Celebrating 40 Years of Little House on the Prairie: The Little House TV Cast Reunion in Walnut Grove, Minnesota
Written by Karen Brewer
Eleven cast members from the television series Little House on the Prairie gathered in Walnut Grove, Minnesota to celebrate the show’s 40th anniversary. Pictured here, from left to right, are: Hersha Parady (Alice Garvey), Dean Butler (Almanzo Wilder), Robyn Sidney Greenbush (Carrie Ingalls), Lucy Lee Flippin (Eliza Jane Wilder), Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson), Wendi Turnbaugh Lee (Grace Ingalls), Brenda Turnbaugh Weatherby (Grace Ingalls), Charlotte Stewart (Miss Beadle/Mrs. Simms), Dan McBride (Henry Riley), Radames Pera (John Sanderson, Jr., adopted by Grace and Isaiah Edwards), and Rachel Lindsay Greenbush (Carrie Ingalls). (Photo courtesy to Nostalgic magazine from Paul Valenti)
Eleven cast members from the television series Little House on the Prairie embarked on a journey to the real Walnut Grove – in the state of Minnesota – to reunite and celebrate the 40th anniversary of the beloved series, which aired from 1974 until the final made-for-television movie in 1984. Present for the cast reunion were identical twins Rachel Lindsay Greenbush and Robyn Sidney Greenbush (who portrayed the role of Carrie Ingalls), Brenda Turnbaugh Weatherby and Wendi Turnbaugh Lee (baby Grace Ingalls), Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson), Dean Butler (Almanzo Wilder), Lucy Lee Flippin (Eliza Jane Wilder), Charlotte Stewart (Eva Beadle Simms), Hersha Parady (Alice Garvey), Radames Pera (John Sanderson, Jr., adopted by Isaiah and Grace Edwards), and Dan McBride (Henry Riley, a regular customer in Nellie’s Restaurant).
The three-day reunion included two evenings of the cast members reminiscing about Little House, prior to the local production of The Wilder Pageant (an outdoor drama based upon the life of author Laura Ingalls Wilder when she lived in Walnut Grove as a child), two full days of cast members signing autographs for hundreds of fans who gathered for the event, and a visit for the cast members to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and also to the site of the Ingalls dugout along the banks of Plum Creek. All of the cast members expressed their delight at being in Walnut Grove for the reunion and their appreciation to the fans for coming to the event.
Little House on the Prairie cast members reminisced prior to The Wilder Pageant drama in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
Rachel Lindsay Greenbush and Robyn Sidney Greenbush, who shared the role of Carrie Ingalls for eight seasons, beginning in 1974, at the age of four, still live in southern California.
Rachel, in fact, lives in Simi Valley, and she was married on July 5, 2014 at Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley, where she first met her husband, Danny, when she was 7 and he was 14 and visiting the Little House set to watch filming. “My husband and I met 37 years ago underneath the tree that was by the creek at the Ingalls home,” she said. “It was a brief hello as we passed. We were filming “The Wolves,” and he was there because he lived close to the set and he snuck in to watch us film. He walked by me, and I looked up, and he looked down, and he said, ‘Hello,’ and I go, ‘Hi.’ And that was it. We reconnected 30 years later. We became best of friends and, from then on, two peas in a pod. And, on July 5, we got married under the oak tree, where we met, by the Ingalls home.” Rachel also recently earned a Bachelor’s degree in accounting. “It took four years of hard work and determination, but it’s finally behind me,” she said.
After Little House, Rachel had a role in an episode of the television series Matt Houston, entitled “Butterfly.”
Her sister, Robyn, acted in the movie Hambone and Hillie with Alan Hale, Jr., who played Skipper in the television series Gilligan’s Island. “That was a lot of fun,” said Robyn. “Then, I did some theater work with my drama department in high school, and then I decided that I wanted to concentrate on school. I work for a great company now, and that’s mostly what I do Monday through Friday.”
Rachel Lindsay Greenbush and Robyn Sidney Greenbush portrayed the role of Carrie Ingalls. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
Sisters Brenda Turnbaugh Weatherby and Wendi Turnbaugh Lee shared the role of baby Grace Ingalls from the beginning of the fifth season, in 1978, first filmed when they were eight months of age, until the end of the eighth season. “I played Grace, along with my twin, the best friend of my life,” said Brenda. “After Little House, we went to kindergarten. We did a little bit of acting, a very small amount. We had the great honor of being the babies of Little House, so we were treated really, really well. We weren’t used to the Hollywood craze, so it was a little much for my Mom, having four and a half year olds come home (from auditions) and go, ‘Why don’t they like us? Why didn’t we get the part?’ So, she kind of decided that, for us and for our family, our place was just in school, and we grew up as normal kids.
“What I’m doing now: I have a husband, and I have three children. I think the greatest thing about Little House is the concentration on the family unit and the community, and that’s probably the most important thing to me: my family. With only four short years in the program, it was still such an impact on our lives and our family. Our kids watch the show all the time.
“I went back to school to get my Master’s. So, I’m at kind of a different spot in my life but enjoying every moment of it. It’s just great to be here. I have my Mom and my daughter and Wendi’s daughter here with us, and they’re enjoying this whole event, as well.”
“I also am thrilled to be here,” said Wendi. “This is so fun for us. This is a thrill for us, and we love Walnut Grove. It’s such a treat to be here. It is such a pleasure to be here in Walnut Grove for the first time ever. My daughter’s here. We’re so proud to have her with us. I am a Mom. I have a wonderful husband and two kids, and I spend most of my time at home with them. I do have a home business, where I make bouquets out of old neckties, and that’s what I fill my time with and my creative energy.”
Wendi Turnbaugh Lee and Brenda Turnbaugh Weatherby played baby Grace Ingalls. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
Alison Arngrim, who, for seven seasons, from age 12 in 1974 to age 19 in 1981, played Nellie Oleson, the nemesis of the twins’ on-screen sister Laura Ingalls (portrayed by Melissa Gilbert), has been involved in many things since Little House. “I did theater, and I did standup comedy, and I did Fantasy Island and Love Boat. I still do stand-up comedy. I have a one-woman show, Confessions of a Prairie you know what. I travel around the country, telling jokes and amusing all of my bonnet-headed fans. I also do a show in French. I go to France, where La Petit Maison is very, very popular. Well, okay, they like me best. They don’t think Nellie Oleson is mean; they think she’s French. So, I’m very popular there, and I do a show there. The guy I work on the show with in France is Patrick Loubatiere. He is a huge Prairie fan. I wrote a book, Confessions of a Prairie ___ – How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated, which is so completely true, because I really do love the fact that I was on the show and I got to be Nellie Oleson, and I enjoy allowing you all to ‘hate’ me and throw things, and I feel really good about it. And I’m glad you all had that release to have someone to be mad at. And I’m only happy to do so in the future. I’m continuing to write and do stand up. I’m supposed to be doing a horror movie soon, so I’ll be really awful and scary. You can hate me some more. I’m also on the board of a charity, The National Association to Protect Children (http://www.protect.org). We go around the country, changing laws to better protect children from predators. And I’ve been married for 20 years to the same guy, Bob Schoonover.”
Dean Butler, who portrayed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s husband, Almanzo, on Little House for five years, beginning in 1979, has visited Walnut Grove, Minnesota several times, and said that he was thrilled to be there once again and to be welcomed graciously by the people of Walnut Grove as well as Little House fans, who traveled from across the state and from other states for the reunion.
