‘Little House on the Prairie’: Sean Penn Made His Acting Debut on the Show

Every actor has to begin somewhere. For Hollywood star Sean Penn, that starting place was Little House on the Prairie. The show ran from 1974 to 1983 and is a beloved classic.

Since first appearing on the show as a teenager, Sean Penn went on to star in the films Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dead Man Walking, and All the King’s Men. He has also won two Academy Awards.

Sean Penn
Sean Penn | Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

What is ‘Little House on the Prairie’?

Little House on the Prairie is a TV series that ran from 1974 to 1983. The show was based on the Little House book series written by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The books are autobiographical fiction and focused on Ingalls Wilder’s childhood between the years 1870 and 1894. The TV series primarily takes place in Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

Michael Landon portrayed Charles Ingalls, and he was also a writer, director, and executive producer on the show. Karen Grassle portrayed Caroline Quiner Ingalls, Melissa Gilbert played Ingalls Wilder, Melissa Sue Anderson played Mary Ingalls Kendall, and identical twin sisters Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush played Carrie Ingalls.

In the first season, the Ingalls family moves to a farm just outside of Walnut Grove. For the ninth and final season, the show became Little House: A New Beginning and focused on Ingalls Wilder’s relationship with Almanzo Wilder (Dean Butler).

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Sean Penn’s first acting role was on ‘Little House on the Prairie’

“The Voice of Tinker Jones” is the 11th episode in the first season of Little House on the Prairie and it aired in 1974. Leo Penn directed the episode, and he cast his wife Eileen Ryan and son Sean Penn in the episode.

In the episode, Sean Penn appeared as an uncredited extra. According to IMDb, it was Penn’s first-ever TV role. At the time, Sean Penn was 13 years old. While the role was uncredited, Little House on the Prairie still served as Penn’s debut as an actor.

Over the years, Sean Penn has gone on to receive acclaim for his work. He won Academy Awards for his roles in the 2003 film Mystic River and the 2008 film Milk.

‘Little House on the Prairie’ was nearly canceled

Sean Penn only appeared in the first season of Little House on the Prairie, and the first season earned decent ratings among audiences. However, in the second season ratings drastically fell according to IMDb.

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NBC considered canceling the show but instead moved it to Monday nights. Thanks to the move, ratings for the show improved dramatically. IMDb reports that after the fourth season, NBC planned to cancel the show again.

Because of its high ratings, Little House on the Prairie was renewed for a fifth season, and it ranked in the top 30 spots until it went off the air.