‘Little House on the Prairie’: Karen Grassle Said These 2 Actors Were ‘Unbelievably Well Cast’

Little House on the Prairie had a massive cast of actors during its nine seasons. Many of the show’s stars continue to get recognized for the roles they first played in 1974. Since the series ended in 1984, several cast members have written books and appeared in interviews about their time at Walnut Grove

Karen Grassle, who starred as Caroline “Ma” Ingalls, believes the show’s casting directors made no mistake when they hired these two actors. 

Picture shows the Ingalls family from the TV Series, "Little House on the Prairie." Left to right; Michael Landon(Charles Ingalls), Karen Grassle(Caroline Ingalls), Melissa Sue Anderson(Mary Ingalls), Sidney and Lindsey Greenbush(shared role of Carrie Ingalls), and Melissa Gilbert(Laura Ingalls). Undated photo circa 1970s
“Little House on the Prairie.” Michael Landon(Charles Ingalls), Karen Grassle(Caroline Ingalls), Melissa Sue Anderson(Mary Ingalls), Sidney and Lindsey Greenbush(shared role of Carrie Ingalls), and Melissa Gilbert(Laura Ingalls)| Bettmann

How Karen Grassle became ‘Ma Ingalls’ 

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Grassle was born in Berkley, California, on February 25, 1942. She studied acting at the University of California, Berkeley, graduating with BA degrees in Dramatic Art and English in the mid-1960s. After graduating, Grassle began working in London, where Grassle traveled with theatre companies. Once she returned to the United States, she decided to try out for television roles. Her agent set her up with an audition for Little House on the Prairie as the show’s matriarch. 

“My agent sent me up for a series with this guy from Bonanza [Landon]. I was not a big TV watcher, so I asked, ‘Which one is he?’ He said, ‘He’s Little Joe.’ I was the only one at the interview — they’d seen everyone in Hollywood who was right for the part!” Grassle said, via Closer Weekly

“They were down to the wire because they cast everyone else,” she continued. “After I read my second scene with Mike, he leapt up like a jack-in-the-box and said, ‘Bring her to wardrobe!’ But NBC had to approve me, so he interviewed me for executives on closed-circuit TV.”

Karen Grassle believes Melissa Sue Anderson and Melissa Gilbert were ‘unbelievably well cast’

When Grassle received the role of Ma Ingalls, she became Landon’s on-screen wife. On the show, Grassle and Landon’s characters had three children- Mary Ingalls (Melissa Sue Anderson), Laura Ingalls (Melissa Gilbert), and Carrie Ingalls (played by twins Lindsay and Sydney Greenbush). Several other actors like Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson, got their big break on Little House on the Prairie

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During her interview with Closer, Grassle gushed about two of her on-screen daughters in particular. She said Anderson and Gilbert were the most like their characters throughout the series. 

“The two Melissas [Gilbert and Sue Anderson] were unbelievably well cast,” she said. “The kids were all really good. They say they didn’t miss anything in their childhood, but I say they don’t know what they missed because they were on the set.”

Melissa Gilbert once played ‘Ma Ingalls’ 

Grassle continued to say that, although Little House on the Prairie’s cast had a plethora of talent, Gilbert instantly stood out. She said she saw Gilbert’s knack for acting during the pilot episode of the series. 

“She arrived cute as a button and sharp as a tack for the pilot,” she said of Gilbert. “Turned out to be a natural, with great instincts for acting.” 

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After spending eight seasons on Little House on the Prairie, Grassle left the show in 1982. Years later, Gilbert stepped into her on-screen mother’s shoes in 2009. The actor starred in a Little House on the Prairie musical as Ma Ingalls. Although she paid homage to Grassle during an interview with Wisconsin State Journal, she intentionally made her version of Ma different. 

“Other than the challenge of taking on a new role, I didn’t feel pressure in any sort of way,” Gilbert said. “I had to sort of focus [a] bit to get the sound of Karen Grassle out of my brain because she is Ma. She’s a completely different Ma than I am, as written in this piece, too.”