Melissa Gilbert Had to Take Intense Acting Classes When She ‘Wasn’t Delivering’ as Helen Keller in ‘The Miracle Worker’
Melissa Gilbert is best known for her role as Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie. But she also played Helen Keller in the TV movie The Miracle Worker in 1979 after her mother decided she wanted her daughter to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor. During the rehearsal process, it became clear that Gilbert was struggling with her performance.
Melissa Gilbert ‘had no idea what [she] was getting [herself] into’ by playing Helen Keller in ‘The Miracle Worker’
In Gilbert’s memoir, Prairie Tale, she writes about her time in the role of Helen Keller. She admits she “had no idea what [she] was getting [herself] into by playing this remarkable girl.”
When Gilbert first began rehearsing for The Miracle Worker, she didn’t have an official acting process or technique. Her lack of experience, apparently, showed. The director, Paul Aaron, met with Gilbert’s mother and told her that her daughter “wasn’t delivering at the level they needed.”
“In fact, they put it more bluntly than that,” wrote Gilbert. “They said that while the cast, which included Anna [Patty Duke], Diana Muldaur, and Charles Siebert, had gelled, as they’d expected from seasoned pros, it was obvious that I simply didn’t have it.”
Melissa Gilbert took acting classes from Jeff Corey to help her with the role of Helen Keller
So Gilbert’s mother whisked her away to take emergency acting classes with her former coach, Jeff Corey. Corey had been blacklisted for “refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s.” He was also a Shakespearean-trained actor with dozens of film and television credits under his belt who’d taught James Dean, Jane Fonda, and Jack Nicholson.
“I adored him, and yet from the moment we met he scared the crap out of me,” wrote Gilbert.
Corey helped Gilbert truly understand Helen. On their first day back working together, he told her: “We’re going to do something, and it’s going to be scary.”
“He then blindfolded me, turned off the lights, and tossed me around the room for about forty-five minutes,” wrote Gilbert. “He let me trip over furniture, and when I couldn’t figure out where I was, he called to me from across the room, letting me stumble over furniture, fall, and cry through my frustration, until I found my way into his arms. He was Annie to my Helen.”
Corey delivered on his promise to help Gilbert find “a process that let [her] develop a layered performance.”
“Besides the black-and-blue marks, I stepped deeper into Helen than I imagined I could,” she wrote.
The audience believed Melissa Gilbert’s portrayal of Helen Keller in ‘The Miracle Worker’
Before The Miracle Worker was filmed, the team turned the production into a play to work out the kinks. Gilbert knew she was giving a convincing performance thanks to the live audiences she performed in front of.
“Each night during the play, I entered from the back of the stage and ran straight to the front, averting catastrophe by stopping just at the edge, and from opening night through the run, which was extended, the people in the front row stood to catch me, at which point I knew I had them,” she wrote. “They really thought I was blind and deaf.”
After her performance in The Miracle Worker, Gilbert began to think of herself as a serious actor.
“My eyes opened to the possibility that this thing I was doing as a hobby was something I could actually learn about and develop into a serious craft,” she wrote.