Why ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Guest Star Sean Penn Passed out on the Set, According to Melissa Gilbert

Sean Penn’s first on screen acting role was on Little House on the Prairie. He played the role credited simply as “kid” in a 1974 and 1975 episode. The first of those episodes was more than he could take. Then 14, Penn passed out, but he was in good company with the show’s regulars. Melissa Gilbert explained what happened to Penn.

Little House on the Prairie cast poses on a log
Top L-R: Michael Landon, Karen Grassle and Melissa Gilbert Bottom L-R: Melissa Sue Anderson and Sidney or Lindsay Greenbush | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Gilbert shared memories of making Little House on the Prairie on an April 18, 2020 episode of her Gilbert & Busfield podcast. Her husband, Timothy Busfield, wanted to know about Penn’s appearance on the show so Gilbert told the story. 

Sean Penn’s father cast him in ‘Little House on the Prairie’

Busfield knew that the episodes in which Sean Penn appeared were directed by his father, Leo Penn. Leo directed three episodes of Little House on the Prairie, and cast Sean in two of them. Gilbert confirmed, and explained the cause of the unconsciousness. 

“Sean Penn just passed out on the set from the heat,” Gilbert said. “Leo was directing.”

It wasn’t just a hot day on the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ set

Gilbert elaborated on the story. While Little House on the Prairie often shot in the brutal heat of rural California, there was more to it than weather. Leo Penn compounded the heat with some authentic historical props from the era. 

“Leo’s directing,” Gilbert said. “He’s directing the episode called ‘The Something of Tinker Jones,’ ‘The Heart of Tinker Jones,’ ‘The Song of Tinker Jones,’ I don’t remember,” Gilbert said.

The episode was called “The Voice of Tinker Jones.” Tinker Jones was a deaf mute who sold metal goods and communicated by writing on a slate. 

Sean Penn smiles at the Flag Day press conference
Sean Penn | Kate Green/Getty Images

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“But we’re trying to get a bell for the church,” Gilbert said. “Chuck McCann plays Tinker Jones. He has a cary with all these metal things. He has a smelter and he makes metal toys for all the children. So we decide with him that we’re going to make our own bell. We’re going to melt down all our metal toys and pour a bell. Leo being the methodical, methody kind of director, he had them build an actual smelter. That was liquid metal in this huge fiery [machine] and we were shooting out in Simi Valley in the summer.”

Sean Penn joined Alison Arngrim in the fainting club

Sean Penn obviously took after his father when he became an actor. The Oscar-winner is known for staying in character, whether he’s playing Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High or a serious dramatic role. As a kid, however, the summer heat and metal smelting were a dangerous combination.

“It was already 110,” Gilbert said. “We were outside and the heat coming off of this thing was mind boggling intense. All of us kids were there. Two fainted.”

Gilbert revealed which of her co-stars went down first. Apparently it was not the first or last time it happened to her. 

Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim lie down in the water
L-R: Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim | NBCU Photo Bank

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Alison Arngrim went down first, hard, fast, boom,” Gilbert said. “She was always very delicate. She just went ploop and the feet went up and the curls. And Sean Penn. I did not faint, nor did I get dizzy, nor did I get dehydrated, nor was I bothered. I was hot and sweaty.”

Sean Penn would go on to guest star on an episode of Barnaby Jones and in two TV movies before landing roles in the films Taps and Fast Times.

Source: Gilbert & Busfield podcast