‘Little House on the Prairie’: The Real Reason Patricia Neal Received Special Treatment When She Guest-Starred

Award-winning actor Patricia Neal was a guest star on Little House on the Prairie for the two-part “Remember Me” episode. She played a widow with a terminal illness. According to Melissa Gilbert (who played Laura Ingalls on the show), the entire cast was aflutter to have Neal on set, even if only for a short while. It was standard for Little House on the Prairie actors to relax in modest honey wagons between takes, but not Neal. She got her own Winnebago. Here’s why.

Patricia Neal
Patricia Neal | John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Melissa Gilbert didn’t know who Patricia Neal was when she guest-starred on ‘Little House on the Prairie’

In her memoir, Prairie Tale, Gilbert admits that, as a child (she was cast as Laura at 9 years old), she didn’t know many celebrities. So when Neal showed up on set, she wasn’t aware of the icon’s resume.

“If someone told me, and someone probably did, the information didn’t stick,” she wrote. “However, I knew she was important because all of the adults on the show were beside themselves that she was there and because she had her own Winnebago, which was unheard of on our show.” 

Why Patricia Neal used a teleprompter and stayed in a Winnebago during her guest star on ‘Little House on the Prairie’

Neal wasn’t given a glamorous trailer because of her star status.

“I found out [Michael Landon] had arranged the Winnebago for Patricia because she’d suffered a stroke a few years earlier and needed a private, comfortable place to rest,” explained Gilbert.

Patricia Neal on 'Little House on the Prairie' | NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images
Patricia Neal on ‘Little House on the Prairie’ | NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

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Additionally, Neal used a teleprompter during her brief time on the show, another unprecedented move for Prairie actors.

“The crew also set up a teleprompter on the set for her dialogue,” wrote Gilbert. “Though she had recovered, I learned her stroke had been much worse than my father’s. We kids were told not to distract her, to be respectful, and keep our distance. That just made tenacious me more intrigued.”

Melissa Gilbert and Patrica Neal became fast friends on ‘Little House on the Prairie’

Gilbert and Neal “had a fun exchange” on the Breakfast at Tiffany’s actor’s first day on set, so Neal took the young actor “under her wing.”

“I was allowed to go in her Winnebago and spent a lot of time with her,” wrote Gilbert. “She made me feel comfortable, and as we chatted, she opened the door for me to ask her anything. So, being kind of guileless, I asked her why she needed a teleprompter and how come she couldn’t remember her lines.”

Neal explained that the stroke she’d had made it difficult for her to remember things.  

“It’s difficult for me because I only recently learned to walk again,” Gilbert recalled her saying. “I still have to think right-left-right-left. And when my brain is busy thinking right-left-right-left, it forgets everything else.”

Patricia Neal as Julia Sanderson on 'Little House on the Prairie'
Patricia Neal as Julia Sanderson | NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

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Gilbert’s father had also recently had a stroke, but her family didn’t talk about it. She learned a lot from Neal.

“I remember being profoundly moved and almost a little confused by her openness,” wrote Gilbert. “We didn’t discuss anything that openly at my house. My father’s stroke wasn’t mentioned. It had been bad, but he’d recovered, and now that he was back on the road we didn’t have to think about it.”

Thanks to her conversations with Neal, Gilbert felt more educated and less afraid about what her dad had gone through.  

“I still think about the way Patricia’s honesty cast a light on life, ridding it of some of my deeper and darker fears,” she wrote. “I loved her for it.”