Alison Arngrim of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Shares Show Memories, Talks New Book

I had the honor of interviewing everyone’s original mean girl – Alison Arngrim AKA Nellie Oleson on “Little House On The Prairie”.

1)Alison, what was the auditioning process like for Nellie Oleson on “Little House On The Prairie”?

2)Had you seen read the books before auditioning?

These really go together, because NO – I hadn’t read the books and had NO IDEA what I was getting myself into!
It really was a surreal experience. It wasn’t one audition; it was really more like FOUR. I was a working kid actor, so I auditioned for things ALL the time. It seemed like nearly every day I was getting picked up after school to go read for something. And back in those days, I often went to what they called “Go Sees”, where actors got called in just for a meeting. The show was still in the planning stages, they weren’t having auditions yet, but your agent might get you into meet the producers and casting people, “Go over to Paramount and Go See so and so who’s producing that new show, so they can see what you look like.” – you were sent on a “Go See”.
I went to a meeting with Ed Friendly where I was shown a set of the Little House books. He asked me nicely “Have you read these?” and I had to sheepishly admit I had not. (Never heard of them! I was clearly a deprived child!) He explained they were going to be making a show based on them. I assumed I was utterly out of the running after that – this weird little girl who’d never heard of Laura Ingalls!
But then sometime late I was called into read. I read for the part of Laura. But then so did every child actress in town, I think! It really was like the search for Scarlett O’Hara – but for nine year old girls. I knew I didn’t get it. And when I had to read for Mary, I rolled my eyes, knowing I was totally wrong for that part too.
So when much later, after the pilot, when it was decreed that they were going full speed ahead with the series and I came back, yet again to this same office, I wondered what on earth they could want with me.
Then I read the pages they gave me. Oh. My. God. Well, I go on at length n my book about my total shock that such a character could exist on TV – maybe an adult like that, but a kid? I turned to my father and whispered, “Dad, this girl’s a totalâÂ?¦.bitch!” When I read it for him, he said “Don’t change a thing! Don’t read it again! Don’t even look at it! Just go in and read it exactly LIKE THAT!” And I did. And when Michael Landon and the others in the room finished shrieking and throwing themselves around the room laughing, they asked me to read it one more time. I asked them what they wanted me to do differently, was there some sort of direction they wanted to give me. Between choked sobs of laughter, Michael said, “No! Just read the part about the house again!!” It was the infamous “My Home is the Best Home in All of Walnut Grove” speech. They hired me right there and then. And the rest, as they say, is history.

3)What was it like working with Melissa Gilbert, Michael Landon, Dean Butler, Katherine MacGregor, Richard Bull, Jonathan Gilbert, and the rest of the cast?

Awesome!! One of favorite things about Little House, and I believe one the main reasons it’s still such a hit all over the world today, is the chemistry between all the actors. Sure, you can cast good actors, but you can’t always predict how they’ll get along, or how their different styles of performing will look when they’re all thrown together in one show.
In the case of Little House, it was like nuclear fusion. We were all meant to be together.
Melissa Gilbert and I bonded immediately – we were both a couple of smart talking old Hollywood broads – trapped in the bodies of little girls. We became like sisters. We had slumber parties at each other’s houses. It’s so much easier to play worst enemies, when you’re best friends.
Michael was an absolute trip! I always say, he was just like Pa Ingalls – except when he wasn’t!! Here he was, smoking, drinking, telling dirty jokes, playing poker, going to the track to bet on the horses, hanging out at the Playboy Jazz Festival, driving a Ferrari and managing to get married three times, and all the while giving an utterly convincing portrayal of the saintly, poor, homespun Charles Ingalls! (How did this man NOT win an Emmy for Best Actor? He made everyone believe it was real – clearly he was a genius!)
But at the same time, he believed in the values of hard work and perseverance, and watched over us kids like a hawk. None of the lax standards for child actors you hear about from other shows. On Little House you knew: you were to be on time, you were to know your lines and be prepared. You would most definitely be doing your 3 hours of school. And you would be addressing adults as “sir” and “ma’am”.
And he managed to know where we were and what we were doing every minute! You weren’t getting anything past him. Of course, the reason he was on to all our tricks, was because he was the most mischievous kid on the set. He would have us all in hysterics half the time, and love playing outrageous pranks on people. Any stunt you were planning on pulling – well, he’d just go you one better!
If there was anyone on the show who is really like his character, it’s Richard Bull. Like Mr. Oleson, sensible, kind, – the lone voice of reason among the craziness.
And you can’t say “Craziness” without bringing up Katherine! Truly brilliant, an absolutely iconic performance. And a personality as big as the whole prairie! Of course she’s not mean like Mrs. Oleson – but when she gets going, she sounds exactly like Harriet! Scares people nearly out of their wits!
She and Richard were not only fabulous on screen, but were great friends off screen as well. And they were both quite parental to me at times. Amazingly, when the retired, Richard (and his real wife, actress Barbara Bull), retired to the same place as Katherine. They both now reside at the same retirement home in California. Can you imagine the other residents reaction when the run into the two them on the grounds?
Willie – Jonathan Gilbert, Melissa’s actual little brother, (Ok, right? There were so many things on Little House that were just bizarre.) Hilarious, mouth breather, constantly in trouble – much like Willie – except he was secretly a genius and just didn’t want anyone to know. Best ‘playing dumb’ act in history.
Dean! Poor Dean – Melissa and I picked on him something terrible when he first started. He was so sweet, innocent and just so gosh darn earnest about everything, and we were so cynical we just couldn’t resist teasing and pranking him. He was just SO Almanzo! There’s something so endearing about him and I’m clearly not the only one seeing it, because he went on to be “Gidget’s boyfriend” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”‘s dad! He’s the most important man in the life of not one but three Female American Icons. I really think he should do a book about this. (And I’m not just saying that cause he said nice things about me in his interview!)

