40+ Real-Life Secrets About Little House on the Prairie
Who doesn’t love Little House on the Prairie? While watching this series or reading the books, you get to learn about 19th-century life in the midwest and the tough lessons the Ingalls family learned. Whether you grew up with it or not, we can all agree that this story is one of a kind.
Little House on the Prairie has been a popular TV show for decades, but not everything associated with its production is as wholesome as the show itself was. Today, we’re going to look at some facts the producers probably didn’t want anyone to know. These secrets from behind the scenes, during production, and after the show ended were hidden from us for decades. Get ready to be blown away as you learn these little-known facts about your favorite childhood series!
1. Karen Grassle’s Big Break
Karen Grassle found her way to fame and fortune when she got the role of Ma on Little House on the Prairie. Karen’s life changed forever after playing an iconic character in one of America’s favorite shows from 1974 to 1983. She had no money before she landed the role and was running out of time to make her big break.
In a recent interview with Closer Weekly, she shared her journey playing Caroline Ingalls of Little House. She also spoke of her life before the show. “I had spent a year in England, working with a Shakespeare company and teaching, and came back to the States flat broke,” Karen said. Well, let’s just say that she’s one lucky girl!
2. The Renovated Little House
The cabin from Little House on the Prairie is a national treasure. Many have imagined their own versions of this house as it was one of America’s most beloved book series before it became a TV show. The Little House on the Prairie Museum is renovating a near-perfect replica of their original log cabin in Walnut Grove.
The initial intention was to recreate only the cabin, but it became a huge concept. The team is planning on adding modern technology for the Visitor’s Center and Prairie Town. This year, they’ll be adding more details and finishing touches to make it as authentic as possible – sounds exciting!
3. Alison Arngrim Became a Famous Gay Icon
Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson in the series, is now a famous gay icon in America. After the end of Little House, her career faltered. She tried a few different roles, but they didn’t work out. Fifteen years ago, Arngrim said she had a “lightbulb moment” then she was no longer trying to change who she was and instead embraced herself as she is.
She is an open person who had a fascinating childhood and who does a lot of work to support good causes. According to the New York Times, actress Alison Arngrim is fully on board with the LGBT community. Recently, she performed during New York’s Gay Pride Month.
4. Wendi Lou Wrote a Book
Wendi Lou Lee was a child actress who became a writer. She is well known for her portrayal of Baby Grace in Little House on the Prairie. In 2015, Wendi underwent brain surgery to remove a tumor. After the successful operation, she started sharing her life and talking openly about her Christian faith.
Wendi wrote a book, A Prairie Devotional, that was inspired by Little House. The book offers readers an insightful look into the lives behind-the-scenes of the hit TV show. She shares personal anecdotes from the show as well as stories about family struggles.
5. Actor Stan Ivar Kept His Character’s Homestead
After each Little House on the Prairie episode, one star would take a small piece from the show – a lesson, fun memories, or a literal homestead set. Stan Ivar dismantled his character’s farmstead set to carry it home with him. It was his way of keeping the memories alive after filming ended.
Today, the replica house is an iconic symbol of nostalgia in Ivan’s barn in LA country. He tried to give back the set as a tourist attraction in Walnut Grove, but the Little House creator refused to accept it.
6. They Blew the Entire Town Up in the Last Episode!
In 1984, Landon ordered townspeople in the film to blow up the town so a land baron couldn’t have it. In real life, they blew the whole town up too! Producer Kent McCrary explained that NBC had leased Walnut Grove from Getty Oil Company and Newhall Land Development Corporation as their set.
That’s why they needed to return the town to its original state after filming was done with The Last Farewell. Landon, who directed the last episode, decided to blow up the set, “What if we blow up the town?” Landon said. They did a lot of test runs to ensure that nobody on the set would get hurt.
7. The Wizard of Oz Was Filmed in the Same Place
It’s an incredible feeling when you realize that the place where you work is actually part of your childhood, and that’s what Alison Arngrim felt that day. She shared that she couldn’t contain her happiness when she discovered that they were filming on the same set as The Wizard of Oz.
