‘Little House on the Prairie’: How Michael Landon Ensured Melissa Gilbert Played ‘Laura Ingalls’
Melissa Gilbert played Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie for nine seasons. The role allowed Gilbert to act alongside seasoned actors before her. One of her most influential mentors was Little House on the Prairie creator and star, Michael Landon.
In her memoir, Prairie Tale, Gilbert spoke about her experiences as a child star. She also shared how Landon picked her to play Laura.
Melissa Gilbert once described Michael Landon as ‘handsome’
Before Little House on the Prairie, Gilbert appeared in several commercials. She also landed small television spots on The Love Boat and Gunsmoke. It wasn’t until Landon created the script for Little House on the Prairie that Gilbert got the chance at a leading television role. Her audition was the first time Gilbert met Landon, who previously starred in Bonanza.
Gilbert shared how she felt about Landon when she first laid eyes on him in Prairie Tale.
“I read for him in a room at Paramount Studios,” she wrote of Landon. “I remember thinking, Oh gosh, he’s really handsome. He gave off a different kind of energy than ordinary people. It was a higher wattage.”
Melissa Gilbert said Michael Landon only showed NBC her audition for ‘Little House on the Prairie’
After her initial audition, Landon picked Gilbert to run a screen test with him. The screen test earned Gilbert the role of Laura shortly after that. In the memoir, Gilbert wrote that Landon’s daughter, Leslie, told her she got the job. At the time, Gilbert and Leslie went to the same school.
“I screamed and ran to the office where there was a phone available for students to use in an emergency,” Gilbert remembered. “I called home and told my mom what had happened. She let out an excited shriek and made me repeat the story. As I did, I felt like booster rockets had ignited under me, and I was about to blast off into some exciting, new, uncharted world.”
Decades later, Gilbert said she spoke to Landon about her audition at Leslie’s wedding. She told Landon told her he only showed NBC her screen test, ensuring she got the role.
“Oh yeah. I knew. I knew immediately that you were her,” Landon said, according to Gilbert. “And I didn’t even want them to think about anybody else.”
Melissa Gilbert thought of Michael Landon as a ‘father figure’
While they played father and daughter on-screen, Gilbert and Landon had a strong bond. Not only did Gilbert look to Landon for advice on her career, but the actor became a father figure to her. Gilbert even dated one of Landon’s children, Mike Jr. as a teenager.
“Our relationship was very close, and it grew even deeper when my father passed away [in 1976],” Gilbert shared with Entertainment Weekly. “Our families got close. We went on vacation to Hawaii together every Easter. His son Mike Jr. was my prom date.”
Gilbert and Landon faced a bump in their relationship toward the end of Little House on the Prairie. In Prairie Tale, Gilbert wrote that her mother informed her that Landon left his second wife, Lynn. Her mother continued to say Landon had an affair with a Little House makeup artist. The Ice House actor recalled feeling torn between Landon and his ex-wife. She said the matter ultimately affected her professional and personal relationship with Landon.
“It was assumed I could soldier on as always with Mike after he’d left his wife,” she said. “I was caught in the middle as the people all around me chose sides.”
Landon and Gilbert reconciled before he died of cancer in 1991. In honor of her surrogate father, Gilbert named her first son after Landon.