Michael Landon created the historical drama Little House on the Prairie in 1974, where he also served as executive producer and star of the show. Portraying patriarch Charles Ingalls raising a family in the late 1800s, the series was based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and focused on faith and moral values.
Melissa Sue Anderson played oldest daughter Mary, and often looked to Landon (whom she called “Mike”) as a mentor. Yet when he began a romance with Anderson’s stand-in actor while he was still married to his wife, Lynn, Anderson felt very conflicted.
Michael Landon’s affair was seen as a ‘midlife crisis’
In her 2010 memoir, The Way I See It: A Look Back at My Life on Little House, Anderson revealed that by the summer of 1979, the majority of the Little House on the Prairie cast and crew were aware of Landon’s affair with Anderson’s stand-in, Cindy Clerico. Married to Lynn Noe at the time, Landon’s actions weren’t all that surprising to his colleagues despite his portrayal of the morality-driven Charles Ingalls.
“For most of our Little House ‘family’, the adults in particular, this seemed to be a TV star’s midlife crisis,” Anderson wrote. “Even taking into account his squeaky-clean, family-man image, this was not shocking; he had been married and divorced once before.”
Yet for the younger actors, Landon’s extramarital romance was devastating due to his almost father-like image in their lives.
“But for us, as kids, it was a real blow,” Anderson recalled. “Although we knew he could be difficult at times and had his flaws, we never dreamed he was capable of inflicting that kind of pain on his real family. For me personally, I had held him up to a higher moral standard. … He had really let me down.”
Melissa Sue Anderson felt an allegiance to Michael Landon’s wife
During her stint on Little House on the Prairie, Anderson had gotten to know Landon’s family. When she learned of his affair with Clerico, Anderson couldn’t pretend all sat well with her.
“I definitely did not like being put in this position,” Anderson revealed. “I knew and liked Lynn, his wife – I had too much respect for her to just accept Mike’s behavior as ‘business as usual’. But because he was my boss, I tried not to let my personal feelings make too much of an impact on our working relationship.”
Anderson was 16 years old at the time, where she described her initial dealings with Clerico as amicable. When her affair with Landon was made public after some investigating by his wife, Clerico was given a different job on the show.
“Lynn Landon hired a private detective and found out about the affair,” the Little House alum wrote. “Divorce was imminent. … I had yet another stand-in because Cindy had now become a makeup artist.”
‘Little House’ star supported Lynn Landon in her own way
With Clerico now in charge of applying makeup to the cast members, Anderson made a deliberate choice to express her support of Landon’s wife.
“In my silent show of solidarity with Lynn Landon, I did not have my makeup done by Cindy,” Anderson explained. “And she was good, too. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was civil to her, but that’s about it. We certainly were no longer friends.”
In her memoir, the Little House star reflected on her expectations of Landon as an exemplary father figure, and realized he was subject to the same situations as everyone else.
“It is interesting, albeit sad, to witness a celebrity’s fall from grace,” Anderson remarked. “We want them to be role models. In the end, they are just the same as you and me, and I don’t know many people who could withstand the kind of scrutiny that celebrities are subject to these days.”
Landon and Clerico were married from 1983 until his death in 1991.