4)What were the challenges regarding the show and your character?

I think the biggest challenges for me on Little House were physical. The layers of uncomfortable 1800’s clothing. The location filming in the summer heat, – often well over 110 degrees and we were standing under hot lights as well – and the winter cold, being thrown into various rivers, lakes, creeks, ponds, dunk tanks, mud puddles, etc. etc. and of course THE WIG. For seven years my life became all about my hair. First the efforts to curly my real hair into those impossibly perfect sausage curls, sleeping in curlers, then coming in at 4:00 in the morning to have Larry and Gladys the hairdressers work on them for an hour with hot curling irons and hairspray, just to watch them collapse and straighten right back out again out in the heat and humidity. Finally, they designed the wig, which became a new set of horrors, with the huge metal comb in the front that dug into my scalp, and the dozens and dozens of hair pings they used to hold it in place all day. (And you people have the nerve to ask why was Nellie so mean??? You try wearing that thing for nine hours a day in the hot sun and see how nice you are!)

5)How did you like filming on both sound stages and outside locations?

Well as you can imagine with the heat out in Simi Valley where we filmed the exteriors for Walnut Grove, I greatly preferred working on the sound stages! We were at Paramount Studios in Hollywood for the first few years and then later moved over to MGM in Culver City (which is now Sony).
You have to remember out at Big Sky Ranch, there’sâÂ?¦nothing. Going to the bathroom meant either the heading up the hill to trailers, (still strictly camper mobile home style) or the Andy Gump porta potties down near the set. Essentially, modern outhouses. If you had a radio or TV in your trailer it didn’t matter, there was no reception out there. They had air conditioning, but with the generators being so noisy, you could only have run the air conditioning on for a brief period at lunch time. The nearest phone was a couple miles down the road. We had no cell phones. (And even today, your cell phone is unlikely to get much of a signal.) If they had been looking for a way to recreate the sense of being out on the prairie without modern conveniences, they totally succeeded!
Being on a studio lot meant not only a much, much shorter drive, but air-conditioning, real dressing rooms, real bathrooms, access to telephones, and lunch in the commissary or nearby restaurant. No contest!
But it was great when once a year or so we’d go out and do REAL location shooting – Sonora for the mountain and river scenes, Arizona for the desert and “county fair” stuff. We’d all stay together at one motel for a couple of weeks, the actors, the crew – all the wives and kids. It was like camp. And then spend all day filming in Arizona where the horizon went on forever, or in Sonora in the forest with a real river. We’d go fishing for trout and bring them back to the hotel and the restaurant would cook them for us. It was incredible, really.

6)What were your three favorites episodes that you filmed?

Just THREE????!! Well, there’s “The Talking Machine” – not only is there lots of cruelty and blackmail, but a dream sequence where Mrs. Oleson and Nellie keep Laura’s in a dungeon and then take her to the gallows to be hanged! How many shows was I going to be on where I would get to wear and medieval executioners costume complete with black hood?? With the blond curls sticking out? And hang someone while eating a peppermint stick?
I liked the “Fools’ Gold” one, because, again MORE DREAM SEQUENCES!! And in these Laura is rich and Nellie poor, so I didn’t have to wear the hot dresses and the wig. I got to walk around with my own hair all day and I could get dirty. It was heaven.
But we all know the NUMBERONE favorite episode OF ALL TIME isâÂ?¦..”BUNNY”. Known the world over as: “The one where I go down the hill in the wheelchair”! I devoted an ENTIRE CHAPTER to discussing this in my book.