“I can’t imagine my life without having Little House on the Prairie a part of it,” he said. “It’s been that impactful for me. And here it is, 35 years later, for me. For Alison and for others, it’s been 40 years. It feels like forever. It feels like it’s never not been a part of my life. I’m so grateful for it. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Absolutely, next to my family and my wife, Little House has been really the great thing that has happened in my life. I’m incredibly proud to be a part of it and love to see it nurtured the way it is here in Walnut Grove.
“I am married to a wonderful actress, Katherine Cannon, whom I met when we were doing Little House. Katherine was not working on Little House, but she was coming to audition for Michael, and her meeting was on location, and she came out to Simi to sit with Michael and read for him as one of her final meetings. And we saw each other and acknowledged each other. Katherine ended up playing opposite Merlin Olsen on the Father Murphy series, playing a character named Mae Woodward. We ran into each other at NBC events and so on. We met 15 years later, after Little House was over, and we had one date, and that was it. Katherine is a beautiful, talented actress, and now she’s my wife. We’ve been together for 18 years, and it’s really been a great, great ride. So, Little House is responsible for the most important romance in my life, for real. It didn’t happen on the set, but it happened as part of Little House.
“After Little House was over, I did a couple of other television series. I played Jeff ‘Moondoggie’ Griffin in a syndicated series called The New Gidget. And after that, I played Buffy’s wayward father in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Three years of that was fun. I worked on Broadway. I was involved in some filmmaking. I really have found my home now as a producer. In the late 1990’s, I started to turn away from acting and toward producing. I’ve worked in Motorsports. I’ve worked on the Olympics. Mainly, it’s all been sports related. Now, I produce the Feherty program on Golf Channel. It’s hosted by David Feherty, a wonderful comedic Irishman who is a former golfer and writer. He’s just brilliantly talented. It’s a joy to work with him every day and craft these episodes of his one-hour talk show, which has been a huge success on Golf Channel. I feel like I’ve been involved with NBC now for 35 years on a consistent basis. So, it’s really been a great thing for me.”
Dean Butler portrayed Almanzo Wilder, and Alison Arngrim played the role of Nellie Oleson Dalton. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
Lucy Lee Flippin portrayed Eliza Jane Wilder, sister to Almanzo Wilder, beginning with the sixth season of Little House on the Prairie, in 1979. “I came in season six with Dean Butler, my brother on the show,” she said. “After Little House, I did two more TV series and some film and theater. I did a spinoff of Alice called Flo. I was Polly Holliday’s younger sister. She was the ‘Kiss my grits’ waitress on Alice. After 45 years, I’m taking a rest. I live in Pennsylvania, renovating a 1767 farmhouse. So, I went back another hundred years from Little House.” She said that she appreciates the wonderful support of Little House fans through the years. “I just love being in Minnesota,” she added. “It’s a thrill to be here.”
Charlotte Stewart played the schoolteacher Miss Beadle (Eva Beadle Simms) on Little House for four seasons, from 1974 to 1978. “You would not believe how much lemon verbena I have,” she said. “I think for the Christmas season every year on the show, every kid in the show gave me lemon verbena. I kid you not. I was sharing at a grammar school not long ago. I think it was a fourth grade class. And they actually had lemon verbena growing in the schoolyard. It’s actually just a weed. It grows wild. And they brought me a bouquet of lemon verbena, plus a basket with bath salts and body lotion and spray cologne, and that was so sweet. I still have lemon verbena, and, yes, I like it.” After her time on Little House, she continued to act in television and in film. “I went on to do a series called Twin Peaks, a movie called Tremors, and some other episodic television,” she said. “Seven years ago, I retired to move to the Napa Valley in northern California, where I am very happy and near my family.” She is a cancer survivor and makes what she calls Beadle bags to raise money for a woman’s cancer program in Napa. “I’m just enjoying my life,” she said, adding that she loves taking trips to Little House events, where it is a pleasure for her to meet fans and to reunite with her fellow cast members. She added that she was a little overwhelmed by the turnout of so many fans to the small town of Walnut Grove, some of whom, she noted, had come a great distance.
Hersha Parady played Alice Garvey on Little House from 1977 until 1980, when her character perished in a fire that destroyed the blind school. “Since I left Little House, I’ve been doing mostly professional work on the stage, which I’ve been doing for like 50 years,” she said. “In fact, tonight, there is a play opening in L.A. that I directed, and I’m telling them all to ‘break a leg.’ I’ve done a few things on the tube in Florida and in L.A., and I’ve done some teaching. It’s fantastic to be here. This is so awesome for all of us. We’re all happy to be here, and we are all in awe of our fans. It’s very, very, very special for us all.”
Radames Pera, after portraying Grasshopper on the television series Kung Fu, joined the cast of Little House on the Prairie as John Sanderson, Jr., an adopted son of Isaiah and Grace Edwards, a role he played from age 15 in 1975 to age 17. After Little House, he studied acting and directing in New York City. Three years later, in 1981, he returned to Los Angeles. “I tried to continue my career in acting, with a way toward directing film, but that wasn’t in the cards for me,” he said. “I came back to Los Angeles, only to find that my career was basically over, because I was no longer a child actor. That’s typecasting. My last feature film was a cult classic in the Midwest called Red Dawn. I decided to do something else with my life, reinvent myself. I pursued another interest I had, which was home electronics. It was the beginning of Surround sound and home theaters. I built a company, designing and installing home theaters. I’ve been doing that for 25 years and have been very successful. I have had some very cool celebrity clients. But now, I’m feeling my energies are drawing back to my first love, which is filmmaking. I’m embarking on a film project right now, and I’m also in the early stages of writing my memoirs.
“I am happy to be here. I just want to say that this is so amazing, to be here. What impresses me about this event is the power of art. This one man – Michael Landon – and his vision, sharing with the world the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder: how amazing that, 40 years later, the power of art brings us all together on this one spot. We talk about the power of Michael Landon as an artist and the impact he had. I want to say, too, that Laura Ingalls Wilder also was an artist, as a writer. If anybody in this country doesn’t think that art is important, and that art shouldn’t be supported in schools and everywhere else in society, in our culture, here we are, because of the power of art – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Michael Landon.”
Lucy Lee Flippin portrayed Eliza Jane Wilder, Hersha Parady played the part of Alice Garvey, Charlotte Stewart portrayed Miss Beadle, and Radames Pera played John Sanderson, Jr., an adopted son of Isaiah and Grace Edwards. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
When asked about a favorite episode, Alison answered, “For me, it’s easy.” It’s the same episode, she said, that is everyone’s favorite episode involving her character, Nellie Oleson. “Yes, it’s the one where I go down the hill in the wheelchair. It seems to be a favorite in other countries, too.”
“My favorite episode would be the “Sweet 16” episode,” said Dean. “The relationship between Laura and Almanzo transforms, and it really transforms the direction of the series, because Laura is no longer the little girl in pigtails. Audiences have always responded wonderfully to that episode.”
“My favorite,” said Lucy Lee, “is when Laura marries Almanzo, “Laura Ingalls Wilder, Parts 1 and 2.” That’s where my character falls in love with Harve. He was played by Jamie Cromwell, whom you might know as the farmer in Babe. But our romance didn’t work out. I’m still recovering.”
“My favorite episode is the one where Nellie and Miss Beadle elope,” said Charlotte. “Not together,” she joked. “Miss Beadle marries the pig farmer, and Nellie marries his son, Luke. Then, Mrs. Oleson comes after them with a shotgun and has them unmarried.”
