The Actor Who Admitted To ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Star Melissa Gilbert She Once Set a Critic’s Blazer on Fire

Throughout her career, Little House on the Prairie star Melissa Gilbert has met and worked with some extraordinary people. One of those people was film, theater, and television actor Maureen Stapleton. The two worked together on the made-for-TV movie, Family Secrets. Throughout the course of filming, the women became close.

Melissa Gilbert
Melissa Gilbert | Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Maureen Stapleton

Stapleton was born June 21, 1925, in Troy, New York. She moved to New York City at the age of 18. She modeled to pay the bills and quickly found her way into acting. She studied at the Actors Studio led by Lee Strasberg, where she became friends with Marilyn Monroe.

Stapleton was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Lonelyhearts, Airport, and Interiors. She won the award for her performance as Emma Goldman in Reds. She was also nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, and won for Airport.

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She first appeared on Broadway in 1946 in The Playboy of the Western World. In 1951, she won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for The Rose Tattoo. In 1971, she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for The Gingerbread Lady. Stapleton was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981.

She died in 2006 at her home in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Melissa Gilbert and Maureen Stapleton in ‘Family Secrets’

Gilbert’s production company, Half-Pint Productions, debuted the TV-movie Family Secrets in 1984. The story is about three generations of women who reunite for an emotional weekend after selling their family home. The cast includes Gilbert, Stephanie Powers, and Stapleton.

Gilbert also snuck her then-boyfriend into a scene, Rob Lowe.

“Stephanie and I are in the grocery store,” Gilbert wrote in her memoir, Prairie Tale. “As we walk past a cute guy in the produce section, I turn to check him out. It was Rob.”

But Gilbert writes that the best part of shooting Family Secrets was getting to know Stapleton.

“More than one of the most amazing actresses of our time, Mo was an amazing woman,” wrote Gilbert. “She was a ballsy broad, and she was just the tonic my soul needed. A real dame, she had a tremendous appetite for life. She liked to drink and eat, and she didn’t mince words.”

The stories Maureen Stapleton told Melissa Gilbert while filming ‘Family Secrets’

In Prairie Tale, Gilbert describes her ritual of sitting down with Stapleton before work while she sipped a Bloody Mary and told stories “that were legendary even then.”

“My eyes bulged as she recounted the ribald speech she gave at the wrap party for Bye Bye Birdie, and we laughed together as she recalled seeing a critic she didn’t like at a restaurant and setting the back of his blazer on fire with a cigarette lighter,” she wrote.

Maureen Stapleton
Maureen Stapleton | Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

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But Gilbert’s favorite story Stapleton told was about the time the Reds actor went out to dinner with Alan David. After cutting into her steak and realizing it was medium instead of well-done, she called the waiter over.

“Take this back and tell the chef I said to piss on it,” said Stapleton, as re-told by Gilbert.

“Excuse me?” asked the waiter.

“Well, that’s what they do when you send food back,” said Stapleton. “I just want him to know that I know he’s going to piss on it. So tell him to piss on it.”