‘Little House on the Prairie’: Cicely Tyson ‘Seemed Eccentric,’ Says Karen Grassle

Little House on the Prairie star Karen Grassle worked with the late Cicely Tyson during her time on Broadway. Here’s what Grassle said about working alongside Tyson.

Karen Grassle says Cicely Tyson was ‘eccentric’

Karen Grassle holds Brenda/Wendi Turnbaugh during a scene of Little House on the Prairie.
Brenda /Wendi Turnbaugh as Grace Ingalls and Karen Grassle as Caroline Ingalls | NBCU Photo Bank

Tyson and Grassle were in a Broadway play by Lanford Wilson titled The Gingham Dog. The play was about the breakup of an interracial marriage, and Tyson played the wife.

Grassle says Tyson displayed unusual behavior during rehearsals. According to her, Tyson wore sunglasses, which made it hard to “find her eyes.” Grassle says she couldn’t make a connection with her co-star. When the cast had a break, Tyson would be on the phone talking to her agent, according to Grassle. She also says Tyson clashed with the director. “Our leading lady seemed eccentric,” says Grassle in her book Bright Lights, Prairie Dust.

Grassle says the situation made her “stew” about what she felt was Tyson’s “selfishness.” However, she says she didn’t grasp at the time how much pressure she was under. Grassle says Tyson was under so much stress that she began eating baby food because she developed indigestion. “She arrived at the theatre exhausted, distraught,” says Grassle. A few days later, Tyson was fired. She was replaced with late actor Diana Sands.

Melissa Gilbert says she didn’t have a good experience with Cicely Tyson

Tyson also worked with former Little House on the Prairie star Melissa Gilbert. They starred in the series Sweet Justice. Unfortunately, Gilbert says in her book Prairie Tale that she didn’t have a good experience working with the actor.

According to her, Tyson slapped a director across the face and once kept the cast and crew waiting for hours because she couldn’t find the right bra. Gilbert also says Tyson wanted everyone to call her by her character’s name. She described Tyson as “extremely difficult” to work with.

“My hours on Sweet Justice were often in the fourteen-to sixteen-hour range, excruciatingly long by any standard, and I blamed Cicely Tyson for the delays, as did everyone else in our otherwise outstanding cast,” wrote Gilbert.

Cicely Tyson’s movies and TV shows

One of Tyson’s early acting roles was in a 1951 episode of the television series Frontiers of Faith titled “The Bitter Cup.” She played the character Tony. Tyson made her film debut in the 1957 movie Carib Gold, in which she played Dottie.

Tyson’s career took off in 1972 when she played the character Rebecca in the movie Sounder. During an interview with Elle, Tyson told Viola Davis she knew after making that film that she had the talent to become a good actor.

“Of course, Sounder surprised us all,” said Tyson. “I remember [director] Marty Ritt calling me and saying, ‘Cis, this is supposed to be a children’s film. But if they’re not careful, they’re going to make a damn good film.’ And he was absolutely right. That movie was, for me, the first acknowledgment that I could do something that would move people.”

Tyson’s other acting roles included appearances in The Blue Bird (1976), Roots (1977), King (1978), The Rosa Parks Story (2002), Madea’s Family Reunion (2006), and How to Get Away with Murder (2015-2020).

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