The episode in which the character of Alice Garvey and Mary’s baby die in the fire that destroys the blind school, is Hersha’s favorite episode. “There were many that moved me,” she said, “particularly the one that was kind of written for me, “The High Cost of Being Right.” But my favorite episode was the burning scene when I did burn up. It was fascinating. I had never worked that close to fire. Even though the Garvey barn was continually burning down, I never got to be in the fire. Jonathan was, I think, but Alice never got to. This time, I got to be in the fire. And I was surrounded by gorgeous Los Angeles firemen. I walked into a big sound stage with a full orchestra, and, for the first time, I saw David Rose conducting what kind of was like Alice Garvey’s theme for this episode, and a big picture of me was up on the big screen, and I started crying. I thought, ‘Oh, this is incredible, very special.’ But yes, I loved the fire episode. And no, I didn’t try to break the window with Mary’s baby. Honest, I didn’t. I know it looked like it. Honest, I didn’t try it.”
“I have a lot of fond memories of working on that show,” said Radames. “My favorite episode I would have to pick probably would be “His Father’s Son,” where Victor French (Mr. Edwards) and his new adopted son go hunting, to try to bond, and this young man tries to convey his love or his earnest interest in developing a relationship with his new father through writing him something, because John Jr. is a writer. John Jr. doesn’t know how to express himself verbally as well as he does by writing. So, he passes this very heart-felt note to his father during a campfire dinner, and Mr. Edwards pretends to read it and doesn’t respond. And John Jr. is heartbroken. He doesn’t know that his father is illiterate, and the father doesn’t want the son to know that he’s illiterate, so there’s this terrible moment, and then, the next day, the bear attacks him, and John Jr. doesn’t know what to do. The opportunity to work with Victor French, in some very serious, dramatic scenes, and to be directed by Michael Landon and to shoot up at Sonora, California, where it was so beautiful, that was really a pinnacle episode for me. That was a very special episode, because it was about that formation of that relationship. I didn’t have a father, growing up, so it was sort of a chance to live that through the role, so I was very fond of that episode.”
Rachel said that it is difficult to choose only one as her favorite, because she likes several, including the pilot movie and “The Handyman” and “Ma’s Holiday.” “But the one that was really great,” she added, “is when the Ingallses got to be rich and Nellie was poor.”
“My favorite episode is “The Godsister,” said Robyn. “Who doesn’t want a best friend all to yourself, find a giant penny, go to heaven and get to see Jack again, too, and scare the tar out of your sister with a giant spider?”
“We have one that we actually remember ‘fighting’ over the role,” said Brenda. “That was “The Christmas They Never Forgot.” We fought over the role. I got the good parts.”
“She got all the good parts,” joked Wendi. “I just had to pretend I was sleeping. That was it. Why is it that she got to open the present, lick the candy cane, and see out of the window?”
“The reason I really like it,” added Brenda, “is because that episode kind of goes back in time, seeing all the memories, and so, for me, I remember so many different Christmas episodes, and they’re all encapsulated into one. It was really fun for me. It was one that I really remember. I was opening a present, licking a candy cane, but my favorite scene of the whole thing is when I got to be up in the loft, which they never let us go in, and we looked out of the little house, and you could see the snow, and Pa was walking across to the barn to get the presents. That was just the highlight, something I remember and something that I always looked forward to. It was wonderful. Wendi had to pretend to be sleeping, so I got the great part. That was my favorite.
“One that everyone made the most fun of me for, especially as I was growing up, was when Nellie got married (“He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not”). That’s also when Pa tells Laura and Almanzo that they only have to wait a year. At the very end of that episode, a little boy comes up to me, and I grab him and kiss him, and then he says, ‘But I love her.’ So, that one was really embarrassing. I didn’t really like it, but it was very memorable.”
“It was her only kiss before her husband,” added Wendi.
Wendi’s favorite episode is “Dance with Me,” with guest star Ray Bolger, who, among many other parts in his career, played the scarecrow in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. “And we grew up watching The Wizard of Oz, and so that was just amazing,” she said. “There was one scene, where Ray Bolger is sitting, with me in a high chair, and he’s telling me all of his women problems. And so that was my favorite. Toby Noe (Bolger’s character in the episode) is special to me, and my son is actually named Tobey.”
Dean spoke of the on-screen relationship between his Almanzo and Melissa Gilbert’s Laura. “I think any success that we had with this relationship, you have to give an enormous amount of credit to Melissa Gilbert, because she could have gone so the other way with this. She could have frozen up on it. She could have said, ‘I can’t do this.’ She could have made it very difficult. She did her very best to step forward. As she wrote in her book, she just put her costume on and said, ‘I’m going to be the Laura I’m supposed to be.’ Our ability to play the relationship was really a tribute to Melissa’s willingness to step in to territory that, in her life, she knew nothing about. She had not been on a date. She had never been kissed. There was just no experience. She had a chapter and a title in her book that sort of expressed what her reaction was when she saw me for the first time. She was a little overwhelmed. But Melissa is a gutsy, fearless woman, and she was a gutsy, fearless young girl, too. Melissa, being who she is, just said, ‘I’m going to go be the Laura that Michael needs me to be now,’ and she just stepped in. I think Melissa is one of the most fearless people I’ve ever known. And this is part of it. My job was to be the man who loved Laura, and that’s what I was trying to do for five years, in whatever form that took. And no question, the eight years difference in our age was significant — 15 and 23 is a big difference. Now, at 50 and 58, we can be very good friends. We can have a nice rapport. Now, we’re on even territory. At that point, there was no way. We couldn’t socialize away from the set at all. There was no relationship beyond what was done in front of the camera. It just had to be that way. But we did our best, and I’ve always been so gratified when people say how much the relationship worked for them and they were moved by it. We just were doing what we were asked to do and loved doing it.
“I will never forget the scene where we shot our first kiss, on the back porch of the mercantile. Melissa was great. Melissa’s mother was there, off camera, and it took about three takes to get the kiss done, because, every time we came close, Barbara would burst out in wails of tears, and she had to be consoled and quieted, so that we could reshoot the action. Melissa was America’s little sweetheart. She was beloved by America. And here I was, a guy eight years older than she was, probably a foot taller than she was, at least at that point, and I had eyes on me from every father figure that existed for her on that set, and there were many of those people, watching very closely how this was going to go. But, to Melissa’s credit, she stepped in, was really fearless with it, and my job was to be the man who loved Laura. And so that’s what I tried to do. We’ve laughed about it a lot through the years, because we both know, had she even been only a couple of years older, the way we could have played the relationship would have been so different, not a huge amount different, but a little bit different. It might have been a little more interesting to play. But we got it done, and everyone seemed to love it, and we feel very good about it today when we talk about it.”
Cast members spoke respectfully of the late Michael Landon, who was the driving force of the series, in starring, in directing, and in writing many of the episodes. They remember well his sense of humor.
“I’d have to say I miss Michael a lot,” said Rachel. “I miss his practical joking sense of humor, the gags that he would pull off camera, and the stuff he would do on camera, too, to keep the lighthearted feel. He was serious when it was time to work, but he knew how to keep it light and fun. When we would be doing dinner scenes, and doing Melissa’s close-up, and I would be sitting next to her, Michael would be sitting off camera, so she could do her lines with Pa back and forth, and, after he got the take that he wanted, he wouldn’t tell us, but he would sit there off camera and he would make all these faces to try and crack Melissa up. And if he couldn’t do it making these faces, finally he’d pick up the peas from his food, and he’d sling them at her, or he’d put them up his nose. He would do all this stuff, and then finally she’d break, and, when she broke, I was gone, too.”
“I think one of my favorite moments,” said Robyn, “is in “Christmas at Plum Creek.” There’s a scene where Laura and Mary come home from school, and Pa has Carrie on his lap, and he’s actually playing with us as the scene progresses. That’s one of my favorite memories of Michael. He was always playing with us, when we were on his lap or when he was holding us, to help incorporate us into the scenes, as babies.”
