The historical drama Little House on the Prairie became a popular family show during its run from 1974 to 1983. Based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the series detailed life in the late 1800s through the experiences of the Ingalls family.
Michael Landon served as show creator, executive producer, and star of Little House as patriarch Charles Ingalls. Melissa Sue Anderson portrayed his oldest daughter Mary, who earned an Emmy nod for her performance in season 4.
Melissa Sue Anderson took on a challenging storyline
Sticking to the real life of Mary Ingalls, Landon incorporated the factual storyline where Mary loses her sight due to scarlet fever. Though she was initially hesitant about taking on the acting challenge, Anderson fully committed to accurately playing someone experiencing blindness.
“Portraying a blind person required a great deal of research, which I started soon after reading these scripts,” Anderson wrote in her 2010 memoir, The Way I See It: A Look Back at My Life on Little House. “I didn’t want to be disrespectful or cartoonish. … I purposely concentrated on not focusing my eyes on anything, so that literally anybody or anything could be moving around in my line of vision, so to speak, and it would have no effect on me whatsoever.”
Anderson worked with the teachers at the Foundation for the Junior Blind in Los Angeles. Through her research, Anderson gained a greater empathy and willingness to understand the unfamiliar.
“The more I learned, the more I could open my mind and become more accepting and understanding of people with any kind of disability,” the Little House alum shared. “We tend to be afraid of what we don’t know, and I’m glad our show helped dispel some of those feelings.”
‘Little House on the Prairie’ star got the show’s only Emmy nomination
The two-part storyline put Little House on the Prairie at the top of the ratings, where the concluding episode landed at number one.
“We had never had ratings that high in our four-year history,” Anderson recalled. “I became the first and only actress in television history to portray a character who is struck with an affliction and never recovers.”
Not only did Anderson’s performance bring in record ratings, but she earned Little House it’s first and only Emmy nomination.
“I was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, the youngest actress ever to receive a nomination in this category,” she said of the 1978 Emmy Awards. “I was also the only actor from our show to receive a nomination in its entire eight-year run.”
‘You’re not going to win’
Anderson recalled a conversation with Landon shortly before the awards ceremony. “Mike [Landon] said to me, ‘You know you’re not going to win,'” she revealed. “Did I mention Mike’s mean streak?”
“‘Oh, yeah, I know, I’m sure I won’t,'” Anderson responded at the time. “Still, his words kind of stopped me in my tracks.”
Telling Anderson that the Screen Actors Guild supposedly alternates between awarding nominees from the East Coast and the West Coast, Landon was apparently trying to prepare her for his prediction of the outcome.
Competing against established actors Fionnula Flanagan, Kate Jackson, Michael Learned, Susan Sullivan, and Sada Thompson, the Little House on the Prairie star knew it was a tough race.
“I was hopeful, but I was realistic,” Anderson remarked. “Most likely I was not going to win, but not for the reason he stated. I could not imagine myself winning against the other five wonderfully talented adult women I was in the category with. … In the end, Mike was right again, as Sada Thompson, a New York actress, won.”
Though she didn’t bring home an Emmy, Anderson was immediately put on Hollywood’s radar and began getting offers for other projects.
“Little House had never been an industry-watched show, but with the hype that accompanied these highly-rated episodes, that perception changed,” she wrote. “In this very short span of time, my profile went from low to high, from kind of interesting to pretty exciting.”