As a show, Little House on the Prairie dealt with deep family ties and emotional facts of life. In that regard, everything appeared straightforward in the series. But peeling back the wagon canvas reveals a lot more to it than meets the eye. Behind the scenes, castmates wrestled with troubles, production set up a difficult wardrobe, and episodes drew plotlines from unexpected places. Just how well do even the most ardent fans know the little secrets behind Little House on the Prairie?
Just where did all these ideas for episodes come from? Reality, and other works of fiction, it turns out. What about all that period clothing? Hell on earth for the actors, some more so than others, too. And for however many sparks flew between characters, that sentiment was not always there between their respective actors. Take a deep dive behind the scenes of Little House on the Prairie with some little-known facts.
Laura Ingalls Wilder penned the Little House series of books based on facts and events from her own life. The show took the series’ title, main character names, and overall premise. The atmosphere of its overall setting also came from Wilder’s upbringing and life across Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Missouri. Beyond that, though, the show made some big deviations.
Ultimately, that ended up being a good thing. In the books, Nellie, Willie, and Harriet Oleson did not have a particularly noteworthy presence in the books – certainly not to the extent many get each episode of the show across multiple seasons. Yes, even Nasty Nellie was actually a very minor character in the books. But adapting the show and making adjustments allowed Alison Arngrim to show off her acting grit. Additionally, the show made up some plotlines and characters altogether.
So, why so many big changes? Michael Landon, who not only starred in Little House on the Prairie, but also wrote several episodes, thought it a fact no one would watch it without these changes. “Have you read the books?” he asked. “There’s a chapter in there about how to make an apple fritter. I can’t film that.” Fair, but a Little House FoodNetwork special would be fun to see.
Right at the very start of the show, viewers can see the results of a happy accident come to life, thanks to Carrie’s famous roll down the hill in the intro. Sidney Greenbush and her twin Lindsay switched playing Carrie throughout each day. TV shows often utilized twins for young characters so they could get work done without violating the child’s right to a light workday. When one kid reached his or her working limit, their twin took over. Sidney was on when the cameras were rolling footage of Carrie, and in the shot she did actually trip and roll down the hill. Luckily, she wasn’t actually hurt, and with her safety ensured, producers felt excited using that for the intro sequence.
The image of Nellie Oleson sitting in a wheelchair atop a bumpy hill lives on in infamy from Little House. With her arm in a case, too, she’s in a very vulnerable situation already. So, when her wheelchair starts rolling bumpily down the hill – with some Ingalls-inspired help – she issues some very understandable screams of fear. All that came from a very convincing job from Alison Arngrim. But there’s actually a reason those screams of hers sounded that real.
It’s because Arngrim was actually screaming in those closeup shots. While they used a double for the actual fall, shots of her face looking terrified depicted Arngrim actually feeling like she was falling. That’s because when she got set up in the pulley system for safety, a crew member yelled “Oh no, the rope broke!’ just before she went down the hill. The cast she wore was also real; outside of her quaint life in Walnut Grove, Arngrim was actually an avid skater and received an arm injury while skating.
On the show, Pa presented himself as a serious, strong, reliable force of comfort and security for his family. In reality, his actor, Michael Landon, was a notorious prankster. It got to the point where people suspected him of pranks he hadn’t actually committed. But he did set up plenty. Melissa Gilbert was one of his favorite targets. During a scene, he would tell her to keep backing up during her blocking, then keep going, keep going, almost…and…there! This went on until she was essentially whole football field away.
Sometimes he’d recruit tarantulas, snakes, frogs, and all other manners of gross creatures. One of Landon’s most popular pranks included actually hiding a frog in his mouth, so when he went to speak to someone, it would hop out and terrify his companion. Rest assured, Landon wasn’t the only combatant in the Prairie Prank Wars. Both Arngrim and Gilbert retaliated with stunts of their own. Their favorite was to cover a toilet bowl with saran wrap, so the next person to use it would have a hellish mess to clean up.
Just as, if not more, famous than Nellie Oleson’s dangerous tumble down the hill is her full head of vibrant golden curls. But that wasn’t actually Arngrim’s real hair at all. She had to wear a wig – a very heavy wig, it’s worth adding. Wearing it for so long would actually damage her scalp, and contributed to the difficult working conditions the cast faced, which will be discussed later.
Landon, too, had altered locks, but his circumstances were a lot more easygoing, to an extent. Anytime you see Landon in Little House on the Prairie with brown locks, those are not, in fact, actually brown. Landon started going gray in his twenties, so his hair color came from a can after that. Self-aware, he also took to wearing heeled boots so that no one stood over Pa, who was actually 5 ft 9 inches. That’s also why you’ll usually see Pa on higher-elevated stairs anytime they’re around. Sadly, his graying hair might have been from stress, since his home life was strenuous and literally sickening sometimes.
Who doesn’t love admiring the sweeping planes of…Simi Valley, California? The fact is, visually, Little House on the Prairie took place not in Minnesota, as its nominal setting, but in sweltering California heat. As a result, the cast and crew worked in over a hundred degrees some days. Naturally, that caused a lot of health risks. The women with their layers and layers of period costumes felt it particularly bad. But an assistant director and Alison Arngrim in her heavy Nellie wig actually both fainted.
