Forty years ago today, Pa, Half-Pint and the rest of the Ingalls family appeared on our TVs in the first episode of “Little House on the Prairie.” In honor of the TV classic, we take a look at the actors who played some of our favorite characters and their lives after Walnut Grove.
Little House on the Prairie aired its first episode on September 11, 1974, and ruled the airwaves until 1983. Adapted from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s popular book series, the show taught us about “the simple life” (way before Paris Hilton.) Set on a farm in Walnut Grove, Minnesota in the late 1800s, Little House depicted the lives of the hard-working, earnest Ingalls family whose frontier lives were far from glamorous. Days were filled with back-breaking manual labor, miles-long walks to school, constant financial worry and (GASP!) no indoor toilets.
So where are Ma, Pa, Laura and the rest of the clan today? Luckily, we’ve had a little invention since the 1800s called the Internet, and we were able to track some of our favorite cast members down.
Believe it or not, Pa’s little Half-Pint turned 50 this year! After stealing the hearts of America as the young, spirited Laura Ingalls, Melissa Gilbert continued to act as an adult and starred in many TV movies. She was elected president of the Screen Actor’s Guild in 2001 (take that, Nellie!) and served two terms as SAG’s head honcho. Gilbert penned an autobiography, Prairie Tale: A Memoir in 2009. That same year she played the role of Ma in the touring production of Little House on the Prairie, the Musical. (Guess she was a tad bit too old to reprise her role as Laura.) In 2012, she shook her money maker on Dancing with the Stars with hottie partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy. She got eliminated 8 weeks in, on her birthday of all days. In her personal life, Gilbert dated actor Rob Lowe on-and-off for six years. She married and divorced actors Bo Brinkman and Bruce Boxleitner, and tied the knot again with actor Timothy Busfield, Eliot from thirtysomething, in 2013.
The main man of the little house, Charles Ingalls, or Pa, was a hard working, honest salt-of-the-earth kind of dude. His daughters adored him and did pretty much anything to please him (why can’t we all have kids like that?!). Before he became America’s favorite father figure, Michael Landon lit up the screen as Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza. The year Bonanza ended, Landon signed on to the Little House series. Not only did he play Pa, he wrote, directed and executive produced the show. After Little House, Landon went on to star as a probationary angel in yet another hit show, Highway to Heaven. He continued to act, write, produce and direct until he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1991. Sadly, Landon lost his cancer battle and died at the age of 54, less than three months after he was diagnosed. RIP, Pa − you are missed.
When she took on the role of Ma, or Caroline Ingalls, Karen Grassle was an undiscovered newcomer. She’d been in a few plays and had bit parts on two TV shows. Despite her lack of credits, she auditioned to play Laura Ingalls no-nonsense mom and won the part. After Little House ended its run, Grassle said adios to Hollywood and moved to New Mexico where she opened Santa Fe’s Resource Theater Company. She did return to California eventually and landed a part in Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp. In 2008 she became the spokeswoman for Premier Bathrooms, a maker of bathing supplies for the elderly. Ironic considering her little house on the prairie didn’t even have indoor plumbing!
Melissa Sue Anderson
Life wasn’t easy for the eldest daughter of the Ingalls’ clan. She went blind at 15, but somehow handled it all gracefully while looking impossibly pretty the whole time. Melissa Sue Anderson beat out 200 girls for the part of Mary. After the show, she continued to act in film and TV shows such as The Equalizer, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Murder, She Wrote. She also wrote an autobiography entitled The Way I See It – A Look Back at My Life on Little House. Anderson won an Emmy in 1979 for an ABC Afterschool Special, Which Mother is Mine?. Twenty years later, she was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Yee haw!
You might not realize it, but Jason Bateman’s first acting gig was playing adopted Ingalls’ son James Cooper. His sister Justine played Mallory Keaton in another 80s TV hit, Family Ties. After Little House, Bateman’s career took off, big time. He’s acted in dozens of TV shows, including the cult hit series Arrested Development, and won several awards including a Golden Globe. He’s also taken his talent to the big screen, starring in nearly 40 films to date, including Juno, Up in the Air, Horrible Bosses and This Is Where I Leave You. In 2013, he made his directorial debut with the movie Bad Words. Here’s a little celeb trivia: his wife Amanda is the daughter of singer Paul Anka.
Dean Butler joined the Little House cast as heartthrob Almanzo Wilder. You might remember him as the guy Nellie and Laura got in a mud wrestling match over. After years of pining away for her unrequited crush, Laura finally landed “Manly” and they lived happily ever after. In the 80s and 90s, Butler guest starred on a bunch of TV shows, including Who’s the Boss?, The Love Boat, Murder, She Wrote, and JAG. He also shot a few films and acted on Broadway. Behind the camera, Butler has his own production company, Legacy Documentaries, where he’s produced DVD bonus content for the Little House on the Prairie series, and two original documentaries, Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura and Little House on the Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder. He also has Pa to thank (sort of) for making a love connection for him: Butler met his wife actress Katherine Cannon at an audition for Michael Landon’s series Father Murphy.
Alison Arngrim played spoiled brat Nellie Oleson, the little girl we all loved to hate. With her smug mug, her flouncing banana curls and her ritzy dresses, she was the perfect nemesis to poor little tomboy Laura. Arngrim started doing standup after Little House and dubbed her time playing Nellie as “like having PMS for seven years.”
She continued to act, appearing as a guest star on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. She was also a regular on the game show Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour. In 2002 she won a Young Artist Award and in 2006 was honored (if you want to call it an honor) with TV Land’s “Character Most Desperately in Need of a Timeout” award. Amen!