Why ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Star Melissa Gilbert Was ‘Terribly Disappointed’ After Meeting Her Birth Father

Little House on the Prairie star Melissa Gilbert was adopted by Paul Gilbert and Barbara Crane shortly after she was born. When the Laura Ingalls actor was in her 20s, she began the search for her birth parents. Finally, she found them. Her mother had died in 1980 and her father wasn’t what she expected. 

Melissa Gilbert posing on bench in front of the Barn Theatre where she was performing in her playwright husband Bo Brinkman's new play
Melissa Gilbert | William Franklin Mcmahon/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

Melissa Gilbert’s first conversation with her birth father

After years of searching, Gilbert finally found her birth father, David Darlington, in Las Vegas, Nevada. She also learned that the woman who gave birth to her was named Kathy. 

Gilbert called Darlington a few days after she received his number. It took some time for her to get a handle on her nerves. She told him who she was and he was excited to meet. 

“As if the conversation wasn’t already weird, it got weirder when he asked me about work, Michael Landon, and other celebrities,” she wrote in her memoir, Prairie Tale.  “He was like any person on the street.”

When Melissa Gilbert met her father for the first time

Not too long after their conversation, Gilbert boarded a plane to Vegas. She stayed in a hotel with her then-husband, Bo Brinkman, and their son off the Strip to “avoid any chance of the press getting wind of this very personal moment in my life.”

After arriving, she “paced nervously across the room, checking my watch and waiting for David Darlington, my birth father, to show up.” When he did, he greeted her with a big hug. 

“It was an incredible moment, though it was also one of the strangest I had ever experienced,” she wrote. “The whole time I was looking at him, hugging him, and saying ‘Oh my God,’ a voice in my head was saying, Don’t be crazy. You’re not related to this man. He looks nothing like you. I was also saying to myself, This is the man who gave you away. No, he didn’t give you away. He just couldn’t keep you. 

What the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ actor learned about her family history

Gilbert and Darlington got a drink at the bar. It was noon. 

“I learned that David Darlington was a sign painter in Las Vegas, not a Rhodes Scholar as my mother had always told me,” she wrote. “As for Kathy being a prima ballerina [as her mother had also told her], I found out over the course of the afternoon that she had indeed been a dancer, but not a ballerina, and like David, she’d had three kids of her own when they got together.”

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Gilbert also learned that Kathy had died in 1980 after years of complications stemming from a serious motorcycle accident she was in with Darlington that took place shortly after Gilbert was born.  

“Later that night, I ate dinner at David’s house, where his daughter Bonne shed more light on the family history, which included an unsettling amount of alcoholism and cancer,” she wrote.

The visit disappointed the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ star 

“Sadly, it was not the warm, loving,we’ve-been-waiting-for-you-to-show-up fantasy I had entertained ever since initiating the search for my birth parents,” she wrote. “There wasn’t any meaningful discussion about my origins, my first twenty-four hours in this world, or whether, despite giving me up for adoption, either one of my parents had ever wanted me.” 

When the actor got back to her hotel room, she cried “like a hysterical, inconsolable fiver-year-old.” Brinkman called Gilbert’s mother and handed the phone to his wife. 

“She got on the phone and listened to me recount what had happened and how terribly disappointed I was by the outcome,” she wrote. “Then she let me cry until I ran out of tears.”

Gilbert’s mother told her that finding out about her family was just a part of her story. Now she could move on in peace. She knew her mother was right.