‘Little House on the Prairie’: How Melissa Gilbert’s Brother Got Hired for the Role of Willie Oleson

Michael Landon hired several child actors when he created Little House on the Prairie in 1974. Casting Melissa Gilbert as main character Laura Ingalls and Alison Arngrim as her nemesis, Nellie Oleson, Landon didn’t have any qualms about recruiting family members and gave Gilbert’s brother Jonathan the part of Nellie’s troublemaking younger sibling.

Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim of 'Little House on the Prairie' |
Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ | NBCU Photo Bank

‘Little House on the Prairie’ casting involved ‘nepotism’

In her 2010 memoir, Arngrim described the co-stars with whom she would share most of her screen time. Katherine MacGregor played her mom and snooty store owner Harriet Oleson, and Richard Bull portrayed her henpecked husband Nels. The two actors had contrasting temperaments, which made for a compelling friendship.

“Katherine and Richard made an interesting couple, not just on screen but off,” Arngrim wrote in Confessions of a Prairie B****. “They became great friends but were of such opposite personalities, well, sometimes I couldn’t tell when they were rehearsing a scene or having an actual argument.”

Rounding out the Oleson family was Jonathan Gilbert as Nellie’s little brother Willie, whose antics became legendary to Little House fans. Arngrim pointed out how the practice of nepotism on the show played a part in his casting.

“As if this wasn’t a surreal enough TV family for me to join, there was my baby brother, Willie,” Arngrim recalled. “Hollywood being the capital of nepotism, nearly everyone in Little House on the Prairie was related to someone else on the show.”

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Jonathan Gilbert had no acting experience before ‘Little House on the Prairie’

Arngrim marveled at how Jonathan landed the role of Willie, simply by being present when his sister had her own tryout for the part of Laura.

“The most outrageous piece of casting was Melissa Gilbert’s baby brother, Jonathan, as my little brother (and sometimes henchman), Willie,” the Little House alum remarked. “He apparently came along to her audition, and when the subject of Willie came up, their mother simply volunteered him for the job. He was six.”

Jonathan had no stage or TV credits to his name when he was cast in Little House and was clearly unimpressed by being in the spotlight.

“It was his first job ever,” Arngrim explained, “his only appearance in TV or film of any kind. I never once heard him complain about this. He expressed no interest whatsoever in being in other movies or TV shows, the state of being famous, how much he was getting paid, the furthering of his career, or anything to do with Hollywood in any way, shape or form. He ws the living embodiment of ‘just along for the ride’.”

Melissa Gilbert considered Jonathan her ‘annoying kid brother’ rather than a co-star

Arngrim got to share many scenes with Jonathan and grew extremely fond of her younger cast mate.

“He was, however, absolutely, utterly adorable,” Arngrim wrote. “When stuffed into one of little Willie’s ‘formal occasion’ outfits, he was the cutest thing you ever laid eyes on: all floppy hair, grinning teeth, and huge eyes.”

Jonathan Gilbert of 'Little House on the Prairie'
Jonathan Gilbert of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ | NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Jonathan’s real-life big sister did not find her little brother all that cute. Melissa was used to his antics at home and didn’t find his behavior as endearing as Arngrim.

“Melissa was not impressed by any of it,” Arngrim revealed. “To her, he was just her incredibly annoying kid brother. She frequently offered to let me keep him. I didn’t have a baby brother, so the thought was a novelty. She said I was welcome to him as far as she was concerned.”

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