Charlotte remembers Landon’s sense of humor. “We were shooting an episode where the children get lost in the snow or, as Michael called it, ‘Miss Beadle kills the kids again.’ And we were shooting on a sound stage that used to hold water when they did these movies about ships and pirates, and so it was a very deep stage, and we had phony snow, and I think some real snow, too, I’m not sure. But it was very, very cold in there, and I wasn’t even in the scene, because I was back in the schoolhouse, crying to myself. But we had a script girl named Mary, and it was her job to write down every single thing that was done in a scene, so that the editors could look at it and make sure it all matched and the scene could be cut together, because they’d do a long shot and a close-up. It’s very complicated. Somebody has to keep track of all that. Well, it was freezing cold, and it was very wet in there, and Mary had dropped one of her pages in the water, and she was like crazy trying to dry it off, because ‘oh my God’ what would happen if they didn’t have this page? And Michael comes up behind her and sets it on fire. That’s Michael Landon.”
“When I did “Bunny,” I was riding the horse,” said Alison. “I wasn’t riding the horse, because I totally can’t ride a horse. I was pretending. I was sitting in a box, going, ‘Giddy up.’ And I crashed into the tree branch. Well, I pretended to crash into the tree branch. I think they had Plexiglass that hit me with the tree branch. But, when I fall over, I’m lying on the ground, unconscious, and Laura and Mary are, ‘Get Doc Baker.’ I’m lying there, with the blood running out of my nose, being unconscious, going, ‘Oh, this is great. Just lie here.’ So, I’m lying there, being fabulously unconscious, with fake blood in my nose, and I’m waiting, and eventually they’re going to say, ‘Cut.’ And there’s like the longest delay, and I think, ‘What are they doing?’ Then, finally, I hear quiet giggling, and I feel someone’s finger up my nose. Yes, Michael and his blooper reel, sticking his finger up my nose.”
Cast members, including those who played her daughters, spoke well of Karen Grassle, who portrayed the role of Caroline Ingalls on Little House.
“Karen was always a loving, compassionate mentor for me,” said Rachel. “She was always looking out for me, guiding me, and, when I see her today, she’ll still give hugs and kisses and call us her babies. She was always there for me when I needed her, and sometimes I needed a little bit of strong guidance, and she would silently and strongly push me to where I should be. She was always helping me and always very loving. She was not stern but strong with me, but she was always loving and still is today.”
The Turnbaugh twins also fondly remember Grassle, who played their mother. “I think Karen was just like a Mom. We obviously took to her well. She was a natural, motherly, wonderful lady. She still is a wonderful lady.”
“Karen radiates a kind of peace and tranquility about her that I think is very easy to respond to,” said Dean. “And I think she was one of the most beautiful mothers to ever work on television, frankly. She’s fantastic.”
Front: Dean Butler, Alison Arngrim, Charlotte Stewart, Hersha Parady; Back: Wendi Lee, Brenda Weatherby, Radames Pera, Lucy Lee Flippin. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
The late Victor French, who played Mr. Edwards on Little House, was remembered fondly at the reunion.
“I will always miss Victor French,” said Charlotte. “He was such a wonderful person and so funny, and he was also a director on many of the episodes. The one I will be forever grateful for is the episode where they fire Miss Beadle and get a man teacher. There was this scene where Pa has to come tell Miss Beadle that she’s been let go, because she can’t handle the big kids in the schoolroom. The scene took place in Miss Beadle’s little room in the boarding house. God knows where that boarding house was. I never saw a boarding house in Walnut Grove. But Pa comes to Miss Beadle’s room, and she knows he’s coming, and she’s waiting for him. Victor came up to me very quietly and said, ‘Don’t let Pa see you cry.’ They were just ready to pour out of my eyes, but I had to be dignified and accept the decision of the school board. And I was just so grateful for that. He didn’t make a big deal about it. He just came up very quietly and gave me the direction.”
“I miss Victor a lot,” said Rachel. “When we were kids, he used to sit us on his lap, and he would play with us. And he would take my sister and myself and fly us like airplanes. He was always making us laugh and giggle. I miss him greatly.”
“I always felt that Victor and I had a special understanding,” said Robyn. “In the pilot, Victor had to cross the cold river with all of the packages. Then, when the house gets caught on fire, they put Carrie in the creek in cold water.”
“Victor had this amazing gift,” said Dean. “Victor had tremendous range as an actor. He could be terrifying, if he wanted to be, and he could make you laugh uproariously, if that’s what the button was he was going to push. He had it all. Victor was masterful of props. Victor could do amazing things, repeating action, take after take after take, just perfect. Victor was an editor’s dream. He really was. He was awesome. And he was an actor’s dream, too. He was wonderful to work with, and he was wonderful to be directed by.”
“He was a great director,” Alison agreed. “The episode “The Talking Machine,” when I record Laura, I was so horrible and evil. Victor directed that. He made me that evil in that episode. He was good.”
Dean referred to the episode “For the Love of Blanche.” “Mr. Edwards was interacting with this orangutan,” he said. “Now, what an orangutan is doing in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, I have no idea. Victor, as always, was wonderful in working with the orangutan.”
“Because of Victor, it’s genius,” said Alison. “A lot of people dig the orangutan episode, what can I tell you?”
Several other Little House cast members have passed away and are missed.
“Merlin Olsen was an extremely big, strong, kindhearted, sweet, so intelligent teddy bear,” said Hersha. “Somebody brought up the other day how meek and mild and sweet he was on Little House and in person, and then you put him on that (football) field, and apparently he was not quite so much. He was an exceptional man, and I miss him greatly.
“I personally was a very close friend to Richard Bull, who played Mr. Oleson,” she added. “We worked in the same theater together in Los Angeles. I also miss him, and I see his wife and Katherine MacGregor (Harriet Oleson) very often, because they both still live in the actors’ home in Los Angeles.”
“I still miss Percival, Steve Tracy, to this day,” said Alison. “Steve Tracy was such a wonderful, wonderful person. When you get married on TV, you don’t pick your husband. It’s like an arranged marriage, and you have no idea who you’re going to get, and you’re hoping they’re cute.” She recalled the first time that she and Melissa Gilbert met him on the set. “Melissa’s sitting with me, and we’re waiting, and we know that the guy who is going to play Percival is supposed to drop by the set, and he was supposed to be short, so everybody under 5’6” who walked on the set, we’re like, ‘Is it him? Is it him? Is it him?’ We were so nervous. So, when Steve showed up, it was like, ‘Whew.’ Because he was nice, and he was cute. He had the freckles and the curly hair. He was adorable. And immediately we interrogated him. We were like, ‘Who are you? What kind of bands do you like? What type of food?’ We decided he passed. He turned out to be this really, really nice guy, and Steve and I became really good friends. And he was almost nine years older than me. Now, of course, he wasn’t a foot taller. He was about two inches shorter. But he was a really cool guy. We really got along. We liked some of the same music. We actually were able to hang out together, because I was at least old enough to go places. Steve was a really great guy, and we became great friends, and I think the chemistry was obvious between Nellie and Percival.” Tracy died at the early age of 34 only a couple of years after Little House ended. “He died relatively young,” said Alison. “He died of AIDS in 1986. That was very difficult for me, because we had become really, really good friends. When Steve got sick and when Steve died, I started volunteering at AIDS Project Los Angeles and became an activist to help people with HIV and their families. I have been involved in AIDS education since then.”
The cast members remembered how they were hired for their roles on Little House.
