‘Little House on the Prairie’: How Melissa Gilbert Helped Save Alison Arngrim’s Job in the First Season
Little House on the Prairie put the spotlight on several young actors throughout its nine-season run. On the air from 1974 to 1983, the historical drama featured Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls) and Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson) in most episodes as feuding classmates.
Behind the scenes, Gilbert and Arngrim became close friends. When Arngrim’s shyness was taken as “diva” behavior on set, Gilbert, just 9 years old at the time, went about to setting the record straight.
Alison Arngrim was very different from Nellie Oleson
Though Arngrim played the Walnut Grove’s spoiled rich girl Nellie Oleson, the actor had some confidence issues and tried to keep a low profile among her cast mates.
“I sometimes had trouble talking to ‘new people’ one on one,” Arngrim wrote in her book Confessions of a Prairie B*tch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated. “I was now faced with a cast and crew of over a hundred, some of them with rather intimidating personalities, to say the least – I had hoped I could just show up, do my job, and lay low, but it was not to be.”
Arngrim’s timidity was soon misinterpreted by her peers as something more negative.
“Midway through the first season, my agent called my father to report that my shyness had been taken for ‘haughtiness’ or unfriendliness,” Arngrim explained. “There were actual rumors that I was ‘difficult’ or a diva. This was considered serious enough to possibly affect my employment.”
‘Little House’ star lobbied for a meeting
While Arngrim tried to be more social on set, she got some extra help from her closest pal and co-star.
“[Gilbert] had found out about the rumors and, having been the first to befriend me, knew they weren’t true,” the Little House alum recalled. “So what did she do about this at the age of 9? She called a meeting.”
After inviting the other young cast members to lunch in her dressing room, Gilbert tried to get to the bottom of the rumors. Following some back-and-forth amongst the girls, it was discovered that the gossip about Arngrim came from a parent on the set.
“Melissa was not surprised,” Arngrim said. “She explained to the girls that in this sort of competitive environment, it would not be unheard of for a stage mother to start rumors about another girl in the hopes of getting her fired and furthering her own child’s career. But, she cautioned, we must not let them get away with it.”
Melissa Gilbert led the ‘Little House’ initiative for a supportive environment
Calling for unity, Gilbert encouraged her cast mates to act as a team and support each other.
“‘We have to stick together,'” Argrim recalled Gilbert saying. “‘There’s going to be a lot of stuff like this, people trying to turn us against each other. … If any of you hear anything about one of us – especially if it comes from one of the stage moms – you come to me first, okay?'”
Gilbert’s approach toward harmony worked, where the girls in the cast began to look out for each other. Arngrim noted how Gilbert showed promise as a leader even at that young age.
“Her motion passed unanimously,” Arngrim remarked. “She had just successfully organized a group of child actors against the stage mothers. There were no more incidents of this kind. … For some of us, her growing up to be president of the Screen Actors Guild wasn’t exactly a shock.”