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In her memoir, Prairie Tale, Melissa Gilbert calls Michael Landon her “larger-than-life surrogate father.” Not only did he play her Pa on Little House on the Prairie, he became a father figure to her almost immediately after she was cast as Laura Ingalls, and especially after her own father died. Gilbert’s first impression of Landon stuck with the actor her whole life.

Melissa Gilbert on a horse next to Michael Landon in 'The Race' episode of 'Little House on the Prairie'
Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon | Ted Shepherd/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

What Melissa Gilbert thought of Michael Landon at her audition for ‘Little House on the Prairie’

Gilbert was a working child actor when she auditioned for the part of Laura Ingalls. She’d been in her fair share of commercials and wasn’t a stranger to auditioning for television.

“I read for [Michael Landon] in a room at Paramount Studios,” she wrote in her memoir. “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.”

Gilbert saw Landon a week later for a screen test. There, a few other young actors read for Laura along with Landon and Melissa Sue Anderson (who would be playing Laura’s older sister, Mary). Again Gilbert was drawn to Landon, and they had great working chemistry.

Michael Landon always knew he wanted Melissa Gilbert to play Laura Ingalls on ‘Little House on the Prairie’

Shortly before Landon died, Gilbert saw him at his daughter’s wedding. Amidst catching up, he told her how he ensured she got the part of Laura.

“When it came time to show all the screen tests to the network executives, he only showed them mine,” she wrote.

“I knew,” he told her, according to Gilbert. “I knew immediately that you were her and I didn’t even want them to think about anybody else.”

A week before Landon died of cancer, Gilbert visited him in his home. There, he echoed the same sentiment.

“I want you to know, I’ve seen everything you’ve done,” he told her, writes Gilbert. “I always knew it. I knew you would be the one.”

What the Laura Ingalls actor thought of her TV father while shooting the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ pilot

Gilbert’s initial attraction to Landon only grew while filming the pilot. She thought the world of him right away.

“I could hardly take my eyes off him,” she wrote. “I’d never seen a man in person who was built like him. He was an upside-down triangle, thick and muscular, and tough beyond my imagination.”

Gilbert, in particular, remembers the way Landon “chain-smoked cigarettes.”


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“On our first day of shooting, we were out in the snow and he was giving us direction when he took his cigarette and stubbed it out in the palm of his glove,” she wrote. “I wanted to run over to my mom and say, ‘Did you see that?’ He did that all the time. Then he took out the tobacco, sprinkled it on the ground, and put the filter in his jacket pocket, where over the course of the day he’d build up a fair collection, which he threw out later.”

The young actor was in awe.

“I’d never seen such a macho man,” she wrote. “He was like James Bond—or Batman.”