It is impossible to think about family television history without thinking about “Little House on the Prairie.”
This popular series about faith, family, farming and friendship is still in syndication, having run from 1974-1983. The show focused on the Ingalls and Wilder families, and was basically the story of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. PBS’ American Masters celebrates this woman and recently two of the stars of the series, Melissa Gilbert (Laura) and Alison Arngrim (Nellie), met with the media -- virtually -- to discuss their experiences on the show and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“As a 9-year-old child, I had read the ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ and then I got the show and then my focus was the scripts and where we were going with that for 10 years," said Gilbert. “And we strayed pretty far from the truth of the books, which also strayed far from the truth of the actual experience, because we had to create this whole world that television shows have a tendency to do.”
Gilbert explained that in reality, Mary Ingalls never married and never had a child.
“I got to revisit the stories when I did the musical version of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and play Caroline's angle, and I got to go back to the books and the subsequent books that had come out about all of them to see the whole experience through a new set of eyes," Gilbert said. "So that really was fascinating for me.”
Gilbert explained she is always learning more about the real Laura Ingalls Wilder and this documentary opened her eyes to many details she had not known.
“When I first read ‘Little House in the Big Woods,’ it was a school assignment, actually," she said. "And as you know, those books are still, I think, assigned in middle schools today, (and) are still read, and I absolutely loved it. I read it with my mom because they had been her favorite books growing up, so she was so excited, when I got the assignment, to be able to sit with me and read it with me.”
Gilbert was taken with the writing style of the books besides the stories themselves.
“Her descriptions of life and food especially, and games and sights and sounds and the world around her was so vivid," Gilbert said. "I could see myself there, and it really got my imagination stirred up.”
Arngrim was asked about playing the bad girl, versus the angelic Laura.
“As a child actor, I had always rather liked villain characters, so it did not bother me when I got the part,” she said with a grin. “I was thrilled. I was, like, the villain. It was fun.”
Arngrim admitted she had not read the books prior to getting the role of Nellie Oleson and was unaware of Nellie’s personality.
“I had no idea what a Nellie Oleson was until I got to the audition and read the sides and looked at the script and said, ‘Oh ... this girl is terrible.’ And then I read the books after and was fascinated with this character that Laura had to change the name and use three different people because she didn't want her to come after her because she was still afraid.”
“Little House on the Prairie” was and is a show watched by multiple generations of families. It is an inspiring show with heartfelt characters.
“I can tell you that since March of this year,” Gilbert acknowledged, “since the world and our nation in particular have been dealing with this pandemic, I began hearing more and more on social media from people saying, ‘I am rewatching "Little House on the Prairie." It is bringing me so much comfort. I am finding my way through.’ "
I was curious to find out about how these actors related to the show’s time in history and asked if there was anything about that time in which they were “playing” that they would like to have today, or not.
“I'm famous for saying, 'Oh, the 1800s, no antibiotics,' ” Arngrim quickly said. “I found that it was fun to wear the costumes and live the life and eat the food and talk about all these things while we were doing the show, but I was never so happy to get home at the end of the day and come back to modern times. I personally am very glad that I wasn't born in the 1800s. And I understand people's fascination with it, but I think also in reading the books the reality of just how hard everything was, yeah. No ... I do not need to bring any of that back to this time period."
Gilbert, on the other hand, feels differently.
“I'm the opposite,” she chimed in. “Right now my husband and I have moved to New York City a few years ago, and a couple years back we bought some land in the Catskills with a little hunting cabin that we converted into a second home and knew that we were going to plan to garden, get chickens and that would be what we were going to do, eventually build a barn and have horses and goats and all of that.”
She is happy to be away from civilization.
“And I am absolutely gleeful all this time, and I have no desire to go back to the city except -- and I will agree with Alison on this -- to see my dentist every six months.”
For an up-close-and-personal look at the real Wilder, the show premieres Tuesday on PBS.