‘Little House on the Prairie’: Karen Grassle Appeared in an Episode of ‘Gunsmoke’ Before Her ‘Ma Ingalls’ Audition

Karen Grassle starred in Little House on the Prairie from 1974 until 1982. She officially left the show as a full-time cast member after gaining notoriety for playing Caroline “Ma” Ingalls. Before booking Little House, the 78-year-old TV star appeared on another popular show of the 1970s era

A black and white photo of Karen Grassle as Ma Ingalls on 'Little House on the Prairie'
Karen Grassle as Caroline ‘Ma’ Ingalls| NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal

Karen Grassle studied theatre before ‘Little House on the Prairie’

Grassle spent her childhood in Berkley, California. For her undergraduate career, she attended  H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, the women’s college for Tulane University at the time. While there, Grassle discovered her love for acting. She eventually transferred to the University of California, Berkeley. After graduating with BA degrees in 1965 in English and Dramatic Arts, Grassle moved to London to accept the Fulbright Fellowship to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. 

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During her time in London, the actor worked with theatre companies across the country. However, she found herself “flat broke” when she decided to try TV acting in Los Angeles. In 1973, she met with Michael Landon about playing his on-screen wife, Ma Ingalls. Before that, a movie she negotiated overseas stopped production when Grassle moved to California. 

“I had spent a year in England, working with a Shakespeare company and teaching, and came back to the States flat broke,” Grassle recalled, per Closer. “I was asked to fly to LA to play the lead in an independent movie, but when I got to the airport, there was no ticket! I’d sublet my apartment, and my boyfriend was [with me], so I wrote a bad check to get one! But when I got to LA, the movie fell through.” 

Karen Grassle connected with a ‘Little House on the Prairie’ cast member through ‘Gunsmoke’ 

Little House on the Prairie premiered on NBC in 1974. That same year, Grassle’s episode of Gunsmoke aired. In her episode in the Western drama, titled “The Wiving,” she played Fran, one of the three saloon girls kidnapped in Dodge by three men who want to marry them. 

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The episode was Grassle’s first and only appearance on the long-running show. However, author David Greenland wrote in Landon’s biography, Michael Landon: The Career and Artistry of a Television Genius that Gunsmoke connected her with another Little House actor. 

“Classically trained actress Karen Grassle was cast as mother Caroline,” the author said. “Coincidentally, shortly before production began, Grassle had filmed an episode of Gunsmoke directed by none other than Victor French.”

Karen Grassle’s net worth and her roles after ‘Little House on the Prairie’

According to Celebrity Net Worth, Grassle has a current net worth of $500,000. After eight years on Little House on the Prairie, she decided to quit the show. As her and Landon’s TV children (Melissa Sue Anderson, Melissa Gilbert, and Sidney and Lindsay Greenbush) grew older, the Bonanza star opted to step down as Pa Ingalls. However, he and Grassle appeared in the show’s finale movie, which aired in 1984. 

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Throughout the 1980s, the actor guest-starred in Murder She Wrote. She also appeared in several movies, including Between the Darkness and the Dawn and Wyatt Earp, before taking a break from acting. As of 2020, Grassle resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and stays involved in local theatre.