Likewise, working under Michael Landon could be a double-edged sword. He cared deeply for his colleagues but also expected them to take their job very seriously. So, sometimes, the children had very adult expectations foisted onto them. At the end of the day, though, he had one primary rule: “No arrests, no convictions.”
Between today’s media of crime dramas, space adventures, social critiques, and tales of revolution, television covers just about everything now. But that wasn’t always the case. Look back to a time before all these common sights in media to when Little House was first airing. It was actually very ahead of its time.
The season three episode “The Wisdom of Solomon” catapulted racism and its effects into the show’s forefront. It explores the big, deliberate ways racism impacts marginalized individuals and the quieter ways that can rock a person to their very core. Ultimately, Solomon gives the Ingalls – and the audience as a whole – a lot to think about in this important episode.
And then there was season seven’s infamous two-parter “Sylvia,” which feels like something out of a horror movie, and in a way tapped into the trends of that genre at the time. Two episodes alone explore stalking, assault, abuse, and the stigma surrounding victims and survivors of assault, all while reaffirming that sometimes mankind is the real monster of horror stories. It left contemporary viewers shocked, and viewers today feel unsure who in their family to show this to, but that made such daring choices all the more important.
Rather than taking place entirely in Minnesota, a lot of Little House ended up shot in or near a studio in California. During filming, the crew moved from a Paramount studio to an MGM one. When they arrived, the area needed some renovations and adjustments. When tearing into it, they uprooted the floor, only to find the Yellow Brick Road from The Wizard of Oz.
Naturally, when Gilbert and Arngrim saw this, they broke right into song and dance, skipping their way through the original set, off to see the wonderful Wizard of Oz, because of the wonderful things he does.
A different part of the set famously had a less fortunate fate. The end of the show meant the end of the Little House itself and the entire town of Walnut Grove – literally. Michael Landon himself had the whole set blown up for the finale. Why? Accounts differ: Some say it was the easiest way to clean up after themselves. Others think it was because Landon was mad at the network for ending the show, though that doesn’t fully check out because Landon supposedly agreed the show had to end now that its young cast had aged so much. So, other sources say he just didn’t want others to get to use that famous space again.
Little House never jumped the shark, a painful fact viewers of Happy Days must live with – but even that sprawling show ran out of ideas. So, on more than one occasion it borrowed from a close TV relative: Bonanza. They already took one of its actors in the form of Michael Landon. Then, the opening tune ended up mimicking the older show. But the similarities extended even further beyond that to episode titles and entire plotlines.
Bonanza’s “A Matter of Circumstance” became Little House’s “A Matter of Faith.” In Bonanza, Joe suffers a compound fracture in his arm. He’s wounded enough his life is on the line. Jump to Little House, and Caroline’s cut leg winds up infected and deadly.
“The Sound of Sadness” became “The Silent Cry.” Both have a set of brothers who are each other’s only family until they make unlikely allies with the main cast.
Now jump to “He Was Only Seven,” which became “He Was Only Twelve.” For Bonanza, two kids stumble on a bank robbery that costs one his life when he’s just seven. In Little House…you guessed it, a twelve-year-old gets fatally wounded in a bank robbery. As if the heartbreak wasn’t enough, both episodes also have an intense revenge plot that really makes things darker.
Everyone wanted to root for the lead couples, but that just wasn’t always the case, including for the couples themselves. When Melissa Gilbert, 15, TV married Dean Butler, 23, Gilbert felt very uncomfortable as soon as her chin brushed his stubble. Since that first kiss, she felt completely turned off. For his part, Butler tried distracting her singing “Strangers in the Night,” but it actually made things worse. Gilbert went to Landon and begged for him to write their scenes involving only the most vanilla displays of PDA.
In contrast, Alison Arngrim and her TV husband Steve Tracy loved grossing Gilbert out with public displays of affection of their own. They would go over the top with exaggerated bouts of kissing and tender affection. In fact, their chemistry was so strong, producers sent out a memo urging couples to be like Nellie and Percival. The fact that Tracy was gay never negatively impacted their chemistry as a TV couple; they were simply two close friends having fun playing their parts.
Melissa Gilbert had quite a hard time because of how quickly she aged while her character didn’t as fast. In addition to the period-typical clothing, they also had her wear a tight chest binder, all under the sweltering California sun. Then, as soon as she could have an adult body, the media wanted her to have the perfect adult body with curves here, none there, and so on. To try and meet these impossible standards, Gilbert even got breast implants, a similar move to what Mary Elizabeth McDonough of The Waltons fame would do.
The whole thing ended up as one troubling example of the toxic emphasis on body image in Hollywood. Ultimately, in 2015, she got the implants removed as well as quitting botox. She says quote “I found the courage to just be me.” Who knew Little House on the Prairie would ask for such big bravery from its cast, just one of the many little fun facts and trivia the show hid behind-the-scenes. What surprised you most? Share in the comments below.
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