12 fantastic frontier facts about 'Little House on the Prairie'

The wholesome classic has some explosive secrets.

Top image: The Everett Collection

For many, the title Little House on the Prairie conjures misty memories of bucolic wholesomeness. You think of little Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson galloping down a grassy hill to meet Pa, played by Michael Landon, the man who would go on to be on a Highway to Heaven.

While the show was certainly oozing love and lessons, the TV adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder's semi-autobiographical books also delivered modern drama and delved into dark subjects like drug addiction, alcoholism, abuse, cancer and cruelty. The Ingalls family saga struck a chord with audiences of all ages.

The series ran from 1974 to 1983, only once falling out of the Top 30 on the Nielsen charts. Even as it shifted gears in its ninth and final season, rebranding as Little House: A New Beginning, its following remained strong. As so often happens in long-running, large-ensemble productions with young stars, there was just as much drama behind the scenes as on the camera. Let's explore Little House.


1. Michael Landon directed the most episodes.

Bonanza veteran Landon was initially approached to direct the pilot film of Little House. The actor, who had helmed episodes for his prior series, agreed to do it on the condition that he portray Charles Ingalls. Landon went on to direct 90 of the 204 episodes.

Image: The Everett Collection

2. The show recycled music and plots from 'Bonanza.'

Landon wasn't the only thing borrowed from the hit Western. The ending theme music to Little House, another work by theme song composer David Rose, was originally heard as a piece of incidental music in a later-season Bonanza. Old scripts were dusted off, too. Bonzana installments like "A Matter of Circumstance" and "A Dream to Dream" were rewritten to become "A Matter of Faith" and "Someone Please Love Me" on the Prairie — just to name a couple, for example.

3. It was incredibly popular in Spain.

La Casa de la Pradera earned several TP de Oro awards — the equivalent of the Emmys in Spain at the time. Melissa Gilbert and Karen Grassle both snatched up trophies, while the show won for best foreign series.

4. Alison Arngrim auditioned to play both Laura and Mary.

Few characters from the series — or 1970s TV in general — connected with fans quite like the catty Nellie Oleson. With her blonde ringlets, Alison Arngrim perfectly portrayed the young woman you loved to hate. She almost was an Ingalls, initially. Arngrim tried out for the roles eventually filled by the two Melissas.

Image: The Everett Collection

5. The fear on Arngrim's face was real.

Arngrim suffered for her art. In "Bunny," Nellie was thrown from a horse and confined to a wheelchair. Well, so everybody thought. In an unforgettable scene, Laura, who discovered Nellie was feigning her injury, shoved her down a slope on her chair. Ironically, Arngrim had recently broken a bone herself while skateboarding. To film the close-up shots of her screams, the crew rigged up a chair with safety ropes. Just as the camera rolled, someone yelled, "Oh no, the rope broke!" The resulting screams were not acting.

6. Nellie Oleson's curls were a wig.

Perhaps as a youth, you envied Arngrim when watching this show. She had that perfect 1870s-meets-1970s hair. Turns out, it was wig. Not only that, but the thing was so tight, it made Arngrim's scalp bleed. Poor, Alison!

Image: The Everett Collection

7. The heat on set was excruciating.

The series was filmed in Simi Valley, California, not rural Minnesota. On many shooting days, the thermometer nearly popped as the temperature hit highs around 110º. "In the summer I would be wearing a wig and five layers of petticoats," Arngrim later recalled in an interview.

Image: The Everett Collection

8. Eight Oscar-winning actors appeared on the show.

The show didn't hold back while filling its small roles. Ernest Borgnine (Marty), Burl Ives (The Big Country), Red Buttons (Sayonara), Eileen Heckart (Butterflies Are Free), Patricia Neal (Hud), Louis Gossett, Jr. (An Officer And A Gentleman), Ralph Bellamy (Honorary Academy Award in 1987) and Sean Penn (Mystic River and Milk) all popped up. For Penn, pictured in the center, this would mark his screen debut.

9. It survived two industry strikes.

In 1980, Hollywood suffered an actors' strike. A year later, the writers walked. Little House on the Prairie was the only primetime non-reality series to stay in production throughout. How? Landon, acting as a representative of NBC, negotiated separate contracts with both the SAG and WGA that allowed the show to keep rolling.

Image: The Everett Collection

10. There were chaperones for a memorable kiss.

Melissa Gilbert was eight years younger than her onscreen love, played by Dean Butler. Laura's first kiss was also the first for the actress. The scene got rather uncomfortable when the camera rolled. Chaperones were mandated to keep things clean and innocent. Meanwhile, Gilbert’s mom, Barbara, was standing on set, crying out, “My baby!” Her exclamations interrupted the filming.

11. One infamous horror episode rode the slasher flick craze of the 1980s.

"Sylvia" reasonably went down as one of the most bizarre, misguided and derided episodes of the series. A sexual assaulter in a harlequin mask preyed on local girl with an angry old father. The whole thing was shot like a Halloween sequel, and undoubtedly led to some nightmares.

12. They blew up the town at the end.

Considering "Sylvia" and the explosive farewell, one would be excused for thinking that that later seasons of Little House were produced by Cannon Films. There's a reason why Walnut Grove was blasted to smithereens. When the series began, producer Kent McCray made an agreement with the property owners to restore the land to its original condition after filming. (Minus scorch marks, we suppose.) Trying to figure out how to dismantle the sets, Michael Landon suggested blowing up the village.

 
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