“For me, Little House on the Prairie means “home” in the truest sense of the word.”
Melissa Gilbert in My Prairie Cookbook
Melissa Gilbert’s Early Years
Melissa Ellen Gilbert was born May 8, 1964, in Los Angeles, California, and adopted by dancer and actress, Barbara Crane, and her husband, comedian Paul Gilbert. Her parents later adopted again, a son named Jonathan, who would go on to play Willie Oleson, Nellie Oleson’s brother on “Little House on the Prairie.” (1)
Melissa Gilbert’s Early Acting Career
Although most of us recognize Melissa’s name from her role as Laura Ingalls Wilder on “Little House on the Prairie,” she always says she was born to perform. She recalls one of her earliest memories from about two and a half years of age, where she recited her father’s stand-up routine along with him while he was on stage performing. (2) Her first job was with Carter baby clothing at only two years of age. Some of her first television jobs were in commercials such as this fun commercial for Alpo dog food. Ironically, this commercial was shot with Lorne Greene, who played Michael Landon’s father in the long-running television hit Bonanza.
Melissa Gilbert, Alpo Commercial, 1979
She graduated to episodic television work with an appearance in “Gunsmoke” in 1972, where she played the daughter of a pioneer family. Her next television appearance was in the hit medical drama, “Emergency.” And then came an opportunity that would change her life forever.
Melissa Gilbert in “Emergency”
Little House on the Prairie
Melissa Gilbert was one of many girls who auditioned for the role of Laura Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie.” But as you can see in Melissa Gilbert’s screen test below, and according to Ed Friendly and Michael Landon, there was not a more perfect candidate the part. They knew instantly that she was “the one.” The exclusive screen test is a testament to the incredible talent of the then 9-year old Melissa and the instant bond she shared with Landon.
Melissa Gilbert’s Screen Test for “Little House on the Prairie”
“I read for him in a room at Paramount Studios. I remember thinking, “Oh gosh, he’s really handsome.” He gave off a different kind of energy than ordinary people. It was a higher wattage. I’d been around stars and thought nothing of it, but Michael was different, and that difference was tangible without him having to say or do anything. It was a power, a mix of charisma and confidence that affected other people.” – Melissa Gilbert (3)
The pilot show was shot in 1973 and saw overwhelming success. For 9 full seasons and several special episodes, across 11 years, Melissa Gilbert warmed the hearts of millions of fans as Laura Ingalls. She appeared in 190 of the 204 episodes. It is quite amazing to think about how young Melissa was when she landed her part on the show and that she was nearly 20 years-old when the show ended in 1984.
“Little House on the Prairie,” Season 1, Episode 2, Country Girls
Many of the actors and actresses made an impact on Melissa and even helped her develop her own acting style. She remembers admiring Karen Grassle and watching her warm-up routine with fascination. Victor French was a favorite and often took the time to entertain the kids between shoots. Scottie MacGregor, the actress who played Mrs. Oleson, had a strong point of view as an actress.
Many people may not know that Melissa Gilbert made an instant connection and friendship with Alison Arngrim on the set of the show. However, Alison played the character of Nellie Oleson, and their characters’ relationship on the show was far more tumultuous.
Ten Times Nellie Oleson Gets What She Deserves
“Little House on the Prairie” will never truly end because it lives on in each of us who experienced it, whether you worked on the show or watched it on television. It’s impossible for me to tell where Half-Pint ends and Melissa begins. That is the real blessing for me. I had the chance to live out every little girl’s fantasy, mine included. And I got to do that surrounded by the loving arms of my Prairie family.” Melissa Gilbert (4)
Beyond Little House
Nearing the end of “Little House on the Prairie,” Melissa also appeared in several popular television films, including “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Miracle Worker.” After “Little House on the Prairie” ended in 1984, Melissa continued her career in television. In 1983, Melissa landed the leading role as Jean Donovan in “Choices of the Heart” and in 1986 starred with George C. Scott and Jacqueline Bisset in the television movie “Choices.”