When they saw the Yellow Brick Road from the famous Wizard of Oz show, she said she got so excited that she started dancing and singing and acting like Dorothy. Even Grassle, who played Ma in the show, shared her feelings at the time. “It was wild. We were knee-deep in Hollywood history,” Grassle said.
8. Landon Refuse to Raise Grassle’s Pay
When Little House became one of TV’s most popular shows, and people watched it every day across America, Grassle asked for a pay rise. Even though she was one of the stars of her show, Grassle said that Landon (who was the producer as well as her co-star) refused her request.
Grassle revealed in an interview that she wanted to renegotiate her contract, but Landon didn’t want to pay her. “It was very difficult,” Grassle said. Though in 1991, she had a friendly call and reconciled with Landon before he died.
9. Isaiah Edwards Left the Show to Pursue Sitcom Stardom
Victor French, aka Mr. Edwards, was a well-loved cast member on Little House. In 1977, he left the show after appearing in the three seasons. He went on to star in a sitcom called Carter Country that lasted two years before being canceled in 1980.
He then returned to Little House in 1981. His character in the show had been written out, but he and Landon mended everything, so he was written back in. The Edwards family was back in the series but without their adopted son Sanderson.
10. The Reason MacGregor Missed the Finale
When the last season of Little House on the Prairie came to an end, many familiar faces were nowhere to be found. One of the most notable was Katherine MacGregor, who played Mrs. Oleson in the show. Her last credited appearance was before the series finale.
While filming the series, MacGregor was battling alcoholism. She decided to convert to Hinduism as a way to overcome her problems with alcohol. This involved going on a trip to India, and so she chose her faith over attending the show’s finale.
11. The Cast Were Oscars Winners
Though it had a compelling story, Little House on the Prairie also sported some Oscar winners in its cast. We’re not just talking about Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert. Some of you might already know this, but we want to give you a rundown.
First on the list is Earnie Borgnine, who won the 1956 Best Actor Award. Red Buttons won an Oscar in 1957. Next was Burl Ives, an Oscar winner in 1959; Patricia Neal won Best Actress in 1964, while Eileen Heckart won Best Supporting Actress. Then there’s two-time Oscar and Emmy winner Louis Gossett, Jr. Talk about a talented bunch!
12. Karen Grassle Based Her Character on Her Mom
The power of an actor’s performance is brought to life by the depth and breadth that they have experienced in their lifetime. For Karen Grassle, this was clear when she began playing her character Caroline on Little House. Her mannerisms and portrayal were all based on her mother.
“I based her on my mother,” said Grassle in an interview. “If you read [Laura Ingalls Wilder’s] books and see photos, Caroline was very tough and sturdy. My mother rode a horse barefoot to school when she was young,” she added. Her mother was a strong woman, just like Caroline.
13. The Ingalls’ Adopted Son Was Landon’s Idea
Michael Landon did more than just act in the series. In addition to playing Charles Ingalls, Landon was the managing producer on the series, and he was responsible for bringing Albert into season five. The producer thought that Charles would be looking for the opportunity to have a son since he and his wife had four daughters and had lost their only son.
Therefore, Landon had an adopted son written into the script. Matthew Labyorteaux played Albert Ingalls, and the cast and director all praised his acting skills. Labyorteaux had some other acting roles but none as significant as Little House. He did, however, become a video game champion and later opened a youth center.
14. Fans Noticed COVID-19 Similarities in the Plague Episode
Some fans of this series recall that the COVID-19 pandemic is similar to the storyline of “Plague and Quarantine,” an episode from Little House. With millions of lives lost in the coronavirus pandemic, it’s no wonder people are sensitive to anything resembling this situation in shows, films, and books.
Many viewers, including the cast, noticed eerie parallels. Melissa Gilbert reacted to an article about it and shared that she was thinking the same thing. She also said that people might learn a lesson from the series that could be applied nowadays.
15. Melissa Gilbert’s Health Problems
Gilbert rose to fame in the role of Laura Ingalls Wilder on Little House, but she has since struggled with a number of health problems that have required surgery. It started with spinal fusions at both neck level (2001) and back level (2010), while two ruptured discs in the spine led to her third surgery in 2016.
