‘Little House on the Prairie’: Karen Grassle Was ‘Flat Broke’ Before She Booked ‘Caroline Ingalls’

Karen Grassle played matriarch Caroline Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie. Known affectionately as “Ma” on the show, Caroline was a pioneer woman who dedicated her life to her husband Charles (Michael Landon) and their children. The role became Grassle’s saving grace, as she admitted to facing hardships before getting the job. 

Pictured: Karen Grassle as Caroline Quiner Holbrook Ingalls
Karen Grassle as Caroline Quiner Holbrook Ingalls NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal

Karen Grassle recalled being ‘flat broke’ before playing ‘Caroline Ingalls’ on ‘Little House on the Prairie’ 

Grassle grew up in Berkley, California, and was born on February 25, 1942. According to Little House on the Prairie’s website, Grassle fell in love with acting while attending the University of California, Berkeley. After acting in a few plays in college, Grassle decided to take her passion to the next level. In 1965, Grassle received the Fullbright Grant to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. 

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Following her “superb” experience at the academy, Grassle returned to the United States to pursue her Hollywood career. Grassle began booking small television and commercial roles and thrived in theatre. She made her Broadway debut in The Gingham Dog, where she earned critical acclaim.

Although the actor worked, Grassle told Closer in July 2020 that she was “flat broke” by the time she auditioned for Little House on the Prairie. Grassle had spent time in England and came to Los Angeles for an independent film that never happened. 

“I had spent a year in England, working with a Shakespeare company and teaching, and came back to the States flat broke,” Grassle said. “I was asked to fly to LA to play the lead in an independent movie, but when I got to the airport, there was no ticket! I’d sublet my apartment, and my boyfriend was [with me], so I wrote a bad check to get one! But when I got to L.A., the movie fell through.” 

Karen Grassle said Michael Landon contributed to her booking ‘Little House on the Prairie’ 

During her troubling times, Grassle connected with Landon through her agent. At the time, Grassle admitted she didn’t know anything about Landon or his fame from Bonanza. When they sat down for the interview, Landon said he immediately wanted Grassle to be Caroline Ingalls

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“I was the only one at the interview — they’d seen everyone in Hollywood who was right for the part! They were down to the wire because they cast everyone else. After I read my second scene with Mike, he leapt up like a jack-in-the-box and said, ‘Bring her to wardrobe!’” Grassle exclaimed. “But NBC had to approve me, so he interviewed me for executives on closed-circuit TV.”

Eventually, Grassle got the call to play Caroline on the show. Although she was single and didn’t have any children when Little House on the Prairie started, Grassle used her mother as the inspiration for the role. 

Karen Grassle said she doesn’t compare herself to her ‘Little House on the Prairie’ character, ‘Caroline Ingalls’

Grassle stayed on Little House on the Prairie from its pilot episode in 1974 until 1982. When the show decided to go in a different direction, Grassle left the show as “Ma.” Although she later appeared on Little House: A New Beginning, which focused on the Ingalls children, Grassle returned to theatre. 

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Following the departure from Little House on the Prairie, Grassle said she struggled to find work in television and film. Grassle told Closer that casting directors often typecasted her. However, Grassle settled down and admitted that she was more interested in her family life than her career after  Little House on the Prairie. 

In 1985, Grassle adopted a son, Zachary. Although Grassle said she loves motherhood, the actor’s parenting was vastly different than Caroline’s. 

“That show was an idealized version of family life, Grassle said of her role as a mother versus Caroline’s. “But I did the best I could. Much of the time, I was a single mom, and that has its own challenges, [yet] I love so much about being a mom.”