I recently had the privilege to interview Alison Arngrim.
Arngrim is best known for her performance as Nellie Oleson on “Little House on the Prairie” and actively speaks about AIDS awareness and child abuse.
Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your character of Nellie Oleson on “Little House on the Prairie”?
Alison Arngrim: Well, let’s see – my name is Alison Arngrim, I’m an actress, writer and stand-up comedian. I started as a child actor when I was around five.
At the age of 12, I got the role of Nellie Oleson on “Little House on the Prairie” and played her for seven years. The NBC television series “Little House on the Prairie”, which ran from 1974 through 1983 was based on the extremely famous hit books of American author Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote extensively about her childhood in the late 1800s.
She was born in Pepin, Wisconsin, but lived in Kansas, South Dakota, Minnesota, etc., etc. The TV show was based primarily on her book “On The Banks of Plum Creek” which takes place in Walnut Grove Minnesota. (Although the Ingalls family actually didn’t live there that long compared to the other places they homesteaded, the plot and characters lent itself better to making a TV series.)
The character of Laura’s arch nemesis, Nellie Oleson was really based on three different people: Nellie Owens of Walnut Grove and two other girls Laura knew, named Genevieve Masters and Stella Gilbert. (No relation to Melissa! LOL!)
Legend says that Laura was still so afraid of Nellie as an adult she changed her name and circumstances!
It also allowed her to continue the character of Nellie into adolescence even though in real life she parted ways with her when they family moved to South Dakota, so they never had rivalry over Almanzo or any of that.
Kurt Manwaring: You initially auditioned for the role of Laura Ingalls — and later, Mary Ingalls. Now that all is said and done, do you think the right people were cast in the right roles? How so?
Alison Arngrim: Definitely!!!
I am SO glad I didn’t have the burden of having to play a “nice” person for all those years. I think 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” and forever identified with our individual performances.
In millions of people’s head, “Laura Ingalls Wilder” will always conjure up the face of Melissa Gilbert.
Kurt Manwaring: Describe an average day of “Little House.” What time did you arrive, how often were you on-set versus on location, how did you fit in your schooling, when did you memorize lines, etc.?
Alison Arngrim: Well, first off I can say, we started VERY early in the morning! Michael Landon had been working with most of the crew members since when he was on “Bonanza”. When he got his own show, they followed him. In fact, they made it clear they would follow him ANYWHERE! (He went on to keep the same crew for “Highway to Heaven” and all of his TV movies.)
So the place was very much a well oiled machine. In the case of some crew members, quite “oiled” as they were very fond of beer! It sound bizarre to say that the set of Little House, such a family, wholesome show, and one that where nearly every episode came in ahead of schedule and under budget, was running on beer and liquor all day, but it was.
Think of that whole “Mad Men” era, when everyone acted like it was totally normal to drink a three martini lunch and keep a bar in your office. These guys were straight out of that whole time period and thought nothing of it. Oh and they all smoked as well. Lovely!
A typical episode took about five to seven days to shoot, working Monday through Friday. Some on location, (Big Sly Ranch in Simi Valley California) and some in the sound stage at the studio, (Paramount Studios for the first few years, then MGM, now known as Sony). We’d usually start with the location scenes, since if anything is going to go wrong, it will most likely be the outdoor stuff.
I must admit, I was not a fan of Simi Valley. I much preferred the sound stage. With all the kids on the show, we filmed a lot during the summer – (during the school year, we all had to have our California law mandated “3 hours school” on set) – and in Simi Valley in the summer, temperatures often reach 110 degrees or more.
Now out on an 1800s dress, a petticoat, etc., A WIG, (yes!) and go stand out in the middle of that all day! NOT fun. I passed out from heat stroke more than once.
I didn’t mind when we went on “real” location – up to a gorgeous area near Sonora, California where they did all the episodes involving a river, mountains or a steam train. Even though that meant working Saturdays as well, I loved going up there. (Of course it usually meant someone was going to fling me into a river, but, hey, those are the breaks.)
Child actors often work under less than ideal circumstances. It can be pretty bad. Luckily for us, Little House was shot in California and Michael and our gang were sticklers for rules.
Many people don’t know that child performers are EXEMPT from all Federal child labor laws. (Yes, really.) They are only protected by state laws and those of the union, (Screen Actors Guild). Many states don’t have the laws we do in California. (And many producers don’t bother following them).
But on the set of Little House it was by the book: 4 hours work, 3 hours school, 1 hour rest and recreation. Plus one hour for lunch, equals a nine hour day. We also had the HUGE advantage that Michael and his crew had decided that ALL days would end at a reasonable hour so that everyone could go home and have dinner with their families.
School on set is, truthfully, glorified study hall. You bring your books and assignments from whichever school you’re enrolled in and spend three hours, (sometimes only 30 minutes at a time) studying and catching up on homework. (Or goofing off completely, depending on who your set teacher was and whether she’d bust you for it or not. Little House set? You’re busted, get back to work!)