Her third surgery wasn’t the last. The actress announced that she had an artificial disc instead of a fusion for her latest surgery. The fact that she went through four surgeries shows how strong-minded and determined this woman really is.
16. Michael Landon Cast His Daughter
The fatherly figure of the show took an opportunity to help his daughter get on-screen by casting her in a guest role! His decision led to accusations of nepotism. However, the issues didn’t stop this famous actor from giving his daughter a try on the show.
Leslie Landon portrayed the character of Etta Plum, a school teacher. However, she played a big role in the series before it even began. Why? Leslie is said to be the one who convinced her father to accept the lead role.
17. MacGregor Fell Off the Horse
There are many exciting adventures with the Ingalls in season four of Little House on the Prairie. The original episodes aired from September 12, 1977, to March 13, 1978, and viewers saw some serious injuries and illnesses that involved actors in different roles.
For example, Mrs. Oleson (MacGregor) fell off her horse in episode 12, which is entitled “Here Comes the Bride.” Her stunt double had to take over the role until MacGregor was healed and able to return to the show.
18. Little House Received 16 Emmy Nominations
Little House on the Prairie received 16 nominations, with only one going to an actor. Most of their awards were for cinematography, music composition, makeup, and creative technical roles.
Only one actor was recognized for her performance, and that was Melissa Sue Anderson, who portrayed Mary Ingalls. She won Best Leading Actress in a Drama Series in 1978. Her portrayal of blind Mary hooked viewers, and that was what led to her win at the Emmys. She certainly deserved it. Way go, girl!
19. Walnut Grove Is Real
Walnut Grove is a real town located in Minnesota, and the author of Little House on the Prairie actually lived there. However, her family didn’t move there until 1874. Before that, they had lived at the Osage Diminished Reserve in Kansas.
Apparently, there are many differences between what you see on TV compared to reality. If you visit Walnut Grove today, you’ll find a little town that looks nothing like the one in Little House. However, you can visit a replica town and stop by the museum and gift shop there.
20. The Cast and Crew Were Heavy Drinkers
As one of the producers of Little House on the Prairie, Michael Landon dealt with pressures by secretly drinking with other crew members. One crew member revealed that Landon would go into hiding during filming to avoid being noticed and then return to work intoxicated.
Landon’s drinking habits were not well-liked by his fellow cast members, especially during the early morning hours. Alison Arngrim was troubled by it, even as a kid. She even wrote about it in her memoir.
21. Nellie’s Curly Hair Was A Wig
This is not the first time that we have learned something about Alison Arngrim’s experience playing Nellie Oleson. In fact, she revealed in her autobiography how much it hurt to have someone put wigs on for each day’s filming of this iconic role.
The actress shared that they would secure her hair so well with metal pins that they would dig into her scalp. This got so rough that it caused her to bleed on several occasions. Perhaps she channeled the pain into making Nellie so nasty!
22. Carrie Ingalls Was Played by Identical Twins
Carrie Ingalls was such a cutie in Little House. She was the sweet character in the show. Many people didn’t know that she was played by identical twins. Yes, it’s true. Carrie’s character was played by Sidney and Lindsay Greenbush, the daughters of actor Billy “Green” Bush.
The Greenbush sisters instantly won the role after their audition. During filming, they alternated scenes on separate days. Due to the fact that they were identical twins, many fans didn’t notice that the role was being played by different actors.
23. Ingalls Family Dinners
The Ingalls family’s life on the farm was not always easy. They had to get food and other necessities from their own resourcefulness. Mr. Ingralls would provide for his family by farming crops and hunting animals like rabbits and deer.
In reality, it wasn’t rabbit stew being served up during the dinners on set – it certainly looked like a freshly-caught rabbit, but it was not. What they usually ate on the set was Dinty Moore beef stew and fried chicken.
24. Melissa Anderson Didn’t Make Friends
When playing Nellie Oleson in Little House, actor Alison Arngrim noticed that one of her fellow cast mates never tried to make friends. The girl remained a mystery throughout filming, and she only interacted when on set for specific scenes.
This cast member was Melissa Sue Anderson, who played Mary Ingram. Melissa explained that she couldn’t wait to leave the series as soon as possible. Her reason was that the show became too soap opera-ish for her. Also, her character never got to do much because of her blindness.