“I was hired sort of in a traditional way,” said Lucy Lee. “My agent sent me over to MGM. Susan Sukman (now Susan McCray), the casting director, was looking for an Eliza Jane. So, I went in, and I read for her, and she said, ‘I want you to come back and read for Michael, but I want you to yank your hair back, and no makeup.’ So, I came back. I read for Michael. He couldn’t have been nicer, those nice blue jeans, boots. He knew beautifully how to treat actors, because he was an actor. He just sort of sat in the corner, with his arms folded, kind of smiling, and I did it once for Michael, and he said, ‘Do it again, but be more strict.’ So I thought, ‘I can do that.’ So, I did it again. ‘Thank you very much.’ I left, and two weeks went by. I thought it was a lost cause, and then I got a call from my agent, and that’s how I got hired. It was the best television job I’ve ever had.”
“My story is similar,” said Radames. “I went on an interview. I was given scenes to read. Actually, I came in to read directly for Michael. I didn’t have to go through the earlier process. I was brought in to read directly for Michael Landon and basically got hired, not on the spot, but shortly thereafter, so it was a standard business situation: interview, and doing a good job, and having the quality that he was looking for.”
“Wendi and I have a little different story,” said Brenda. “We did not have an agent. We were just eight-month-old twins, and our grandmother was friends with the casting director. And so Grandma was talking to the friend one day, over cards, and they were looking for a blond baby, eight-month-old girls, and they were having a hard time finding someone that they liked, and so my Grandma just said, ‘Hey, my daughter just had twins.’ So we went in and saw Michael, and I guess he thought we were okay.”
“I was attending college at the time the interviews happened,” said Dean. “I flew down to Los Angeles on three different occasions to meet with Susan Sukman, our casting director, and the fourth time I went back, Michael was in the room, and I can echo Lucy’s reaction to meeting Michael for the first time. This was a big-time TV star. You walked in the door, Michael with the tight jeans and the Carrera glasses and the cigarette in his teeth and the shirt open down to the middle of his chest and great smile. He was just awesome. He watched you work, and, like Lucy, I did the scenes a couple of times, and, like Lucy, I waited for two weeks, and it was the most agonizing two weeks of my life, and, when it happened, I felt like this was the great thing that was going to happen to me. And so it’s really been fun.”
“I remember I went to a meeting,” said Alison, “where they first said, ‘We’re making a TV show out of these books. Have you read these books, little girl?’ And, do you know, I had never read those Little House books? I’ve read them all now. I promise. I hadn’t read them. And so, I thought, ‘Well, I probably didn’t get it, because I admitted I had never read the books.’ And then they called me back, and it was very strange. I was a kid actor, and everyone in the world was auditioning for Laura. I auditioned for Laura. How weird would that have been? I came back, and I auditioned for Mary. It was all very strange. They called me back, and it was another part. I, not having read the books, said, ‘Well, how many people are in this thing?’ I got the pages. I was sitting there, with my father, at the audition, and I looked at the pages, and I said, ‘Dad, this is not like a normal part.’ It was that “Country Girls” episode, where Nellie was particularly horrible, and I’m reading this, going, ‘This is really strange.’ And I started reading for my father, and he started cracking up. And he said, ‘Don’t change anything — just read it like that.’ So, I go in, and Michael was there at the audition, and there were two others, there was Kent and another guy, and I started reading. You know what I read. It was that ‘my home’ speech, where I talk about how much everything cost in the house, and real lace curtains on all the windows, and three sets of dishes. And I did the ‘My home is the best home.’ And they were cracking up. They were in stitches. And they said, ‘Could you read it again, please?’ And I said, ‘Oh, yes, what would you like me to change?’ And they said, ‘Nothing, just read about the house again.’ And I did. And then we left and got in the car. By the time we got home, my agent was on the phone. I was hired immediately. And I’m not sure what that says about me as a person. I closed the deal. They said, ‘Uh, yeah, that’s Nellie Oleson.’”
“I also got a call to go and read for a show called Little House on the Prairie,” said Charlotte. “I thought it was a one-time kind of movie of the week. I had never heard of Little House on the Prairie. So, I went, and I never go in costume. It just doesn’t make any sense to me, because I figure, if they can’t figure out that I can wear a costume, I’m in the wrong show. So, I walked into the waiting room, and all of these ladies were sitting there in bonnets and dresses and bows and all this stuff, and I thought, ‘Oh God.’ And so, I went in, and it was all men. Susan wasn’t casting yet. My scene was in “Country Girls,” the first day Laura and Mary come to the school. I walked in, and it was all men. The producer was sitting behind the desk, and all of the other men were sitting around the room, and they had a chair for me. So, I said to the producer, ‘Do you mind if I sit behind your desk?’ And everybody just looked at each other, and he said, ‘Of course.’ So, he got up, and I got in his seat, and I proceeded to read the scene where Laura and Mary come in. And they thanked me very much, and I left. Because I didn’t know it was a book series, I didn’t know it was a television series. I just went and forgot about it. In those days, I’d go to a lot of interviews that I didn’t get, and so I just went and forgot about it. And then my agent called and said, ‘They want to sign you for four years.’ What? I mean, that’s an actor’s dream, to get some solid work. I had never read the Little House on the Prairie books until I was cast as Miss Beadle. And then I thought, ‘I better go get a book.’ So, I was at a flea market, and I saw a book. I went, ‘Okay, I got it.’ I didn’t know it was a series of books. I picked up the book. I opened it up, and Mary goes blind and the dog dies. What the heck?”
“I, too, did not read the Laura Ingalls books until after I was on,” said Hersha. “I didn’t have a reason to have to, because my character is totally fictitious, thanks to Michael Landon and all the writers. The short version is I was doing a play. I worked with Richard Bull in the theater. He came to see me in a play. The play was about Shakespeare. I played Shakespeare’s wife in it, and, in that period, I wore a hat that looked very much like a prairie bonnet. And they went back to the casting director and said, ‘We just saw this actress. She’s fantastic, and she really would work on the show.’ They cast me in my first role, which was the season before I became a regular. I played Michael Landon’s sister-in-law. And, when they wanted to hire Merlin as a regular on the show, after they lost Victor French, they said, ‘Let’s hook Hersha up as his wife.’ And that’s how I got the job.”
“Our father is an actor, Billy Greenbush,” said Rachel. “And one of my Dad’s friends was sitting in a casting agent’s office, on a call, waiting to read. And a call came in, and the receptionist picked up the phone and talked on the phone, and, when she got off the phone, she looked a little frustrated. And she looked at my Dad’s friend, and she goes, ‘I have the perfect girl for them, but they want twins. They insist on twins, but I have the perfect girl.’ And so, he looked at her, and he goes, ‘Well, you know the actor Billy Greenbush has two twin daughters about that age, right?’ She goes, ‘No. I’ll get in touch with his agent.’ So, they got in touch with my Dad’s agent, who called the house, and my Mom ended up taking us to the call, and it ended up being Little House on the Prairie. So, we walked into the interview, and in the room were Michael Landon and Ed Friendly. My Mom walked us in the room, and I walked right up to Michael, and I looked up at him, and I go, ‘I’ve seen you on TV.’ He asked my Mom to please leave the room, because he wanted to see how we would react without my Mom around. And, so, she left, and he would ask us to say things like ‘Hi, Pa’ and stuff like that. And I guess we were just so cute, that’s how we got the job. We left, and later on, my Mom got the call at the house from my Dad’s agent, saying that we had gotten the job.”