As for lines, with TV, as opposed to theatre, it’s not so bad since you only shoot one scene at a time, or even just part of a scene. A scene might only be one or two pages long and have only four lines.
And in our case, the truth is, Melissa Gilbert and I both had freakish, almost photographic memories. We knew our lines and everyone else’s! (We were actually kind of annoying).
Kurt Manwaring: Who was your favorite director to work with? Why?
Alison Arngrim: Tough call! We pretty much had the two Michael Landon and William Claxton. Except on special occasions when it was Victor French.
Michael really let us do our own thing most of the time. As long as it fit in with the character and his vision for the episode, you had quite a bit of leeway. I’ve said many times that he was a big believer in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. He’d say, “Let’s try one” and see what the actors did with the scene. If he liked it, he’d shrug and that’s what we’d all do for the take.
Sometimes, I felt like I wasn’t being directed ENOUGH. It took awhile before I found out that if he really wanted me to do something differently he’d say so.
But I loved Victor French, (“Mr. Edwards”).l He was a bit more hands on and directed one of my favorites – “The Talking Machine.”
Kurt Manwaring: How hard was it to overcome the initial bitterness associated with being typecast and move on to embrace your iconic status? Was there a proverbial straw on the camel’s back that ultimately moved you in the direction of making peace with your situation?
Alison Arngrim: I honestly can’t say I was ever really “bitter” about Nellie, even with the typecasting. I always loved the character and thought it was the most hilarious thing ever that I had been cast as a villain.
I was and am still very proud of the work I did as Nellie. So even though, from a professional, financial outlook, being typecast as anything can really suck, I couldn’t help buy take it as a compliment that people so bought into what I was doing that they BELIEVED IT WAS REAL.
I think it drove my agents much crazier than it did me. I remember having a casting director who was refusing to see me LITERALLY tell him, “But this show takes place in modern times”. He was aghast – “Do you think SHE COMES WITH THE COSTUME??!”
I really thought when the show ended in the 80s that people would eventually sort of, you know, “move on”. But of course, they didn’t. Between all the years of reruns, cable, VHS, DVDs and now You Tube, Netflix and streaming, there are MORE people watching it NOW than when it was on!! (I think we’re on our fifth generation of viewers.)
But I found that Nellie had given me my own VERY enthusiastic fan base. When I got involved in activism around HIV/AIDS issues, (the Southern California AIDS Hotline, etc.), I was informed that Little House and the character of Nellie had a very big fan base in the LGBTQ community. It became very clear that my identification with Nellie was becoming a more and more POSITIVE thing and people liked her as much as I did!
I also spent a lot of time watching what happened when actors would go out of their way to AVOID talking about their old show or character in an interview. I realized that it actually takes MORE time and energy to NOT talk about the thing you’re famous for than to simply acknowledge it!
So as the song from Hedwig goes,…”I’m pulling the wig down from the shelf…”
Kurt Manwaring: Do you think Nellie ever privately longed for a home and family similar to Laura’s? Did you ever envy Laura’s life for your character — or for yourself?
Alison Arngrim: Absolutely. I have put forth for years that most of Nellie’s rage at Laura was because she was jealous. Jealous that Laura, although poor, had a loving happy family that Nellie could only aspire to, jealous that even though Nellie could offer candy, expensive toys to play with, etc., the other children preferred to play with Laura because they actually LIKED her. ( HOW DARE SHE BE HAPPY!!!! DOESN’T SHE KNOW SHE’S POOR??!!! LOL!)
I am and have always been a hard core city girl, so the romance of the whole “Laura lifestyle” is totally lost on me. But yes, with my childhood, abuse experience, etc., I think having Ma and Pa Ingalls around would have probably been an improvement.
Interestingly, a lot of what went into the show was Michael Landon’s longing for a happier childhood than the one he lived though. His parents fought, his mother was downright horrible to him, in adulthood he kept getting divorced – he was fantasizing about having a perfect family life just like our viewers.
Kurt Manwaring: What do you think about the #MeToo movement as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse? Why do you think it has gained so much support in the acting industry so suddenly?
Alison Arngrim: Well, I’d say it’s a good start. I’ll be fascinated to see if it lasts. That sound terrible, right? But the depth, breadth, severity, etc., of sexual abuse and harassment in the industry is so HUGE, that it’s going to take a long time and a lot of work to really undo the damage that’s been done to people – and their careers – for decades.
I am absolutely AMAZED that Harvey Weinstein’s company, board of directors, his own brother, etc., just up and said, “yup, he did it” and folded up like a tent. They’ve been covering up for him for YEARS upon YEARS, tons of women, tons of yes, even famous and seemingly powerful women, treated like garbage – many of them making official complaints, trying to take legal action, several of them even having gone to the police with no results – and they had no problem covering this up and even spending stockholders money to protect his revolting behind.