25. Cancer Fears Among Cast and Crew Members
Many cast and crew members of Little House on the Prairie seem to have been affected by radioactive waste from the Santa Susana nuclear meltdown, which happened in 1959. Michael Landon, who played Pa, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1997. Meanwhile, Victor French and Kevin Hagen lost their lives to cancer.
So far, there’s one cancer survivor left among the crew. Charlotte Stewart survived despite being diagnosed with breast cancer. Many fans are convinced that it was due to radioactivity on the set, while others argue that it’s just a coincidence.
26. Doherty Apparently Slept with Gilbert’s Husband
Melissa Gilbert revealed in her memoir, Prairie Tale, that Shannen Doherty slept with her husband. Gilbert and Doherty had met on the set of Little House on the Prairie as kids, so the betrayal was more than just a personal thing. There was an element to it that felt like the destruction of childish innocence.
Shannen Doherty had apparently been Melissa Gilbert’s shadow on the show, going wherever she went and looking up to the older girl. It seems Doherty’s desire to emulate Gilbert transformed into something darker when they grew up. Sadly, Doherty’s actions caused Gilbert a lot of pain.
27. One Actor Played Different Roles on the Show
You probably didn’t even notice, but one actor in the show played five different roles. That actor was EJ Andre. He played a gun dealer in Little House on the Prairie in his first casting. In 1976, he played Amos Thomas and later Matthew Simmons.
From 1977-1978, Andre took another role in the series. His last character before he died was Uncle Jed. The actor’s versatility meant many viewers didn’t even notice his regular reappearance as different characters. He truly was an outstanding actor!
28. Nellie and Laura Were Best Friends in Real Life
Nellie served as Laura’s main enemy in the series. Her manipulative personality contrasted with the calmer attitude of Laura. Eventually, their relationship matured, and the characters developed a fondness for each other.
The actors who played Laura and Nellie are actually good friends in real life. As youngsters, they kept themselves entertained by playing games after filming. Gilbert also shared that Alison was the only one who was still in contact with her.
29. Melissa Gilbert Dated High-Profile Actors
Melissa Gilbert was clearly destined for fame, starting with commercials at just two years of age and then taking her iconic role in Little House on the Prairie. She has known nothing but fame for most of her life.
The talented actor also dated some famous Hollywood stars. Gilbert has been romantically linked to some high-profile men, including Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise. Apparently, she liked to attend Hollywood parties in her early 20s and even dated rock icon Billy Idol.
30. MacGregor’s Annoying Attitude
Filming the series was usually an enjoyable experience, but conflict arose from time to time. One such conflict was the disruptive attitude of Katherine MacGregor, who had a tough time getting along with the director and other cast members because of constant differences of opinion.
MacGregor was always trying to tell people how they should be delivering their lines. If she wasn’t happy with her lines, she would rewrite them. This drove Michael Landon and Bill Claxton (producer) crazy. Indeed, it almost led to MacGregor’s removal from the show.
31. President Ronald Reagan’s Favorite Show
Little House on the Prairie was one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite shows. Reagan was one of America’s most beloved presidents, and he had been an actor himself before he got into politics. Thus, it would have felt like an honor for those working on the show to know that he loved it so much.
It turns out that the feelings were mutual, at least from actor and producer Michael Landon. Landon was said to be a proud Republican who supported both of Raegan’s electoral campaigns.
32. Landon’s Special Way to Make the Cast Cry
Each episode of the series required a lot of emotional scenes. The actors needed to be able to cry on cue, which isn’t always easy. Apparently, Landon could make the youngsters burst into tears with just one look. Somehow, he was able to reduce them to pure emotion with his eyes.
Landon was a maestro when it came to crying, but there was more to it than that. Many cast members agreed that Landon was not just a co-star, producer, or director. He was their father figure on the set. “Michael cares so much about everybody; he makes you care about yourself,” Melissa Sue Anderson said.
33. No Love Story for Mary and Sanderson
Mary Ingalls and John Sanderson were supposed to be husband and wife on the show. However, the duo failed in their portrayal of an engaged couple because they lacked any sort of natural connection with each other.
