“Cassandra Cooper: I want homework.
Caroline Ingalls: What?
Cassandra Cooper: I want homework!
Caroline Ingalls: Well, if you want homework, you’re gonna have to go to school.”
The sign-in sheet read “Little House on the Prairie,” but to me, this audition would be just like any other. At the age of eight, I had already spent the majority of my life smiling in front of the camera. From sudsing my hair to sell Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo, to hawking (cold, painted) hamburgers for McDonald’s, to more serious turns in dramas, I had worked pretty steadily since before my first birthday. I’d been on a million and one auditions and boasted a damn good batting average to boot. I strutted into this one like I owned the joint. Now, when I look back, I know that day forever changed the course of the rest of my life.
Plenty of kids at my school watched “Little House on the Prairie.” However, in our house, the show was on past my bedtime. I had never seen that wagon roll into the tall grass of the prairie during the opening credits or watched the girl who played Carrie wipe out while running down the hill. My sister and I were over-scheduled children before that was a thing, and my mother was absolutely done with us by 8 pm. Tiffany and I were always bathed and tucked in by then. I had no idea prime time television existed.
I should have known this one was different. The lines incorporated odd phrases like “Ma” “Pa” & “reckon.” Who talks like that? But when I casually mentioned I might tweak the language a bit, my stage mother fired back with her terrifying trademark force: “No! Do it exactly as they say.” Adding, “You really need to do well on this one.” She was wound tighter than a top.
When I entered the room, Michael Landon was there. I didn’t know who he was, but you could tell by the energy in the room that he was an important person. He electrified the audition the moment he laughed at my wide eyes, framed by long ropes of brown braids. “So, you’re Missy?” he boomed with a wide grin. Remember, I still had no idea exactly who he was, but suddenly that room felt like Christmas and that man was clearly Santa.
We did two scenes together. The first was run of the mill, a back and forth at the dinner table. The second called for me to work my signature magic: cry on cue. This was my forte. I was perhaps the only girl on the audition circuit under ten years old that could jump into character and turn on the waterworks from a standing start. I crushed it. Totally owned the scene. I knew because a nice lady in the room offered me tissues and Michael smiled ear-to-ear at my misery. Still, I walked calmly from the room and out the door to the street, letting my mother trail me from the building, desperate for any details. I could tell by this point; this was big.
The sets of “Little House on the Prairie” were filled with raucous fun, and childish pranks book-ended by solid blocks of high-quality grown-up work (I’ll break out all those details and stories in the new book, Lessons from the Prairie). One big bonus for me: Jason Bateman, cast as my big brother. Here’s this older boy, with shiny red hair cut in a straight line across his forehead and dreamy freckles. We did every scene together. Jason was almost always forced to hold my hand! And occasionally hug me! Jackpot!!
Michael was one of the first true entrepreneurs in Hollywood. He made a mint in the cottage industry he created around him – writing, producing, starring in, and directing his productions. He was the first to arrive and the last to leave after sundown, and he watched every penny that came in and went out. He had a no-nonsense approach that put a high value on efficiency and quality — and came down swift and hard on anyone who squandered time or resources. But he was also very playful when the time was right and injected plenty of joy into every day. More than once, he turned to the kids to speak, and as he opened his mouth, a frog popped out! Our squeals of terror and disgust delighted his childish side and brightened the day.
A decade after the show ended its historic run; I decided to leave Hollywood behind and board a plane to Boston to study economics at Harvard University. I never really looked back. I was done chasing that particular dream, and I wanted to try on a life without acting. I was more than happy to ditch the uncertainty and inconsistent joy that life brings without my controlling stage mother pushing all those buttons behind the scenes. (You can read more about that in my first book: Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter)
After graduation, I decided to try my hat at television reporting. Noticing a theme here? I can admit I have a strong desire to be in front of the camera, but to me, this career would be much different. I would be able to control what I said – not just saying what others wrote for me. But the road to my dream was certainly less-than-glamorous. I started on the ground floor, running the teleprompter in Portland, Maine for minimum wage. I could not have been more excited! A year later I landed my big break in New Hampshire, in front of the camera again – only to choke and get fired.
I dusted myself off and trudged on to higher ground. Today I host shows on the Fox Business Network and the Fox News Channel, but that path hasn’t always been littered with unicorns and rainbows. I’ve had plenty of heartaches and upset, all of which have helped me develop My Foolproof Formula for Turning Disaster into Golden Opportunity. Sharing that golden, go-to strategy is one the main reasons I wrote this book!
I’m also now a mother to my three precious jewels: Thompson, Greyson & Gemma, and I want to arm them with the tools needed to tackle life’s toughest challenges and help them build a happy life. I see other women (and men!) in the trenches as they parent or work, trying to lean in, and I have this uncontrollable urge to place a calm hand on their shoulder and tell them to stop worrying. Don’t lean in, maybe sit down and take a load off instead. Those superheroes you’re watching? More often than not, they are faking it.
As I take inventory of the most important things I want my children to know, I realize that I picked up so many bits of wisdom in those few precious years on the Prairie. What I learned in front of the camera and behind the scenes on “Little House” laid the very foundation and provided the essential tools to build a happy, meaningful life today. Who could ever be more resilient than the pioneering Ingalls? Instead of just lying down on the dusty road and letting the next wagon that rolled by put them out of their misery when their crop failed for the fiftieth time, they found deep inside the strength to pull up their petticoats and soldier on to better times.
The “Little House” experience taught me, among other things, how to turn disaster into golden opportunity; that the good guys really do win in the end, even though they may not always lead at the turn; to identify and chase my passion without letting myself be distracted by fear; and to believe in miracles.
What I took as a playful and distant time on our dusty set, deep in the scorching sun of Simi Valley, was in truth a priceless training ground. There was a lot of wisdom in our makeshift location and in those books, and if you join me on this ride, I promise to sprinkle a little on your head.
Remember to join us for an exclusive Facebook Live video chat with Melissa Francis herself on Thursday, April 27, from 12:30 pm ET to 1:00 pm ET. She will be answering your questions about her time on “Little House on the Prairie” and beyond during the chat!
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