‘Little House on the Prairie’: Why Karen Grassle Originally Changed Her Name – and Why She Changed It Back

Michael Landon cast Karen Grassle to portray his onscreen wife, Caroline Ingalls, on Little House on the Prairie in 1974.  When Landon tested her for the part, he asked her why she decided to change her name several years earlier. After getting the role, Grassle had a change of heart regarding her moniker.

Karen Grassle of 'Little House on the Prairie'
Karen Grassle of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ | NBCU Photo Bank

Karen Grassle picked a unique name for herself

Grassle was an aspiring actor in the late 1960s and appeared on Broadway in The Gingham Dog. She decided to get creative when it came to branding herself for upcoming roles. 

“I planned to change my identity and changed my name to Gabrielle Tree,” she wrote in her memoir, Bright Lights, Prairie Dust. “To me the name Gabrielle was made of curlicues while Karen was plainly chiseled.”

Her last name was inspired by supermodel Penelope Tree, who came from a British aristocratic family, and a London-based actor with an intriguing moniker.

“I chose my new ‘family’ name combining theater and glamour,” she explained. “Herbert Beerbohm Tree, a famous actor-manager in the late 19th/early 20th century London made up his last name because, as he put it, it would be too awkward for the audiences to shout ‘Beerbohm, Beerhohm!’ … So: Gabrielle Tree was born.”

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‘Little House’ screen test was an interview with Michael Landon

When Grassle landed a test for the role of Caroline Ingalls, she assumed that she would be in full costume for the role as a farming wife from the 1800s. Landon went with a different setup.

“He had decided that dressing me up as a pioneer woman and trying to do a scene without an appropriate set would be ridiculous,” the Little House alum remarked. “Instead, we would do a simple interview to be broadcast on closed circuit to NBC executives in New York City.”

Grassle wasn’t sure what Landon was going to ask her during the one-on-one but prepped as best she could.

“He and I sat on two tall stools, a table between us, on a generic living room set,” she wrote. “Finally, they were ready. We sat down on the set, and Mike asked me a simple question: Where did I get the idea for changing my name?”

Karen Grassle took back her own name after landing ‘Little House’ role

Wanting to impress Landon and the network execs, Grassle tried to come up with an intellectual response to Landon’s query, which didn’t go over well.

“I launched into a complicated explanation that included Carlos Castaneda, the notion of persona in Jungian psychology, a dizzy theory about identity, mystery and power that was likely to convince my future employers that I had a screw loose,” she recalled. “I had gotten myself tied up in nervous knots.”

Michael Landon and Karen Grassle of 'Little House on the Prairie'
Michael Landon and Karen Grassle of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ | NBCU Photo Bank

Landon let her try her answer again and she “kept it simple” her second time around. Grassle was given the part and later asked by then co-creator Ed Friendly to take back her given name.

“After we shot the pilot, Ed Friendly took me to lunch and talked me out of my newly acquired stage name, and I’m forever grateful that he did,” Grassle wrote. “I was Karen Grassle, and I accepted that. And it meant so much to my father. It has to me, too.”

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