Front: Dean Butler, Alison Arngrim, Dan McBride, Charlotte Stewart, Hersha Parady; Back: Wendi Lee, Brenda Weatherby, Radames Pera, Lucy Lee Flippin. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
The twins would alternate, taking turns in playing their role. “When we first started, we could work only three hours a day, and that’s one of the reasons that they used twins,” said Robyn. “So, they would schedule one twin for their call time to be in the morning, and they would schedule the other one for the afternoon, and that would kind of break it up. But, really, it just depends on temperament and what scene you’re trying to film, because, if Carrie is supposed to be happy, and she’s crying, it’s not going to work out very well. And then, of course, at that age, you take naps, too. Well, I was notorious for, once you put me down for a nap, when I got up, yeah, don’t talk to me for an hour, because I wasn’t going to do anything. But those are the kinds of things that they had to work around and work with, because, sometimes, they’d think I was going to do the scene, and then I’d get there, and I maybe wasn’t in the mood or something.” So, they would get her sister for the scene, she said, “and vice versa.”
“Children also get sick,” said Rachel. “So, then, when one’s sick, or, if they have a cold, the other one can fill in.”
“Same for us,” said Wendi. “I was really scared of the camera the first couple of seasons. So, if they knew there was a scene that a crying baby was okay, I cried a lot on the show. So, if someone was crying, it’s probably me.”
Robyn recalled the episode “Meet Me at the Fair,” in which Carrie rides in a hot-air balloon. “We filmed that episode at Old Tucson, which isn’t around anymore. It was an old location set in Tucson, Arizona. My Grandma, my mother’s Mom, lived in Phoenix. So, we decided to visit the family after we went to film at Old Tucson. So, my Dad was actually on set with us. The balloon was on a crane, and the crane lifted the basket up. What you don’t see, lying around my feet, is my father. He actually went up in the balloon with me. Keep in mind, I was not strapped in. The only thing that kept me in that basket was probably my Dad’s tiger grip around my legs.” She added that her sister, portraying Carrie, was the one who was rescued in the field. “I go up and get lost. She gets rescued.”
As for the episode “Little Girl Lost,” in which Carrie falls into a mine shaft, the roles were reversed. Rachel ‘falls’ into the hole, and Robyn is rescued. “I didn’t actually fall down in the mine,” said Rachel. “We just made it look like it. They tied that butterfly to my dress, so it couldn’t get away from me, so I had to look like I was chasing a butterfly. And I just had to go toward the camera and jump in the hole, so the camera couldn’t see me anymore.” “When we film the rescue scene, which was back on the set,” said Robyn, “I actually got patted down with dirt and walked up the hill to be rescued.”
As for which Carrie falls down the hill in the opening credits, Rachel answered that it was her sister who fell down the hill.
“When I run down the hill and fall, I get back up and walk,” said Robyn. Her sister did it first, she said. “She ran down the hill, and she fell, and she wouldn’t do it again. So, they came and got me. And I ran and fell down and got up and wouldn’t do it again. So that was the only take that they had. They had what they called the dailies, where they watch it back the next day, and probably what happened was, when they were watching it the next day, they all started busting up and said, ‘Run it back again,’ and that’s probably how they decided to leave it in the opening credits. I always attributed it to the birth of America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
Which Carrie was placed in the creek in the made-for-television movie pilot? “That would be me,” said Robyn, who joked that she was really just her sister’s stunt double. “In the pilot, the house catches on fire, so they want to make sure baby Carrie is safe and away from the fire, so they put her in the freezing creek. It’s called suffering for your art.”
In the episode “The Godsister,” both Greenbush sisters played each role of Carrie and the imaginary friend, Alyssa. “We traded off,” said Robyn, each sister portraying Carrie two times and Alyssa two times.
The older children on Little House attended school while on the set. “We would take our schoolwork to the set with us, and we were required to do three hours,” said Rachel. “And, if you were in front of the camera more than you were in school, when you were done, you would get out of your costume and go back to school and finish your three hours before you could go home.”
“I was kind of lucky,” said Alison. “I stayed enrolled in regular school, so I kept all of my friends from like the third grade through junior high and high school. But, when I was working, we had a teacher on the set, and you would have four hours work, three hours school, one hour rest and recreation to break up your day. But the problem was that the three hours of school weren’t all at once. You’d do a scene, and then you’d go sit and do homework, and then go do a scene, and then go and do homework. So, it got very distracting and confusing, but I did manage to make it through school.”
“It was very distracting,” agreed Radames. “You’re preparing for an emotional scene, and it’s so hard to really focus on schoolwork when you know that, in 10 minutes, 20 minutes, someone’s going to knock on the schoolroom door and say, ‘Okay, we’re ready for your scene.’ And you’re there to do a job, so you’re not there necessarily to be studying your lessons. You’re being paid to show up on the set on the television production. So, that’s where the focus is. The ability to actually focus on schoolwork wasn’t very easy, because, really, the job at hand was preparing emotionally for scenes. My roles were very emotional scenes, and that’s what I was prepared for. I wasn’t prepared to do my math homework.”
“And then I’d go back to school for two weeks,” said Alison, “and, just when I’d be getting in the rhythm of being in school, then I’d go off and shoot a couple of episodes and be out of school for a couple of weeks. So, that does make it very, very difficult. Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson (Laura and Mary) were on the set all of the time, so they, at least, had the continuing thing of being with the same teacher on the set, and she could even administer their tests. So, it was a little less distracting for them, because they were in the same place all of the time. But it’s very difficult to be a child actor and go to school at the same time. It’s a lot of work. Oh yeah, also, in my case, going back to school, after I suddenly became Nellie Oleson, uh, yeah, that was a little difficult. The very first episode aired. I was very lucky. I kept a lot of friends from when I was younger, so they didn’t care. But other people did notice. I can’t really repeat it, but I arrived at school early in the morning, and Little House had just aired. I was all excited. I walked on the school grounds, and everyone had just seen Little House on the Prairie, and I walked in. This girl up on the landing screamed at the top of her lungs: ‘You ____’ — it rhymes with witch. And that’s what I was greeted with at 8:00 in the morning the first day of school after Little House. Being a child actor is hard.”
“I went to school with a bald head,” said Radames. “When I did Kung Fu, I had to shave my head. In 1973, the only kids with bald heads were suffering from cancer or recovering from a lice infestation. So, you can imagine how odd it would be to be bald in junior high school. ”
Alison explained how the television series derived from the popular Little House series of books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder and edited by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. “The first one was Little House in the Big Woods. They didn’t know it would be a hit. They had no idea how much people would love it. And that’s when it became a series of books. And I was told that Nellie Oleson was actually only going to be in On the Banks of Plum Creek, and then they moved away, and Nellie wasn’t supposed to come back, but, even then, people were writing in, to Laura, going, ‘Could there be more Nellie?’ But these books really caught on. They’ve been so popular. They’ve been printed over and over and over again.”
“They’re in 29 languages,” said Dean, who added that the Little House books are the second most popular series of children’s books in history.
“What I love about the (television) series,” he said, “and one of the things I think we all can be proud of, is that the series is based on these eight books. Obviously, you couldn’t stick closely to the eight books, or you never would have been able to do 10 seasons of shows. It just wasn’t possible to do it that way. Michael was very clear that he couldn’t do that. But I think what we did do, what he did, and what the writers did, and we all were involved in, was continuing the tone and feeling of the books in a very authentic, wonderful, heartfelt way. These were the stories told from a young girl’s perspective, a girl growing into adolescence, coming to a time when she’s going to get married, and so there’s a certain innocence and purity about the way the stories are told, and I think we maintained that wonderfully. Regardless, thematically, what we were doing, there was always this sort of authenticity of simple honesty in the storytelling, and we’re all very happy with that.”
One theme that ran throughout the Little House television series was the theme of adoption. The Ingalls family adopted Albert, James, and Cassandra. The Edwardses adopted John Jr., Carl, and Alicia. The Olesons adopted Nancy.