And then one day, they just suddenly don’t feel like it anymore?
I mean, Hooray, and good riddance to him, for sure, but how the heck did that happen? Why were they pulling out every possible legal and financial means in their arsenal to protect him on say…Tuesday, and then on, oh, Thursday afternoon, they completely give him up?
Clearly something happened over there, with Weinstein, his brother and the board of directors, that we the viewers at home, are not party to. (I can’t wait for the movie to come out!)
But yes, women (and more than a few menfolk!) are mighty tired of this nonsense and many who have suffered quietly, in many different occupations, now feel like MAYBE it’s going to be a little easier to speak up. And companies, studios, etc., who always just looked at the financial “bottom line” are now thinking about that bottom line including lawsuits and boycotts from disgusted women. So, that’s an improvement.
But I’d say, that was just “the overture”. The show has just started. Pull up a chair!
Kurt Manwaring: A fan won the chance to ask you a question. Destiny Thomas asks, “Could you share some of your memories about working with Michael Landon?”
Alison Arngrim: He was HILARIOUS! 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 such 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.
Anyone who worked on “Little House” will tell you, they’ve never worked so hard, or had so much fun – and never all in the same place!
Kurt Manwaring: Were there noticeable changes in behavior amongst the cast when Michael Landon’s relationship affair was publicized? Did you privately feel any confusion or resentment?
Alison Arngrim: There were definitely “sides” taken at the time. You have to remember he and his second wife Lynn were married for a long time. Many people were friends with her. The family came along with Michael on location many times. The kids worked on the show as extras, (Leslie eventually played “Miss Etta Plum” the teacher). Melissa Gilbert’s family and Michael’s family used to go on vacations together to Hawaii.
Also, Melissa Gilbert was very young when her dad died and had very much taken on Michael as her emotional “dad”. So, yeah, as you can imagine, the divorce was really hard for a lot of people.
I didn’t have that type of relationship with him though. I hadn’t really hung out with Lynn that much and certainly hadn’t gone to Hawaii with them. Cindy, (who later became Mrs. Landon) was close to my age, I saw her every day. We traded records and magazines and talked about going to the same rock concerts. And to top it off, she was MY stand-in on the show!
So it was a bit different for me. His marriage to Cindy was quite successful , with a couple more kids and everything. Cindy has now become a major animal protection activist and has received awards like “Philanthropist of the Year”, etc. (We’re friend on Facebook.)
Kurt Manwaring: Michael Landon was famous for his practical jokes. Was there a time he played an especially good one on you? Did you ever try to get him back?
Alison Arngrim: OK – the day of the pickles and ice cream. Everyone loves this story. So it was when my character was pregnant with the twins. Nellie developed a craving for pickles and ice cream and was caught by Percival eating an ice cream cone along with a gigantic kosher dill.
When we went to shoot this, Michael showed me the “spit bucket”. I laughed and said I had no intention of spitting anything out! 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?!”
I reprimanded him, “One: when have you EVER seen me need more than two takes to do ANYTHING and two: you’ve SEEN me eat lunch!” and snorted with laughter.
So we shoot it – and yup, did it in like two takes, leaving me a lot of pickle and ice cream, which I promptly scarfed down, licked my fingers and then turned to him and said “Ha!”
This was taken as a challenge.
The next morning, he essentially THREW a stack of pages at me and said, “Oh here’s your new scene!”
In the new scene, I was caught eating pickles…and maple syrup.
I am pleased to say, however, that a large Kosher dill dipped in maple syrup is actually delicious!
Kurt Manwaring: If there were a “Little House” revival set 35 years after the last episode and you were tasked with writing a Nellie-centric pilot, how would the episode play out?
Alison Arngrim: Oh man, the number of times me and Melissa Gilbert used to sit around trying to come up with “what if” spin offs of everybody!
My favorite fantasy is Laura comes back to Walnut Grove, (even though, no, nobody would still be there in real life, and yeah, too many of the actors who played the “townsfolk” have already passed away, but what the heck) and she searches for Nellie to find, that Percival has died and Nellie has…become a recluse.
A huge dark gothic house, very “Great Expectations”…the door is answered by a pretty blond blue eyed young woman, startling Laura with her resemblance to a young Nellie.
But you see, it’s her daughter Jenny. (From the towns!) Her brother Benny is n New York. He got sick of his mother’s neurosis after his father’s death and moved away. Poor Jenny stayed to take care of her.
Nellie is in the grand dining room in her old clothes…OK, yeah, it’s totally “Great Expectations”!
Will Nellie remember Laura? Can Laura talk sense into her and get her to leave the house? What happened to poor Percival that made her go mad?
Let me know if you want to produce it and I’ll tell you the rest! LOL!!