Interview with Melissa Sue Anderson, Mary on ‘Little House on the Prairie’

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This was originally posted on AJC’s Radio & TV Talk blog on May 5, 2010

“Little House on the Prairie” was one of the more popular shows from the 1970s but didn’t get much critical respect. Neither Melissa Gilbert nor Michael Landon ever garnered a single Emmy nomination.

That honor was reserved for one actress: Melissa Sue Anderson.

She played Laura Ingalls’ sweet older sister Mary and during season four, her character went blind. Her acting earned her that Emmy nomination. And more than three decades later, it’s what people remember about her most.

Not that she’s bitter. She’s proud of her “Little House” stint. But she had no intentions of writing about it until an agent convinced her to do so.

Part of the impetus: Gilbert was doing her own book (“Prairie Tale,” which came out in February). So Anderson jumped on the “Little House” bandwagon with her own memoir “The Way I See It,” which came out on Tuesday.

Gilbert’s book is far more dishy than Anderson’s, featuring Gilbert’s drug use and rocky celebrity dating life with the likes of Billy Idol and Rob Lowe. She also describes Landon’s drinking and her icy attitude toward Anderson, who she felt was way too serious and stuck up.

Anderson, 47, herself practically ignores Gilbert in her book. The omission, Anderson explained, was because the two simply weren’t friends. “I honestly do not have a lot of memories of the two of us,” she said in an interview this afternoon. “We were very, very different.”

Anderson does talk about Landon’s issues, noting his mean streak and iron fist as a director on set. But she blamed his faults on his insecurities and childhood. She said she ultimately respected Landon and got along with him until he died of pancreatic cancer in 1991.

“My editor wanted me to be completely honest,” she said. “I tend to be nice. They said it doesn’t have to be so nice.”

Anderson is a bit old school: she hand wrote the book with pen and paper and her husband transcribed it. “That’s how Michael Landon wrote scripts,” she said.

To refresh her memory, she re-watched several old episodes, some good, some not so good. She provides long synopses of many episodes, with little aside comments interspersed. “I want the fans to feel like they were right on the set with me,” she said.

She said after she became blind, the writers struggled to come up with compelling story lines for her. “It wasn’t just the blind issue but also the period of the show,” she said, since it was set in the 1870s. “It was very limiting what you could or couldn’t do. I used to say I was blind and boring. Either I was just there not doing much or going through some tragedy. I couldn’t take it anymore. It became too soap opera-ish.” (She noted in the book with disdain how Mary lost a baby in a fire, then went catatonic.) She only showed up for a few episodes in the eighth season but left after that.

Her acting career didn’t really take off after that but did include a long run on “The Equalizer,” a drama on CBS in the late 1980s. She had kids in the 1990s and didn’t do much acting while she raised them. She said she didn’t want them to be exposed to the celebra-mania so she kept a purposely low profile. And she said, both have come out normal. And they have zero desire to partake in acting.

Anderson, who is married to TV writer Michael Sloan, is happy to get back into the acting game on a more regular basis since her youngest son is now 14. (Her most notable job the past decade was playing the First Lady in an NBC miniseries in 2006 called “Apocalypse 10.5”)

If you want the trifecta of “Prairie” books, Alison Arngrim is coming up next in June with “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.”

“She made a career being nasty Nelly,” Anderson said. “She’s completely perpetuated that. She was a nice girl, kind of shy in the beginning. But she got through it. She was very zany, very off the wall. She and Melissa [Gilbert] got along quite well.”

 


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