Little House on the Prairie turns 50

From Hollywood hunks and first kisses, to the transition from novel to TV screen. We take a look back at the simpler life that was Little House on the Prairie
The cast (from left) Melissa, Melissa Sue Anderson, Karen Grassle, Sidney Greenbush and Michael.

Tears, laughter, bonnets and wagons… Little House on the Prairie had them all! The beloved TV drama has been a go-to comfort show for people all over the world for five decades now.

Interestingly, many of the challenges faced on screen from back in the 1970’s still reflect various dilemmas of society today – jut through a slightly different lens at times. Maybe that’s why we’re still suckers for Ma’s advice.

To celebrate the show’s 50th birthday, we’re taking a look at some of the best-kept secrets of Walnut Grove.

What a toad!

As Pa Ingalls, Michael Landon was the undeniable heartthrob of the show. The actor was happy to trade on his sex symbol status for the cameras, often wearing loosely-buttoned tunics or even going completely shirtless. He drew the line, however, at fans ogling him on set. One of child star Melissa Gilbert’s pastimes was catching frogs and, she later recalled, “Mike would put the frogs in his mouth and walk over to people, then talk and the frogs would jump out. The women would always scream!”

Not so rustic

TV exec Ed Friendly complained the show strayed too far from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, giving the small-screen version of the family a much easier life. “I’ve renamed the series ‘How Affluent Is My Prairie,’” lamented the producer, who walked away from the production early on. “They have everything but a Cadillac.” Despite the trials of prairie life in the 1870s, it’s true the TV Ingalls family was mostly well fed. All that nosh served up at their pioneer table, however, wasn’t what is seemed. It was actually tinned casserole from the grocery store and, on occasion, Kentucky Fried Chicken picked up from the local drive-through!

Mortified Melissa

No pressure! Melissa’s first-ever kiss was for TV audiences.

As Laura Ingalls, actress Melissa Gilbert was the stand-out child star of Little House on the Prairie. The world fondly watched her grow up on screen from a little girl to an adolescent and in season six, her TV character became a teen bride. Melissa was 15 and she later shared her dismay at having to film love scenes with actor Dean Butler, who was eight years her senior.

“I knew I was going to have to show affection, kiss and at some point go to bed with a guy when in real life I was a knock-kneed, flat-chested 15-year-old who still looked 13… and had never gone out with, kissed or even held hands with a boy,” Melissa, now 59, recalls. After their first on-screen smooch, she asked the show’s writers to keep the couple’s displays of affection to simple hugs and pecks on the cheek.

From small beginnings…

Sean Penn (top centre) was an extra. Ozark’s Jason Bateman was also on the show (bottom left).

As a family show, plenty of children starred in Little House on the Prairie, which began its run in 1974. A number were also needed as extras and bit-parters – and two of those went on to become Hollywood A-listers. Oscar-winner Sean Penn’s appearance as an uncredited extra came about because his dad, Leo, was a TV director who did the honours on several episodes. Ozark star Jason Bateman, meanwhile, had a much more substantial innings as an orphan the Ingalls family takes in on the seventh season. Jason – aged 12 at the time – ended up appearing in 21 episodes, kicking off his stellar career.

Nasty Nellie

With her obnoxious smirk and sausage ringlets, Walnut Grove’s Nellie Oleson was TV’s original mean girl. Actor Alison Arngrim was just 12 when she stepped into Nellie’s britches and she loved the role, despite the fact many fans couldn’t separate the character from the actress. “The things people have said to me – you wouldn’t believe it,” she once shared. “One time, I was in a Christmas parade and someone threw a cup of orange soda at my head.” Alison, 62, says she’s the complete opposite of Nellie. “I was very shy as a kid – I was more the type who got beaten up by a Nellie Oleson in the schoolyard.”

What a blast!

The show’s myriad storylines took place in Walnut Grove and the entire set was built on Big Sky Ranch in California, which has been home to many other productions, including Rawhide, Gunsmoke and Westworld. At the end of the ninth and final season, Walnut Grove gets blown to smithereens after its citizens decide they’d rather destroy it than let it fall into the hands of a ruthless developer. The real reason for the explosive end was that the studio had agreed the land would be left as they found it. They decided the best way to dismantle the set was to incorporate its demolition into the finale. “It makes for a good strong pioneer ending,” Michael, who died in 1991, aged 54, later opined. “There were lots of tears when we finally blew up the town.”

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