‘Little House on the Prairie’: Caroline Ingalls Was Almost Played by an Actor Who Was ‘A Bit Like’ Michael Landon
Michael Landon left the hit series Bonanza to create and star in Little House on the Prairie in 1974. Also serving as the show’s executive producer, portrayed patriarch Charles Ingalls and cast Karen Grassle as his wife Caroline for the historical drama.
While Grassle was clearly a skilled actor, she and Landon tended to clash at times due to their conflicting personalities. Landon had originally considered someone else with a demeanor similar to himself to take on the role of Caroline, but ended up giving her a different role in later seasons.
Karen Grassle was originally a theater actor
Charlotte Stewart portrayed schoolteacher Miss Eva Beadle for the first four seasons of Little House. In her book Little House in the Hollywood Hills: A Bad Girl’s Guide to Becoming Miss Beadle, Mary X, and Me, Stewart recalled hearing of Grassle’s impressive list of credits when she was cast for the show.
“When I started working with Karen Grassle, I felt like a bumpkin around her,” Stewart shared in her memoir. “She had earned not one but two degrees at U.C. Berkeley… in English and Dramatic Arts – which made my internal inadequacy alarm bells ring. She had also done a broad range of theater from Shakespeare both in the U.S. and in England to a stint on Broadway.”
Performing Shakespeare in England before landing the role of Caroline Ingalls, Grassle was more geared toward the stage than the small screen.
“Where my little heart had always been with film and television, Karen was a theater person,” Stewart wrote. “So much so that she has talked publicly about the fact that she was almost totally unfamiliar with U.S. television.”
Michael Landon and Karen Grassle were opposites
Grassle was respected for her professionalism on set, yet her more serious demeanor would sometimes clash with Landon’s laid back style.
“She and Mike always had excellent chemistry on screen,” Stewart recalled of her co-stars. “Unfortunately in real life, Karen and Mike didn’t always get along. He would tease her without mercy for being serious-minded, and I think she got tired of not only his joking around, but of the easy-breezy approach he took to acting in general. Time and again I saw him joshing and joking around with the crew.”
Apparently, Landon had considered an actor who had a sense of humor much like his own for the role of Caroline. After choosing Grassle, he cast her in another part at the beginning of season four.
“The role of Caroline Ingalls very nearly went to Hersha Parady,” Stewart revealed. “[She] would have made the part her own, perhaps a bit earthier, finding little comedic touches, a bit like Mike really. Hersha landed a part later in the show’s run as Alice Garvey, married to Merlin Olsen’s character, Jonathan Garvey.”
Karen Grassle wanted ‘Little House’ to be ‘grittier’
Stewart noted that Grassle often felt the series failed to realistically portray Midwestern farm life in the 1800s.
“[Grassle] thought the show was a bit too lightweight in its exploration of themes such as family, marriage relationships, the harshness of prairie life, and so on,” Stewart wrote. “She wanted the show to be grittier, as she said once in an interview, adding that at one point she felt like the show was ‘Let’s Pretend on the Prairie.’ She says she’s come to see it differently with time.”
Landon and Grassle’s contrasting personalities actually made for a convincing combination on screen. The co-stars were able to form a more amiable working relationship as the series continued.
“I have to say that one of the things that worked well with Mike and Karen were in fact their differences,” Stewart commented. “There’s nothing more boring than watching two characters who are too much alike. Sparks often happen in that space between two actors where there’s friction. … I think everyone in the cast agrees today that [Landon] worked some magic in terms of touching a lot of hearts.”