7)I loved, loved, loved the relationship between you and your onscreen husband Percival Dalton – played by the late Steve Tracy. Did you know him before he was cast? Was it “love at first sight” between you and Steve – or did you have a “Percival pours eggs over Nellie’s head” moment? Did you have a say in his casting?

Oh no! But I think I would have picked him right away! He was wonderful! I’ve tried to explain this before – getting married on TV is like being sold off into an arranged marriage. You have no say at all over when you’re getting married or to whom. They will simply present you to a total stranger and you will have to tell him you love him, kiss him – in front of people, and on national TV – and possibly within hours of meeting him. You just hope and pray they don’t set you up with someone ugly or obnoxious.
The day Steve showed up, Melissa Gilbert and I sat there waiting, staring at every man who walked on to the set, wondering “Is that him??!!” I can’t tell you how happy I was when Steve arrived – so cute with those freckles and curly hair! And so funny! We got along right away. Such a great actor and such a wonderful, smart, kind, really good decent guy, who was always thinking of others.

8)Were you and Steve very close during and after filming and up to his death?

Very much so. Right up to his death- well, I should say even after really. It was his going public with his diagnosis of AIDS that got me started volunteering with AIDS Project Los Angeles. Even when he was deathly ill, he still thought of others. He endured several painful experimental treatments. He told me, “They won’t save me, but maybe they’ll find something that will save someone else down the road.” At a time when many people didn’t want anyone to know they were sick, he spoke out about his illness to help others, he worked to make things easier for people with AIDS long after he was gone. His bravery and activism was an enormous inspiration to me and I think of him daily.

9)Alison, tell us about your book Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.

Oh, it’s been a marvelous success – more so than I could have imagined! People really seem to like it. I put a lot into it and I think it shows. It’s now available in hard cover, paperback, kindle and – in FRENCH! I continue to do book signings, at events and after my shows. NOTE: I will be doing a signing at the Barnes & Noble in Knoxville Tennessee, on December 20 at 6:00 pm and it will be a benefit for PROTECT. (So stay tuned to my website and Facebook, etc.)

I have had people write to me and demand that I write a second one. (I’m working on it as we speak, I swear.)

10)Alison, your mother, Norma MacMillan, provided the voices for characters on “Casper the Friendly Ghost”, “Gumby”, and “Davey and Goliath”. Did you get to go with her to the voice studios, and did you ever provide voices?

I only went to the studio with once or twice when I was quite small. But I met many of the actors she worked with, and I LOVED turning on the cartoons on Saturday morning or in the afternoons after school, and having half of them be my mother!!!

My mother was very gracious about requests from my little friends to demonstrate the various voices, “Do Casper!! Do Gumby!!” She would patiently go through the whole repertoire. Of course, years later, many of her cartoons had attained “cult status” so she wound up having to go through the same thing at cocktail parties with people in their 30’s begging her to sing the Underdog song! “Where oh where has my Underdog goneâÂ?¦”

I never did any voices myself, although once we did audition together to the voice of a talking doll that came with little puppets – so the doll had many different voices. We didn’t get it, but man that would have been awesome. (Note: I looked it up. I believe this was the doll that was later released as “Peachy and her Puppets”.)

11)Alison, what are your passions?

I enjoy making a difference in the world. I like the idea that in my lifetime, I can make this place slightly better than it was when I arrived. That’s why I’ve spent so much time on things like the fight against HIV/AIDS and against child abuse.

I really enjoy my work with PROTECT. I’ve been able to testify at Senate Committee Hearings and see unjust laws changed before my eyes. We’ve accomplished things I didn’t think would be possible, and we’re continuing to fight every day to protect children from abuse and exploitation. You really must drop by the website and read what we’re doing, out new H.E.R.O. Child-Rescue Corps project, the new Weiss Center for Child Rescue & Protection Technology, Alicia’s Law – it’s incredible.
I enjoy making people laugh. I continue to tour all over the country, doing stand up, speaking gigs and my one-woman show, “Confessions of A Prairie Bitch”. I also tour several months a year in France where I have a French version of the show. I continue to write; I’m also doing various pilots and independent films and am generally just always looking for more ways to make people pee their pants!

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