When the two were performing together, it seemed like something wasn’t quite right. That’s why the director and producers scrapped their love story. They looked for a different love interest in Mary’s blind school, and this resulted in good chemistry.
34. Linwood Boomer Produced a Classic Sitcom
Linwood Boomer is a Canadian-American producer, writer, and former actor. He began his career as an actor with the role of Adam Kendall on Little House on the Prairie. He stayed in the role from 1974 to 1983 before moving behind the scenes of Hollywood.
Boomer found great success after creating the Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, which was based on his life story. Twenty-two million viewers watched the debut episode of this series. It ran seven seasons from 2000-2006. It’s nice to know that he had a happy ending after his time on Little House.
35. Melissa Gilbert’s First Kiss
In the episode “Sweet 16,” Laura kisses Almanzo, her love interest on the show. Almanzo was played by American-Canadian actor Dean Butler who’s eight years older than Gilbert. This was more than just Laura’s first kiss – it was Gilbert’s too, and she was unsure of what to do.
Gilbert revealed that she didn’t want to kiss Butler. She was worried about stubble and just didn’t feel like having to kiss someone for the show. However, this was an important moment for her character, so Gilbert valiantly completed the scene.
36. Little House Was Jason Bateman's First Gig
In 1981, Jason Bateman made his television debut in a recurring role on the classic series Little House on the Prairie. His career as an actor and director has spanned decades, but it all started with his first gig as James Ingalls, the adopted son of Charles and Caroline.
He was unknown when he was cast in the show, but look at him now – one of the most famous Hollywood actors. What an opportunity this show presented to those lucky enough to land a role. Of course, Bateman had more than luck on his side. He also had (and still has) great acting skills.
37. Alison Auditioned for Laura and Mary
After being turned down by every casting agency in Hollywood, young Alison’s father told her that acting might not be the path she should take, but Alison was determined to audition again. After six months, she finally landed the role that changed her life.
At the time of the audition, Alison read for the parts of Laura and Mary, but she didn’t get either of the roles. She actually had a feeling that neither of the characters was a good fit for her, so she tried again and landed the role of Nellie.
38. Landon’s Affair with a Makeup Artist
The story of Michael Landon and Lynn Noe is one that ends in divorce. The two drifted apart over 20 years before their relationship hit rock bottom. Landon found himself attracted to someone else – a makeup artist on Little House on the Prairie named Cindy Clerico.
When Landon and Clerico couldn’t hide their relationship anymore, Landon decided to file for divorce from Noe. The actor and makeup artist married in 1983 and were blessed with two children. Their relationship lasted until Landon passed away due to cancer.
39. Willie Oleson was Laura’s Real Life Brother
Willie Oleson was the second child and only son in the Oleson family. He lived on Walnut Grove with his mother, Nels Oleson, and sister Nellie Oleson. Willie was a spoiled and naughty child who was as much of a brat as his sister, Nellie.
The Oleson family played a big role in the lives of Laura and Mary. In real life, Willie Oleson, aka Jonathan Gilbert, was Laura’s brother. When Little House ended, Jonathan left acting, pursued his studies, and became a stockbroker in New York City.
40. Michael Landon and Karen Grassle Were Not on Good Terms
Melissa Sue Anderson claims that the on-screen mother and father didn’t get along at all in real life. Apparently, there was some jealousy and tension between them, and even the kids on set noticed it.
Karen confirmed that she often took issue with Landon’s attitude. She said that Landon would get moody, which sometimes affected the cast and crew members on set. Despite his bad attitude, Karen said that Landon often told jokes to make them laugh and lift the mood.
41. The Melissas Go Head-to-Head
Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Anderson play Laura Ingalls and Mary Ingalls, respectively. These two characters seem to be the type of sisters we wish we had who are as close as sisters can be. In reality, the two stars who play them couldn’t stand being around each other. This proves that they have the acting chops to pull off almost anything.
Years after the show, when they were already adults, Melissa Gilbert revealed in her memoir that she thought Anderson was incredibly “cold” and stuck up.” Don’t feel too bad, apparently, the feelings were mutual.
