Michael Landon created the NBC hit Little House on the Prairie in 1974 and starred as patriarch Charles Ingalls. With Landon being the boss and a cast member, details like salaries and script direction could get a bit sticky for actor Karen Grassle, who portrayed Charles’ wife, Caroline. Grassle recalled a particularly tense phase with Landon, where even her co-star Melissa Sue Anderson began giving her the cold shoulder.
Karen Grassle had several child co-stars on ‘Little House’
When the series premiered in 1974, Landon had hired an ensemble cast with several young actors to play the Ingalls’ daughters. Grassle remembered meeting them for the first time.
“I spotted Melissa Gilbert, the little girl with auburn braids who would play Laura,” Grassle wrote in her memoir, Bright Lights, Prairie Dust, and noted being introduced to the twins who would take turns portraying youngest daughter Carrie. “Seeking to build a rapport, I walked towards the adorable twin girls, only three years old. Children their age could work only a few hours, but with twins that extended the time to six.”
Grassle was immediately impressed by Anderson’s maturity and professionalism for someone so young.
“Melissa (Missy) Anderson, ten years old, modest and polite, was playing my oldest daughter, Mary,” the Little House alum recalled. “She and I had met earlier at a costume fitting at Paramount where, stunned by her fairytale princess looks – long, flaxen hair and penetrating blue eyes – I whispered to her mother how pretty she was. I was surprised that her mom seemed surprised.”
Tension between Michael Landon and Karen Grassle rose in season 2
Little House immediately resonated with audiences and the family-friendly drama drew a massive fan base. After the first season, Grassle felt she deserved a raise but was met with resistance from Landon.
“When the show was in the top 10 and I said, ‘Gee, it is time to renegotiate my contract’, Michael did not want to pay me,” Grassle told Closer Weekly. “It was very difficult.”
As season 2 went on, friction between Landon and Grassle grew. She noticed less screen time for her character and was cut out of a pivotal scene mid-season.
“As I held out for my money, Ma became the incredible shrinking woman,” Grassle wrote. “Watching Mike play his sensitive director role with guest stars while I was put on ice set off alarm bells inside me.”
Karen Grassle felt ostracized on the ‘Little House’ set
With Grassle’s requests for a salary bump being ignored, tension on the set was getting more intense. She felt she was getting the silent treatment from Landon and another co-star, with whom she had previously bonded.
“I’d never handled ostracism well,” Grassle explained. “As in all companies, people move away from the hen-pecked, and that’s how it was with me on Little House. Karen was ‘changing’. Karen was ‘difficult’. Even Missy, with whom I had passed time off-camera playing backgammon, withdrew from me.”
Anderson wrote about the on-set strain between Landon and Grassle in her memoir, The Way I See It.
“Any creative ideas Karen may have had were consistently shot down by Mike,” Anderson revealed, pointing out that Grassle began letting her emotions come to the surface. “The situation progressively worsened to the point where the two of them only spoke to each other when absolutely necessary. … The tension on the set was high at these times. … Unfortunately for Karen, the more ‘diva-like’ her behavior became, the less likely it was that she would get a lot of meaty scenes to play.”
Grassle ended up getting a pay increase and her relationship with Landon improved. “It certainly made our set a lot less tense and a happier place to come back to,” Anderson wrote.