“Michael loved the idea of family,” said Dean. “That was a very important thing in his life, because, as a young boy, he did not have a great family. He did not have a great experience growing up in the home that he grew up in. And I think he saw Little House as the opportunity to create a family that was the ideal family that he could be a part of. He just wanted people to belong. I think that was really the important thing. Children need to belong to a family. Adults need children in their lives. Michael believed in this very strongly, and it’s a recurrent theme throughout the series.”
“When Mr. Edwards and Grace are charged with trying to find a home for the three Sanderson kids,” said Radames, “they can’t find homes for all three together, because somebody wants the two sons to work their farm, someone wants the daughter to take to the city with her, and so it was heartbreaking to the characters of Mr. Edwards and Grace, that they just decided then and there to get married, so that they could keep the three kids together. So there is a sacrifice and an achievement in terms of the union of Grace and Mr. Edwards, Isaiah. They get together, and they also heal this family that would have otherwise broken up. So, clearly, that’s another example of the adoption theme.”
Alison noted that the late Patricia Neal portrayed the mother of Radames’ character. “She was fabulous with all of us kids,” said Alison. “Patricia Neal was so wonderful. She would play these memory games. She had had that brain injury. She had had to relearn how to walk and talk and memorize, so she was constantly playing memory games, to keep her mind going, all of the time. And I remember she was sitting with all of us kids and was like, ‘What’s your name?’ ‘When is your birthday?’ And she would memorize all of our birthdays and which celebrity’s birthday was near it, and then, like, two days later, go, ‘January 18’ and quiz herself on all of our birthdays and our names. It was so much fun, and we thought it was a game, but she was doing this to constantly keep the synapses and everything going and going and going. Incredible woman.”
Little House on the Prairie had numerous guest stars through the years. Charlotte noted that a room inside the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove includes photographs of guest stars in the television series. “Your jaw is going to drop when you see who was on the show: Ernest Borgnine, Patricia Neal…. just some fabulous, fabulous actors.”
Lucy Lee enjoyed working with James Cromwell, who played Harve in Little House, and who would later play the farmer in the movie Babe. “This was kind of odd,” she said. “When I was married, my husband actually went to college with Jamie at Carnegie Mellon (University), and he always used to tell me, ‘Oh, you could be brother and sister.’ And so it was odd to be cast, sort of, well, I thought he was a romantic possibility, but that didn’t work.”
Hersha called it a treat to work with Ray Bolger, who appeared on Little House as Toby Noe. “Ray Bolger was the straw man in The Wizard of Oz, and many grew up watching that at least once a year on the tube,” she said. “I’m not often star-struck or anything like that, but, when he came on and danced, it was a thrill for me to work with him and to see him work. It was a treat.”
Dean said that a special guest star was Johnny Cash, who appeared in season three with his wife, June Carter Cash. The Greenbush twins, although only about six years of age at the time, remember them well. “They were amazingly sweet and incredible people, and I’m still honored to this day that I actually had a chance to meet them, and their son was on the show.”
Rachel noted that she had had a crush on one of the Little House guest stars, who appeared in an episode when Rachel was age seven. “My very, very first crush that I can remember was Gil Gerard when he did “The Handyman.” I had the biggest crush on him.”
Several of the cast members have memorable lines that they said as their characters on the show. For Charlotte, who portrayed schoolteacher Miss Beadle, her line, she said, would be: “Willie, go stand in the corner.” For Alison, as Nellie Oleson, her memorable line would be: “Country girls.” Dean’s most memorable line, he said, would be when Almanzo proposed to Laura. “For me, it’s probably: ‘I want you to be my wife.’”
For Radames, as John Jr., his memorable lines come from the episode “I’ll Ride the Wind.” “There was a scene at the dinner table with the new Edwards family,” he said, “where Mr. Edwards is startled to learn that his new adopted son has aspirations to make a living as a writer, and he says, ‘What, you mean you go to work with a pencil?’ And I said, ‘Yep, let’s see, you put 35 words, put them up on a scale, that’s six pounds and three ounces exactly.’ And it’s like the weight of words as being valuable like grain. Or something like that. It was a fun line.”
“If I could make my voice sound like it did when I was a little girl,” said Rachel, “I would probably say either, ‘Pa’s a cowboy’ or ‘Happy Birthday, baby Jesus.’”
“For me,” said Robyn, “it would probably be from “Ma’s Holiday,” and I’d have to say, ‘Boo.’ I hid under the bed, and Mr. Edwards is looking for me everywhere. And he, finally, in exhaustion, sits down on the bed, and Carrie crawls out from underneath and goes, ‘Boo.’”
The Turnbaugh twins have a favorite line from their portrayal of baby Grace. In the episode “Oleson versus Oleson,” when Grace is fed by Pa, pepper was put into the food, so that she wouldn’t like it. Grace puts her arm up to her face and refuses to eat Pa’s cooking. “And right after that line, we got an agent.”
There were many funny moments from the show the cast remembers.
“I don’t know if it was Nellie Oleson or Alison that did this to me,” said Dan McBride, referring to the scene in which Alison’s character hits Dan’s character (Henry Riley) in the face with a chicken. “I don’t know if it was the character or the real person that wanted to do this to me. Michael is directing, and he walks up and says, ‘Now, Alison, in rehearsal, don’t hit Dan.’”
“’Don’t waste the chicken,’” Alison recalls Landon saying. “‘Don’t hit him in the face with the chicken and mess up the makeup.’”
“But, in rehearsal,” said Dan, “what do you think happened? She actually physically does hit me upside the head, and you could hear the entire crew go, ‘Ohhhhh.’”
“He has this photo,” said Alison. “It’s a behind-the-scenes photo. We’re all standing around the table in Nellie’s Restaurant. And there’s the chicken. He’s sitting there, and there’s Michael’s crew. And he said, ‘I told you not to hit him in rehearsal.’ I was practicing my aim. I wanted to get it just right.”
Alison Arngrim and Dan McBride have fun recreating the Little House scene where Nellie hits Henry with a chicken. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
There was another well known ‘fight’ on Little House, a mud fight in which Laura got the best of Nellie, as Alison explained. “Many people said, ‘Now, was that real mud?’ On Little House, we had no fake mud. We were very organic. It was all real dirt. That place where that mud pond is, out in Simi, when it was dry in the summer, it was also a cow pasture. And, when it would rain in the winter, it was a duck pond. So that wasn’t all mud, technically. If you watch that episode, she gets me in that head lock, and I’m screaming, and you can see her hand come right around and put a big wad of mud right in my face, right in the mouth. And right afterwards, we had a doctor on set checking us, and he said, ‘Are you okay? It’s not sanitary. Did you get any in your eye?’ I said, ‘My eye? I just drank a quart.’ Unfortunately, I did swallow quite a bit. Apparently, doctors have discovered I am impervious to duck and cow and mud. Cast iron stomach. We were in that thing for hours. It was like all afternoon. That went on and on and on. It was days I was scrubbing that stuff out of my eye.”
The fight in question was over Almanzo. “I think Nellie was a very jealous person,” said Alison. “I think Laura had the wonderful, handsome, perfect Pa and the really sweet, wonderful Ma who could cook, and she had the wonderful older sister, Mary, and she had the cute little baby sisters, Carrie and Grace, and Nellie just had Willie, and her mother was Mrs. Oleson. And I think Nellie noticed this and was insane with jealousy of this new girl, Laura, with the whole family, and that’s why she was so horrible to her. Nellie was extremely envious and jealous. That was her big motive a lot of the time. And a lot of Laura and Nellie’s fights were over boys. There was Jason. There was Johnny. And so, indeed, Nellie wanted Almanzo, as it is correctly pronounced, as opposed to Zaldamo, for herself. Hence, the unfortunate cinnamon chicken incident. There was no way Nellie was getting Almanzo, no way.”
