seasons.
Melissa and Jonathan Gilbert Aren’t Speaking
Devoted fans of the show probably know that Jonathan Gilbert, who played Willie Oleson, is actually the adopted brother of Melissa Gilbert. They played rival friends on the show, and Laura was eventually Willie’s teacher in Walnut Grove. In the later seasons of the show, Laura and Willie are very close friends, but that’s not the case for the real-life brother-and-sister pair.
Michael Landon Had Gray Hair
Michael Landon seemed to have the best hair. Charles "Pa" Ingalls had luscious brown locks, but they weren’t entirely natural. In fact, Landon’s hair began turning gray in his early 20s, forcing the actor to rely heavily on over-the-counter hair dye to keep his hair brown, even while he was on Bonanza.
Laura and Mary’s Personal Love Lives
Melissa Gilbert had a thing for Hollywood bad boys, despite her goody-two-shoes persona on Little House on the Prairie. She dated Scott Baio, Tom Cruise and was even engaged to future Parks and Recreation star Rob Lowe. She also dated Michael Landon Jr., who she undoubtedly met through her TV dad. Gilbert ended up marrying actors Bo Brinkman and Bruce Boxleitner, but those marriages didn’t last. Today, she’s married to The West Wing and Field of Dreams star Timothy Busfield.
The Show Might Be Cursed
A popular fan theory says the show was cursed because several cast members died of cancer. Michael Landon died of pancreatic cancer in 1991, Victor French (Isaiah Edwards) died in 1989 of lung cancer and Kevin Hagen (Doc Baker) passed away in 2005 of esophageal cancer. In addition, Charlotte Stewart (Miss Beadle) is a breast cancer survivor.
The Reason They Blew Up Walnut Grove
Fans will never forget the show’s finale episode, where Laura Ingalls Wilder has the idea to blow up the town to seek revenge against a greedy real estate developer. It was a heartbreaking episode, but why did they decide to blow up the sets?
Nellie and Laura Were Best Friends
On Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls and Nellie Oleson are certainly not friends. They are constant rivals who spend a lot of time engaged in various conflicts. Nellie would play manipulative jokes on Laura, and Laura would sometimes have to seek revenge. Laura and Nellie hated each other so much that fans automatically assumed Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim disliked each other.
Michael Landon Was a Jokester
Little House on the Prairie is a serious show at times. It focuses on what life was like living on the prairie during the settling of the plains, a time when people could become gravely ill with scarlet fever, diphtheria and other deadly diseases. That’s why Michael Landon decided to keep things interesting on set. According to producer Kent McCray, Landon liked to pull hilarious pranks on his cast members.
Laura and Nellie Pulled Pranks Too
As you just discovered, Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim were very close friends behind the scenes. They played rivals on TV, but they loved goofing off together when they weren’t needed for a scene. Sometimes, they even got into mischief together on set. Perhaps learning from Michael Landon, the pair pulled pranks on each other and the rest of the crew.
Sean Penn Was on the Show
This might come as a surprise to you, but Academy Award-winning actor Sean Penn actually began his career on Little House on the Prairie. It was a small role and easy to miss, even if you’re a big Sean Penn fan. Penn’s name didn’t even appear in the credits of the two episodes he appeared in: "The Voice of Tinker Jones" and "Money Crop."
Using Family Members as Cast Members
We already know Melissa Gilbert’s brother, Jonathan Gilbert, appeared on the show. Besides including Sean, director Leo Penn also included his wife, Eileen Ryan, on the show as Mrs. Kennedy in the episode "The Voice of Tinker Jones." Ryan went on to be a fairly accomplished actress in her own right, appearing in several movies and television shows.
Copying from Bonanza
Before starring as Charles "Pa" Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie, Michael Landon gained fame as Little Joe Cartwright in the popular 1960’s western series Bonanza. While on Little House on the Prairie, writers occasionally had a bad case of writer’s block. When that happened, they borrowed old ideas from Bonanza and added new twists to the stories.
Later Seasons Got Silly
Almost every television show has bad episodes, and many of them seem to occur toward the end of its run. Writers struggle to create interesting storylines after a while. As a result, they tend to occasionally "jump the shark" and write silly, almost ridiculous stories just to keep the show going.
About the Famous Wheelchair Scene
One of the most beloved fan favorite episodes of Little House on the Prairie is "Bunny." In the episode, Nellie Oleson pretends she’s paralyzed. Once Laura Ingalls learns that Nellie is faking her injuries, she decides to seek revenge on her. She pushes Nellie’s wheelchair down a hill, shouting, "You’re such a good friend, Nellie!"
Was the Show True to the Books?
Laura Ingalls Wilder published the Little House on the Prairie books from 1932 to 1953. The book series inspired the television adaptation, and many fans have wondered if the show is true to the books. Unfortunately, the show is vastly different. Characters were changed or added, including Albert Ingalls, and many of the plots were fabricated by the show’s writing team.
You Can Visit Walnut Grove
Everyone who watches Little House on the Prairie probably wishes they could visit Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Good news! You can. The town that served as the backdrop for the Ingalls family adventures is a real place, and you can visit it to honor the television show as well as Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Mary Was Supposed to Marry John Sanderson
Originally, the script had Mary Ingalls marrying Isaiah Edwards’ adopted son, John Sanderson (Radames Pera). However, it became obvious to the cast and crew that Melissa Sue Anderson and Pera didn’t have any chemistry on screen. Rather than forcing the romance, the writers decided John would leave the show, following the plot of the books.
Michael Landon Had a Strong Work Ethic
Alison Arngrim credits Michael Landon for teaching her to have a strong work ethic and discipline. Landon had no tolerance for any cast member who exhibited harmful behaviors during their time on the show. He wanted the child actors to learn to act professionally on the job and in their personal lives.
Harriet Oleson and Pa Ingalls Didn’t Get Along
Harriet Oleson (Katherine MacGregor) is the town gossip of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. She is always involved in everyone’s business, and she can be fairly judgmental. Apparently, MacGregor and Michael Landon weren’t too friendly toward each other behind the scenes either.
Melissa Gilbert Went Through Puberty Too Soon
Becoming a teenager is a confusing, tough time for adolescent boys and girls, but imagine going through puberty when you’re supposed to rely on your young looks to play a beloved character. Little House on the Prairie was filmed over a nine-year period, which meant Melissa Gilbert had plenty of time to grow from a young child into a young woman.
People Fainted on Set
Even though the show was set in a small Minnesota ranch town, Little House on the Prairie was filmed in hot, sunny Simi Valley, California. The wide-open space and rural backdrop provided the perfect filming location for the late 19th-century pioneer drama, but there was one problem: It was far too hot.