Caroline Ingalls: “My home is where you are. And you and the children are my family.”
Charles Ingalls: “Caroline Ingalls, I love you.”
We may have fallen in love with her for her starring role as Caroline Ingalls, but Karen Grassle had a thriving career beyond that. Explore more about the amazing woman who captured our hearts as Ma and how she got her start. And find out what happened to her after “Little House on the Prairie.”
Karen Grassle’s Early Years
Karen Grassle was born in Berkeley, California on February 25, 1942. It was during her college days at the University of California, Berkeley where she became involved in theatre productions and was hooked. She applied for a Fulbright Grant to study theatre arts at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and started her time there in 1965. Karen says, “That was one of the most exciting learning experiences of my life: the school was superb, and we could go to the theater in London and see the finest actors and productions in the English language.”
After returning to the States, she debuted on Broadway in a show called The Gingham Dog and her performance earned her a nomination for Best Newcomer. Though theatre continued to be her first love, she began to find work on television with some commercial appearances in the early 1970s.
Little House on the Prairie Years
When Karen had the opportunity to read for the part of Caroline Ingalls, known as Ma on “Little House on the Prairie,” she recalls that Michael Landon was very involved in the process. She described him getting right on the floor with her to read the audition scenes. In an interview in “The Little House on the Prairie” DVD Collection set, she says that Michael leapt to his feet and declared, “Send her to wardrobe!”
Becoming part of the television show was a learning process, and she recalls the time fondly. Melissa Gilbert recounts in Prairie Tale: A Memoir how she would watch Karen do warm-up exercises and study her acting process. Karen’s professional attitude towards the role made an impact on those around her.
Karen was in over 180 episodes of “Little House on the Prairie” as it ran from 1974-1983. In many episodes, her character supports Laura’s adventures, and Ma is the glue that holds the family together. However, sometimes her character has shining moments. In one interview, she talks about her favorite episode: “‘A Matter of Faith’ was written for me so that I could show off a greater range. I think Mike was hoping that I could be nominated for and win an Emmy…. It has been gratifying that so many people remember it and love it so much.”
After the Prairie
After “Little House on the Prairie” ended, Karen Grassle returned to the theatre work that she loved and guest-starred in TV shows and movies. One of her proudest accomplishments was co-writing the screenplay of and acting in the 1978 TV movie “Battered” as it allowed her to explore a difficult subject matter and express her creativity.
Karen also appeared in several feature films, including “Wyatt Earp” in 1994 and “My Greatest Teacher” in 2012. In this clip, her character has a scene with Wyatt Earp played by Kevin Costner.
Today, Karen lives in the San Francisco Bay area and remains involved in local theatre. Her son Zach lives nearby, and she stays in touch with other “Little House on the Prairie” cast members to this day, especially her friend and neighbor Charlotte Stewart.
In the fall of 2021, Karen authored a candid memoir, Bright Lights, Prairie Dust: Reflections on Life, Loss, and Love from Little House’s Ma. The book is raw, emotional, and tender, celebrating and honoring womanhood in all its complexity. During the writing of the book, Karen was asked, “What was the greatest challenge—and greatest reward—of working on Little House on the Prairie?”
She replied, “The greatest challenge was that my acting partner, Michael, was also my director, and my boss as producer. The actor-to-actor relationship could never be equal. The greatest reward is coming to me now. The number of people who feel that the portrayal of Ma changed them and their lives for the better continues to astonish me every day, all these years later.”
Recommendations from the Website Editors
A number of the cast members from “Little House on the Prairie” have written about their experiences. Below are links to our website articles about them, as well as to their books, which make entertaining reading and inspired gifts for fans of the television series.
- Article: About Melissa Sue Anderson
- Memoir: The Way I See It: A Look Back at My Life on Little House
- Article: About Alison Arngrim
- Memoir: Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated
- Article: Melissa Francis: Lessons from the Prairie
- Memoir: Lessons from the Prairie: The Surprising Secrets to Happiness, Success, and (Sometimes Just) Survival I Learned on America’s Favorite Show
- Memoir: Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir
- Article: About Melissa Gilbert
- Memoir: Prairie Tale: A Memoir
- Cookbook: My Prairie Cookbook: Memories and Frontier Food from My Little House to Yours
- Article: About Karen Grassle
- Memoir: Bright Lights, Prairie Dust: Reflections on Life, Loss, and Love from Little House’s Ma
Wendi Lou Lee
- Article: About Ketty Lester
- Memoir: Ketty Lester: From the Cotton Fields To Grammy Nominated “Love Letters” to Little House on the Prairie
- Article: Miss Beadle and Me
- Memoir: Little House in the Hollywood Hills: A Bad Girl’s Guide to Becoming Miss Beadle, Mary X, and Me
For information about Laura Ingalls Wilder whose novels inspired the TV series, please visit our Recommended Reading lists for children and young adults and adults. You may also be interested in a documentary film about Laura Ingalls Wilder.
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References and Resources