‘Little House on the Prairie’: Michael Landon Played With Melissa Gilbert’s Emotions to Get Her to Cry on Set

Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon’s connection reached far past their relationship on Little House on the Prairie. From the moment Gilbert met the former Bonanza actor, she was drawn to him in a big way. When it came time for Gilbert to get emotional on set, Landon would use their connection to inspire tears.

Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls lying in the dirt as Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls bends down beside him.
Michael Landon as Charles Philip Ingalls, Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls | NBCU Photo Bank

When Melissa Gilbert’s ‘special bond’ began with Michael Landon

Gilbert wrote in her memoir, Prairie Tale, that “the lines blurred between Mike and me.” While Charles and Laura Ingalls were incredibly close, so were Gilbert and Landon. Their connection started during the filming of the pilot.

“Our special bond began on the pilot when we repeated the scene that I’d read in my audition, the one after we’ve lost the dog while crossing the river and Laura apologizes to him for thinking he didn’t care about Jack being lost,” wrote Gilbert. “It was a sweet father-daughter moment, one that was very real to me. It wasn’t a stretch at all to think of Mike as my dad. I could easily imagine having such a conversation with him.”

When Melissa Gilbert couldn’t cry, Michael Landon used their relationship to foster emotion

It was no rarity for Laura Ingalls to cry during an episode of Little House on the Prairie. Sometimes the tears came easy for Gilbert, sometimes they were a little more difficult to access. The Sylvester actor recalls filming the “The Love of Johnny Johnson” episode, during which she had a difficult time accessing her emotions.

“Putting myself in Laura’s shoes didn’t work,” she wrote. “Nor did dragging up some kind of horrible memory from the Dungeon. So Mike helped me.”

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Landon put his arm around Gilbert and ushered her away from set where they could be alone.  

“In the time it took to walk fifteen to twenty feet, he got himself crying,” wrote Gilbert. “Then he turned to me and with tears rolling down his face, he said, ‘Do you have any idea how much I love you?’”

Like a charm, Gilbert started crying.

“My heart swelled with similar feelings and a moment later tears poured from my eyes,” she wrote. “Mike let me cry for a few seconds and then he said, ‘Are you ready?’ I nodded and we shot our scene.”

The Laura Ingalls actor admits it was a ‘bizarre manipulation’ 

According to Gilbert, Landon “employed that technique” many times throughout filming.

“Looking back, yes, it was a bizarre manipulation, a kind of twisted way to get a kid to perform,” she wrote.

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Gilbert was adopted just after being born by comedian Paul Gilbert and actor/dancer Barbara Crane. She had a lot of questions and pain surrounding “the mythology of my existence.” Right away, Landon became a father figure to Gilbert. And he did even more so after Paul Gilbert died when she was 11.

While Landon’s technique for getting the Laura Ingalls actor to cry played into the real pain Gilbert felt about her birth parents, she feels, ultimately, that it was “therapeutic.” It also got results.

“I have no doubt that it was therapeutic; by crying, I was able to release some of my own emotions I kept bottled up,” she wrote.