• May 26, 2024

Exclusive‘Little House on the Prairie’ Turns 50! Look Back at the Show With the Cast

In the first season of Little House on the Prairie, a typhus outbreak swept through Walnut Grove. “During the scene, when I was dying, my father got so emotional,” recalls Leslie Landon Matthews, who guest-starred on the episode. The daughter of Little House’s star and guiding light, Michael Landon, moved him to tears with her performance. “He had to redo the scene because he knew that Charles Ingalls would not have been so emotional over a neighbor’s child.”

For nine seasons, beginning in 1974, Little House wore its heart on its sleeve while welcoming viewers into the lives of the Ingalls family and their neighbors. Serious topics of survival, prejudice, addiction and the importance of family were explored along with a liberal dose of warmth and humor. “We watch Little House on the Prairie as a reminder that if we could make it through [the hardships of the past], we can make it through [anything],” Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura, tells Closer. “But the only way we’re going to do that is if we love one another, understand one another, have compassion for one another, and gather together as a community with all of the things that bind us — faith, love, understanding. That’s the bottom line.”

The famed book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder provided the framework for the TV show, but Michael, who starred, produced and often wrote and directed episodes, created its tender heart. “It’s really Michael’s vision,” Dean Butler, who joined the show in season 6 as Almanzo Wilder, tells Closer. “Laura’s books were about what people did to survive. Michael’s take on Little House was what people felt about what they did. It was this exploration of emotional life.”

Remembering Michael Landon’s Legacy

Michael ran a tight set. “He was so sharp, so smart and so quick to see solutions,” Karen Grassle, who starred for eight seasons as Caroline “Ma” Ingalls, tells Closer. “He had a very clear idea about what he wanted.”

He wasn’t always serious though. “He would tell us kids dirty jokes that were completely inappropriate — but never weird or scary,” relates Patrick Labyorteaux, aka Andy Garvey, to Closer. “He knew what kids liked, and he never talked down to us.” Pranks were also a common occurrence. “He thought nothing of having a live frog jump out of his shirt,” says Lucy Lee Flippin, who played schoolteacher Eliza Jane Wilder. “He nicknamed me ‘Sugar’ and always had me bursting into giggles.”

‘Little House on the Prairie’ Turns 50: Look Back at the Show
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Despite the laughs, even the youngest actors were expected to give 100 percent. “There was a scene when Nellie gets her head caught in a screen,” recalls Alison Arngrim, who played the series’ mean girl, to Closer. “After 20 minutes [stuck in the door], I asked Michael, ‘Couldn’t you have gotten a dummy for this?’ And he said, ‘We did! Shut up and put your head back in!’ ”

In March, a three-day festival in California reunited the cast and drew more than 10,000 fans. “Whenever we have a reunion, it’s very touching,” says Karen. “We were with [the younger actors] more than their parents. My heart is still very open with them.”

Michael, who passed away in 1991 at age 54, would have been proud — but not surprised. “Our dad said he knew Little House would be around way past any of us being here because of the quality of the stories,” says Leslie. “During the quarantine, when people were stuck in their homes, the show had even more of a resurgence.” Streaming services have helped Little House find new first-time viewers, too. “It’s a show that generation after generation can identify with,” explains Alison. “I’ve had people tell me that the problems the Ingalls have are the problems of the world. They live in a tiny house with a bunch of kids and no money.”

It’s also something deeper. “It touches on our primal need for home, community, love and safety,” says Dean. “Yes, there were conflicts, but they were all worked out within an hour!”

Like the other cast members, Rachel Greenbush, who shared the role of Carrie Ingalls with her twin sister, Sidney, remains proud to be associated with Little House. “It’s still famous all over the world,” she noted to Closer. “No matter where I go in this world, I have a friend because of Little House on the Prairie.”

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