Why ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Star Melissa Sue Anderson Got a Phone Call From Burt Reynolds

Little House on the Prairie gave Melissa Sue Anderson her start in acting when the series launched in 1974. Based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the historical drama included a storyline for Anderson that earned her the show’s first and only Emmy nomination.

Playing eldest daughter Mary Ingalls, Anderson started looking for other performing opportunities when she felt her character was getting less screen time. One particular acting gig caught the attention of legendary movie star Burt Reynolds.

Melissa Sue Anderson of 'Little House on the Prairie'
Melissa Sue Anderson of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ | Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Melissa Sue Anderson got frustrated with her ‘limiting’ role

Anderson had a challenging storyline in season 4 when her character Mary went blind. While she relished the opportunity to show her acting chops and even garnered an Emmy nomination for Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 1978, she soon found that Mary was getting edged out as the seasons went on.

“I became very frustrated playing a ‘blind pioneer,'” she wrote in her 2010 memoir, The Way I See It: A Look Back at My Life on Little House. “In the beginning… it was a challenge that was both exciting and gratifying. But now, well into the second season of Mary’s blindness, I could tell that the writers were having trouble coming up with ideas for Mary and [her husband] Adam.”

The Little House alum began snagging guest appearances on shows like Love Boat and some TV movie roles. Anderson soon felt her role as Mary Ingalls was overrun by a string of unrealistic tragedies, which included a miscarriage, her baby’s death, and temporary insanity. Her final episode on Little House was in December 1981.

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“It wasn’t just the blind issue, but also the period of the show,” she said in 2010 of the series set in the 1870s, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was very limiting, what you could or couldn’t do. I used to say I was blind and boring. Either I was just there not doing much, or going through some tragedy. I couldn’t take it anymore. It became too soap opera-ish.”

Post-‘Little House’ theater gig

After her last Little House episode, Anderson headed to Florida for a role in Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater. The Emmy nominee got more than she bargained for when the lead actress had an injury.

“I was taking Kirk Douglas’s advice and getting my ‘theater chops,'” Anderson recalled. “Boy, did I ever. After a few weeks of rehearsal with our director, Charles Nelson Reilly, we got to opening night and had no star. Hope Lange – remember her from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir? – was in the hospital in traction for a bad back or neck or both.”

With Anderson having to pick up the slack, she ended up earning the gratitude from the theater’s namesake.

“Mr. Burt Reynolds himself telephoned me in my dressing room to thank me for hanging in there to carry the show while Ms. Lange was out,” the Little House alum revealed. “What else could I do? So I said, ‘You’re welcome, Mr. Reynolds,’ and continued getting ready to open that night.”

‘Little House’ star had ‘baptism by fire’ on stage

While Anderson was at first a bit thrown by her added responsibilities for the show, she was grateful that the crew and her cast mates had her back.

“Everyone at the theater had been very supportive,” she recalled. “Including Dick Cavett, the comedian and talk show host, who was starring in the play after ours. … He was one of the smartest and funniest people I’ve ever met.”

The TV star looked back on her theater experience as being thrown into the deep end of the pool, but used a more flammable metaphor.

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“We got rave reviews,” Anderson recalled. “Eventually, Hope Lange came back, and we got into a groove and really had some fun. The audiences seemed to like our show a lot, and I had my ‘baptism by fire’ into theater.”