“Did you really ever think you had a shot with Almanzo?” Dean asked.
“I don’t think so, no,” said Alison. “I brought over the cookies. There was the one day I brought over the cookies.”
“They were awful,” said Dean.
“Yeah,” said Alison. “It was not ever gonna work.”
In later years of Little House, after Nellie’s departure, the character of Nancy was brought in to fill the role of the ‘mean girl’ in Walnut Grove. “My evil adopted sister, Nancy — I love her,” said Alison. “I swear I taught her to be mean, because, when I met her, Allison Balson, also named Allison, also blond, evil Nancy, she told me that she had grown up watching me be Nellie, and she was fascinated with it, but that she had decided that she wanted to be different mean. She kind of went for crazy, and she did a really good job of it. She came in, having watched me, and came up with a way to be mean, kind of based on what I was doing. We talked about it. I thought she was awesome. I thought she was a really good complement, that the two of us together made a just awful, awful team.”
“I think that Alison was sort of benign evil, in a way,” said Dean, speaking of Alison Arngrim’s characterization of Nellie Oleson. “Allison Balson (Nancy) was evil evil. She really was. It was a dark, dark portrayal. How do you empathize with this character? Alison you could always empathize with, on some level, because you knew that she was sort of smiling through the whole thing, and that made a difference. Allison Balson didn’t smile a lot.”
“She was creepy,” agreed Alison.
“Just was dark,” said Dean. “I would always vote for Nellie’s version of that evil on Little House, because it’s fun evil.”
“She was a very smart little girl, very, very smart,” Alison said of Balson. “I believe her mother was a psychologist. They were very serious about what they were doing, how cuckoo to make that girl. So, I was excited to meet her, and she was very excited to meet me. And we talked about the difference in our evil and everything. My favorite scene in that is when we share the bed, and she starts snoring, and I hold her nose. Oh, we had so much fun doing that. Yeah, we got along really well. It’s funny, because a lot of people have written to me or e-mailed me and said, ‘Oh, I hate Nancy,’ like there’s some rivalry between us. But we got along so well. We had a blast doing that episode, and we were just thrilled to have the two evil girls together. But she did get my wig. She wore my wig. I got that weird goofy hairdo when I had to come back in “The Return of Nellie.” I had the wig for seven years, and then Nancy got the wig. I always wished I had kept the wig. They tried curling my hair for a few months, and then they got the wig. It was gorgeous. It was custom made. I have no idea where it is. I think one of the hairdressers’ grandchildren has it. I do have a reasonable facsimile of the wig, because everyone is so obsessed with that hair and the ringlets. They go, ‘So, what do you look like if you still wear the wig?’” As she tried on the wig, she said, “It’s really kind of disturbing, isn’t it?”
Alison Arngrim tries on a ‘Nellie wig.’ (Photography by Karen Brewer)
Much of the acting on the series included non-verbal communication. “We had not only great actors but people who really had great eyes, on our show,” said Alison. “It’s like everyone seems to have these really intense eyes. I think maybe that’s one of the reasons the show is popular in like 140 countries. There was so much going on that was beyond language or dialogue, emotionally. With the actors, there was so much emotion in everyone’s face and physicality, that it came across.”
“My career prior to that,” said Radames, “I played some very unusual roles. I was like a character actor as a kid. My role prior to Little House was a half-Chinese, half-American monk, Grasshopper, on Kung Fu, so there was a lot of non-verbal work going on there, and that’s just something that is part of the acting talent. You have to think the thoughts that the actor thinks. That’s part of the homework of doing the job of acting, to actually understand what that character is thinking, so that, when there are no words to say, the meaning still comes through in the face, in the eyes. Again, that’s something that a director knows how to capture and knows when it’s done right and when to shoot it again, do another take or when he’s got it and he goes, ‘Cut and print.’ Then, you know that you’ve delivered the thing that he wanted to see.”
“We also had wonderful writers,” said Charlotte, “Michael being only one of the writers. But he knew what would reach people and what would move people. And they made sense. So, you didn’t have to climb to figure out what was going on in the scene. It actually made sense. I think that was a good part of it.”
“One of the things about Michael is that his production company was the best at the time,” said Hersha, “and he cast well, not only the regulars but the guest stars and the families, the extra people that were there regularly. He cast good people. And that’s part of our profession, not just the dialogue.”
Several of the cast members present for the reunion have not watched the series finale, “The Last Farewell,” a made-for-television movie that aired in 1984 and in which the town of Walnut Grove is destroyed.
“I have not seen it yet, and I never will,” said Charlotte.
Neither have the Greenbush twins. “There’s a part of me that just can’t see it,” said Rachel.
Of all of the cast members present for the 40th anniversary reunion, Dean was the only one who was in the final movie and who was on the set the final day. “What was really amazing about that sequence,” he said, “that led to the blowing up the town, was the way it was shot. None of the cast was allowed to be there when the buildings were actually exploded, because there were concerns about people being hurt by flying debris, because they really wired up these buildings and blew them apart. So, they shot all of the direction of the buildings being blown up on one day, and then we were all going to come out the following day and shoot our actions. We shot our actions of blowing up the buildings before they blew them up, and then we came and shot our reactions post explosion, the day after the buildings were blown up. So, the buildings were still smoldering. They had put smoke pots in all of the buildings. When we all drove into Walnut Grove, this place, home to cast and crew for 10 seasons, was just annihilated. It was gone, and smoke was rising from the rubble, and it was just really eerie. Michael didn’t have to direct anybody that day. He didn’t tell anybody or suggest to anybody anything. He just allowed everyone to be in the moment and allow what we were feeling to play on camera, and it was very genuine, because you are looking at this place that you had loved and where you had worked and had such happy memories, gone. So, it was really powerful.
“And it had to be done. This was part of Michael’s genius, too. The ranch had to be restored to its natural state after the series was done. And everyone knew the series was over. They could not leave any of the buildings there. The buildings had to come down, and so Michael figured out a way to craft a story around the explosion of the buildings that he could play on screen and get all kinds of production value out of it. And then the bulldozers came in, and scooped up the buildings, what was left of them. The church and the little house and the little house barn were not blown up or destroyed. They were ultimately removed, but they were not exploded. I think Michael wanted to leave the sanctity of the church alone; that was the one building that was left in town.”
For several years, the entire Little House on the Prairie television series has been available on video and DVD. To coincide with the 40th anniversary of the series debut, deluxe re-mastered digital high-definition editions of Little House on the Prairie released on Blu-ray include scenes that are missing from episodes airing in syndication. This new edition also includes interviews and additional commentary on the episodes.
“I know about the new DVD’s,” said Dean, “because I’m narrating “The Little House Phenomenon.” It is six parts that will be attached to six different series releases, and they’re about 15 minutes each. They explore different aspects of the series, culturally. We talk about the American culture. We talk about the animals on the show. We deal with the casting of the show. There are a lot of different aspects of the show that are covered, and it’s really beautifully produced. It’s something you’re really going to love, and, the way the footage has been re-mastered, it is more beautiful now than it ever was when it was new.”
Front: Dean Butler, Alison Arngrim, Dan McBride, Charlotte Stewart, Hersha Parady, Rachel Greenbush, Robyn Greenbush; Back: Wendi Turnbaugh Lee, Brenda Turnbaugh Weatherby, Radames Pera, Lucy Lee Flippin. (Photography by Karen Brewer)