Melissa Gilbert in “The Miracle Worker”
In 1985, Melissa received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her countless contributions to the television industry, one of the youngest actresses to ever be awarded a star. Melissa went on to guest star in “Babylon 5,” and also provided the voice of Batgirl in the 1990s “Batman: The Animated Series.”
Melissa was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in 2001 and continued as president through 2005. In 2008, Melissa went from the screen to the stage, starring as Caroline “Ma” Ingalls in the production of Little House on the Prairie, the Musical. Who better to play Ma than the girl who spent 11 years playing her daughter! A few years later, she joined “Dancing with the Stars” in 2012.
In 2009, Melissa published her engaging autobiography, Prairie Tale: A Memoir, Melissa traces her complicated journey from the sweet freckle-faced Laura “Halfpint” Ingalls to Hollywood starlet, wife, and mother. She reveals how she partied with the Brat Pack, bad boys like Billy Idol, dated heartthrobs like Rob Lowe, and began a self-destructive pattern of addiction and co-dependence. Eventually, Melissa came to the realization that her career on television had earned her admiration, respect, and love from millions of people, but that she didn’t feel the same about herself.
“To me, at forty-four years old, my book was a search for truth and identity.” Melissa Gilbert (5)
In 2014, Melissa published My Prairie Cookbook, which offers Little House on the Prairie fans comforting, family recipes, along with childhood favorites. Melissa peppers her personal recollections and memorabilia, including behind-the-scenes stories, anecdotes, and more than 75 treasured scrapbook images, throughout her cookbook.
In 1988, Melissa married Bo Brinkman and gave birth to their son, Dakota, in 1989. They were divorced in 1992. In 1995 she married Bruce Boxleitner, becoming step-mother to his two children, Sam (born 1980) and Lee (born 1985). Together they had a son of their own, Michael Garrett Boxleitner who was named for Michael Landon and a friend’s son. Bruce and Melissa remained married until 2011. (6)
During her marriage with Bruce, Melissa faced some hard realizations in her life about a growing dependency on alcohol. She began working with her therapist and a private women’s only AA group to work through the steps and tackle life fully sober. In her memoir she says she learned to, as Laura Ingalls Wilder herself wrote, embrace “the sweet simple things…“.
After leaving her position as president of SAG, she was elected president of the board for the Children’s Hospice & Palliative Care Coalition, to address the disconnect in pain management and health care regulations for seriously ill children. With her help, the Nick Snow Act was passed in California in 2009. You can learn more about the Coalition for Compassionate Care California on their official website.
In 2013 Melissa Gilbert married actor/director Timothy Busfield. She briefly ran for U.S. Representative from Michigan before withdrawing from the race due to health issues. Who knows what the future holds for this talented and driven woman.
In July of 2020, Melissa did an interview with Mo Rocca for CBS News. “This is our ‘Little House in the Catskills,’ I guess you could call it,” she said, showing off her garden. “What’s really exciting for me is that nothing has died!” Rocca asked, “Why are people watching the show now?” “Oh, my gosh, with everything that’s going on in the world right now, I think, from what I’m hearing from people, is that ‘Little House on the Prairie’ is a reminder of when things were simpler for us in our lives, those 45 years ago.” (7)
The “Little House in the Catskills” became the subject of her next book, Back to the Prairie, A Home Remade, A Life Rediscovered, released on May 10, 2022. The book recounts her life during the pandemic “on a DIY budget” (8), where Melissa and her husband begin to fall back in love with nature.
Melissa represents an important role model for many women for her hard work and perseverance, for her personal journey, and for her accomplishments and contributions to the entertainment industry.
What does Melissa Gilbert mean to you? What do you most remember about her portrayal of Laura Ingalls Wilder?
Recommendations from the Website Editors
A number of the cast members from “Little House on the Prairie” have written about their experiences.
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.
- Wikipedia, Melissa Gilbert
- My Prairie Cookbook
- Melissa Gilbert, Prairie Tale: A Memoir, pp. 35-36
- Melissa Gilbert, Prairie Tale: A Memoir, pp. 4
- Today.com, Melissa Gilbert
- Wikipedia, Melissa Gilbert
- Life lessons learned from “Little House on the Prairie”
- Publisher’s Weekly