42. The Grudge Between Michael & Melissa
Melissa Gilbert looked up to Michael Landon, he was somewhat of a father figure to her. When the news broke of his affair she took his choices personally and didn’t talk to him for about 9 years. Thankfully though this story has a semi-happy ending. They successfully had the opportunity to make up and reconcile.
The unfortunate part is that only a week later he passed away from pancreatic cancer. Even though Gilbert and Landon couldn’t make up for lost time they could at least end on a good note.
43. Hello Sean Penn, The Kid
Hollywood is no stranger to famous stars making iconic appearances on hit television shows and films, but sometimes these stars make appearances even before they hit it big and they make it just under the radar. This is true for Sean Penn whose first job was when he was cast in Little House on the Prairie.
Penn is known today worldwide but before he was a bonafide star he made an appearance in season one, episode 11 “The Voice of Tinker Jones.” He was only credited as, “kid” but things certainly worked out for him after that.
44. Kyle Richards on the Prairie
Kyle Richards makes it on this list as another cameo that you may have missed, especially if you weren’t paying attention. Before she was quite recognizable on screen as the reality star we know and love, she was a child actor with a small part in this timeless show.
Richards portrayed Alicia Edwards on the show and eventually became an Aunt to the famous Paris Hilton. Some would say, “That’s hot” news.
45. The Opening Credits Famous Fall
Sometimes the most genius moments on screen end up by accident and here is no exception. Many viewers may have noticed during the opening credits there is quite a downhill tumble by Carrie Ingalls.
What you may not have known is that this was not only unscripted but a complete accident. Luckily the child actress wasn’t hurt and the producers thought it was so cute and natural that they decided to add it into the opening. Now, can you guess which of the Greenbush sisters who played Carrie was the one who fell?
46. The Landon Boot Trick
Michael Landon was clearly comfortable with his body, considering he took every opportunity to remove his shirt although there was one thing he seemed to be concerned about, his height. Landon stands at a height of 5’9” which is a decent height for anyone, but he believed that Pa Ingalls should be taller.
This was an easy fix for TV, for he ended up wearing tall platform boots to make him appear taller on camera. It definitely worked and you wouldn’t know unless someone told you.
47. A Family Affair
We mentioned that Michael Landon’s daughter appeared on the show but that isn’t the only family member who made an appearance. Melissa Gilbert’s brother, Jonathan also had a role in the series. Jonathan played Willie Oleson although he didn’t end up pursuing an acting career like his sister.
Despite having a short-lived acting career we think he definitely holds his own on screen. It makes us wonder what could have been. As far as we can tell these two siblings have somewhat of a rift and remain estranged. Both Jonathan and Melissa were adopted by their actor parents Paul Gilbert and Barbara Crane.
48. Recycling is a Bonanza
Recycling is not only good for the environment, but apparently also good for TV. Michael Landon also acted in another hit TV show called, ‘Bonanza,’ a western. Landon took some of the storylines from ‘Bonanza’ to make ‘Little House on the Prairie’ the bonanza that it was.
The unused scripts of one show became the solutions to another, after some revisions of course. It may sound unethical but don’t worry it was widely accepted at the time, “script recycling” made sure nothing was wasted.
49. The Golden California Heat
The show may have been set in Minnesota but like many entertainment classics, it was filmed in California, Simi Valley to be exact. The California sun caused lots of problems especially when actors had to wear many bulky layers to make it believable to the time period. Talk about discomfort.
Staying hydrated and taking precautions was a must in order to prevent the crew from passing out from the heat. One crew member indeed passed out on the first day of production.
50. Staying Young in Hollywood
All children eventually grow up, especially in Hollywood, some would even say faster than others. Often times child actors don’t play their real age but that doesn’t stop them, there are many easy fixes to making sure that this goes undetected. Melissa Gilbert encountered some of these challenges when she began to grow up right before our eyes.
Laura Ingalls doesn’t really grow up in the series despite Gilbert growing at a rapid pace. This resulted in the decision to bind her chest to appear younger and not give away the fact she was getting older than who she was supposed to play. Kudos to her dedication but it does seem a bit extreme.