When Melissa Sue Anderson Realized ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Was a Hit: ‘I Knew I Wasn’t Going To Have a Regular Life Then’

Melissa Sue Anderson played Mary Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie when the historical drama premiered in 1974. Just 11 years old at the time, Anderson had already appeared on some TV shows but wasn’t yet a famous face.

Once Little House began bringing in ratings, the young actor discovered that her life was going to vastly change.

Melissa Sue Anderson and Melissa Gilbert of 'Little House on the Prairie'
Melissa Sue Anderson and Melissa Gilbert of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ | NBCU Photo Bank

Melissa Sue Anderson couldn’t find common ground with co-stars her age

NBC cast several young actors for the series, based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Co-stars in Anderson’s age group included Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls) and Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson). Yet Anderson found very little common ground with Gilbert, who played her younger sister. 

“We were so different,” Anderson told PopEntertainment.com in 2010. “That happens so often on series television, when you are literally thrown together. Sometimes you might have something in common with somebody, or a lot of things in common, but most times you don’t.”

Anderson revealed that her relationship with Gilbert off camera didn’t exactly resemble a sibling bond.

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“We were pretty good at what we do, I guess, because we were such a great family on screen, but we really didn’t have anything in common,” the Little House alum explained. “We never fought. We always got along. But we just never had anything in common. We’ve never really been close.”

‘Little House on the Prairie’ soon became an NBC staple

The series began finding traction during the first season, with the cast gaining a steady fan base. Anderson noted some changes that came along with Little House’s growing popularity.

“By the beginning of the second season, we were recognized all the time,” Anderson recalled.  “I knew I wasn’t going to have a regular life then. I did have to learn how to always be good to the fans, even though as a kid, it’s awkward. It’s awkward as an adult too. Fans mean well. You mean well. You’re walking along, and sometimes people stop and stare and point. It’s easier if they just come up to you and get it over with and talk. As a kid, it was magnified.”

Over time, Anderson learned how to best interact with fans and sometimes go unnoticed.

“You get good at it,” she noted. “I also got good at walking and looking straight ahead. Not looking around and slowly walking. You need a direction and you’re focused on it and you go, and people don’t notice you as much.”  

‘Little House’ star left the show in season 8

When Anderson’s character went blind in season 4, her performance earned her the cast’s first and only Emmy nomination. While she relished the meaty storyline, Anderson found her character soon became riddled with calamity. Getting diminishing screen time, Anderson decided to exit Little House in its eighth season.

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“I fulfilled my seven-year contract,” Anderson explained. “I did two episodes during the eighth season, but I couldn’t take it anymore – I couldn’t take another tragedy. I was just there for audience recognition, so they know I didn’t die. It was either feast or famine. Either I was involved in some horrible tragedy, or nothing. And the blind thing was just too limiting. So I bid farewell.”

Despite not being thrilled with how her character evolved, Anderson was able to transition out of the show with plenty of appreciation for her time on Little House.

“It was fine. It was an easy, gradual way out,” she said. “I’m very happy to have been a part of something that’s so special to so many people.”