SALT LAKE CITY — It was 45 years ago this year that TV viewers first watched Ma and Pa Ingalls beam from their covered wagon down on their three young daughters frolicking in the prairie grasses.
“Little House on the Prairie” — the NBC production that spanned nine seasons from 1974 to 1983 and is based on the autobiographical children’s books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder in the late 1800s — made stars of its cast, from Michael Landon as Ingalls patriarch Charles, Karen Grassle as his wise wife Caroline, and Melissa Sue Anderson, Melissa Gilbert and twins Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush as daughters Mary, Laura and Carrie. And for fans of the show, there’s no forgetting actress Alison Arngrim.
Arngrim played young Nellie Oleson, the resident blonde bully of Walnut Grove. The on-screen rivalry between Laura and Nellie made for good television but it was also rooted in historical fact, according to Arngrim.
“Nellie Oleson was really based on three different people,” wrote Arngrim in an email interview with the blog, From the Desk of Kurt Manwaring. “Nellie Owens of Walnut Grove and two other girls Laura knew, named Genevieve Masters and Stella Gilbert. Legend says that Laura was still so afraid of Nellie as an adult she changed her name and circumstances (in her books).”
Arngrim initially auditioned for the role of Laura, made famous by Gilbert, but hasn’t been sorry that her 12-year-old self was instead cast as Nellie.
“I am so glad I didn’t have the burden of playing a ‘nice’ person for all those years,” wrote Arngrim, who likes to rebel against stereotypes. “It would have been exhausting!
“And if you look at the reaction of viewers 40 plus years later, you can see how each of us made our character ‘iconic,'” she added.
Hard work was essential to the creation of her iconic role. Work on set began early in the mornings, although the use of crew that had long worked together kept things running smoothly.
“Michael Landon had been working with most of the crew members since he was on ‘Bonanza,'” said Arngrim. “So the place was very much a well-oiled machine.”
Each episode took about a week to film, and while Arngrim liked acting on the sound stage, she was less enthused about filming on location.
“I was not a fan of Simi Valley,” Arngrim said, referencing the California location in which outdoor scenes of “Little House” were filmed. “In the summer, temperatures often reach 110 degrees or more.”
In addition to the weather, Arngrim said the situation became nearly unbearable when she donned her 19th century costume — including a dress, petticoat, and wig.
“I passed out from heat stroke more than once,” she said.
The figurative and literal sweat Arngrim and others put into their characters resulted in the portrayal of ideal family life in simpler times.
“When I was a child, I wanted my family to be like the Ingalls family,” tweeted Anita Elliott, a resident of Draper, Utah. “I love the simplicity of the time.”
Fans like Elliott are not the only ones who long for the nostalgia of Walnut Grove.
“A lot of what went into the show was Michael Landon’s longing for a happier childhood than the one he lived through,” said Arngrim. “He was fantasizing about having a perfect family life just like our viewers.”
Arngrim treasures the memories she made with her cast family — including Landon.
“He was hilarious!” Arngrim wrote. “He was the first to arrive on set every day and the last to leave. You always knew he was there, because you’d hear that high-pitched giggle of his — like a girl!
“It was amazing that someone could be a joker, so full of humor and giggles and making fun of everything one minute and so completely serious and obsessed with making the perfect TV show the next,” she added.
Arngrim recalled one practical joke. When her character was pregnant, Arngrim was supposed to eat pickles and ice cream, but rather than use a spit-bucket in between takes, she told Landon she would just eat it.
“He looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘What if we need 25 takes? Are you seriously going to eat all those pickles and ice cream cones?'”
Arngrim told Landon she had never needed more than two takes for anything and this was no exception. “I promptly scarfed (it) down, licked my fingers and then turned to him and said, ‘Ha!'” said Arngrim.
Landon took her pickle and ice cream consumption as a challenge. “The next morning, he essentially threw a stack of pages at me and said, ‘Oh, here’s your new scene!,'” she recalled. “In the new scene, I was caught eating pickles … and maple syrup.”
From her time with Landon to the best-friend relationship she formed with Gilbert, “Little House” will forever be a part of Arngrim’s life — and the lives of viewers.
“I really thought when the show ended in the ’80s that people would eventually sort of, you know, move on,” said Arngrim. “But of course, they didn’t. There are more people watching it now than when it (originally aired).”
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