The show was a hit in its first season. In its second season, ratings dropped so low, that the show was in danger of cancellation. NBC moved it from Wednesday to Monday nights to attract a wider audience, and the ratings recovered in its third season. NBC intended to end the show after its fourth season, but the ratings stayed high enough to renew the show for a fifth season. It remained in the top thirty until it was finally cancelled in 1983.
Michael Landon had a unique way of inspiring child actors and actresses to cry when required for a scene. Melissa Gilbert described how he would work himself up emotionally, face her with his eyes full of tears and ask her, "Do you know how much I love you?" to which she would get all teary and emotional in response.
In her autobiography "Prairie Tale", Melissa Gilbert said Michael Landon, and many of the show's crew members, abused alcohol on the set of this show everyday. "He was always a hard worker and hard drinker", she writes, "and he and the crew would regularly have a few drinks of alcohol on the set, which is probably part of why he might have developed pancreatic cancer at such a young age." Landon was known to smoke three to four packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day.
Although apparently based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the show took many liberties with different characters. For example, Albert Ingalls, the Garveys, and Adam Kendall never existed. Although Mary Ingalls went to blind school, she never married.
Back in the 1800s, one of the main evening meals was beef stew. Throughout the series, when the Ingalls sat down to eat, they were eating Dinty Moore Beef Stew, and on the nights they would have fried chicken for dinner, they were eating Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Dean Butler remarked that the first kiss between him and Melissa Gilbert was so nerve-racking for everyone that there were chaperones on the set to make sure nothing unseemly was going on. From the sidelines, Melissa's mother Barbara was wailing "My baby!" so much, that she had to be consoled.
While working on an episode of the show, Garett Brown, inventor of the Steadicam, chatted with former NFL player Merlin Olsen between scenes. Olsen mentioned how limited he thought television coverage of football was, because the static cameras couldn't give the audience any sense of the speed and flow of the game. With that in mind, Brown eventually designed what became known as Skycam, the floating hydraulic camera system that flies around the stadium above the players, with a 360 degree viewing angle. It has since become an essential tool in the coverage of live sporting and stadium events.
According to Alison Arngrim, the writers intended for Mary Ingalls and John Sanderson to get married. Melissa Sue Anderson and Radames Pera had no romantic chemistry, so the storyline was replaced by Mary going blind and going away to school.
Out of the many young girls who auditioned for the role of Laura Ingalls, Michael Landon was so certain that Melissa Gilbert was the perfect candidate, that hers was the only screentest he sent to the producers at NBC.
According to Allison Arngrim's autobiography "Confessions of a Prairie Bitch" Katherine (Scottie) McGregor was a nice lady, but also a disruptive element on the set. She would give other actors and actresses direction. She would argue with the directors a lot. Eventually Michael Landon seriously considered firing her. But her performance as the show's villain was just too perfect to let her go.
The black locomotive used as a train in many episodes, notable from the red-and-gold enamel "3" medallion in front, is the famous Sierra #3 locomotive, used in numerous movies and television shows for nearly a hundred years. Its appearances include High Noon (1952), The Virginian (1962), The Great Race (1965), Back to the Future Part III (1990), Unforgiven (1992), Petticoat Junction (1963), Rawhide (1959), Bonanza (1959), Gunsmoke (1955), and many others.
The only primetime non-reality series to stay in production during the 1980 actors' strike and the 1981 writers' strike, which delayed both fall seasons. Michael Landon, representing NBC rather than a studio, negotiated deals with SAG and WGA to allow the show to continue filming under a separate contract, while the actors, actresses, and writers continued to boycott the studios. (He did the same with the Writers Guild of America, purchasing scripts from the new members of the union, on the final season of Highway to Heaven (1984), which he owned. NBC didn't use his new episodes during the fall of 1988, though.)
According to Melissa Sue Anderson in her autobiography, " The Way I See It", there was tension on the set between Karen Grassle (Caroline) and Michael Landon (Charles). "Their's was not an equal relationship", she wrote. Allegedly Grassle was resentful of Michael Landon's power on the show, and she resented the fact that her character was basically a "June Cleaver" submissive type.
When she was offered the role of 'Caroline', Karen Grassle was working under the name of "Gabriel Tree". Michael Landon and NBC felt this name sounded too unconventional for a traditional and conservative family show like this and asked her to revert to her real name.
E.J. André appeared on the series seven times, in five different roles: Zachariah, Jed Cooper, St. Peter, Matthew Simms, and Amos Thoms. Eddie Quillan also appeared in seven episodes, but each in a different role: Buffalo Bill, Old Timer, Kavendish, Shorty, Gargan, Judge Picker and Jed Haney.
The final episode of the series, "The Last Farewell", was aired as a two hour movie. After a railroad executive comes to town claiming ownership of Hero Township, the town's residents dynamite all of the buildings. This was Michael Landon's idea. He thought it would be a more fitting ending, rather than have the town razed by bulldozers (as well as an ideal way to restore the set to its original state, as agreed)
Victor French (Isaiah Edwards) left the show for two years, from 1977 to 1979, to appear on Carter Country (1977). During this period, Merlin Olsen's Jonathan Garvey was brought in to become Charles' sidekick. When French came back after the cancellation of Carter Country (1977), Olsen was phased out of the series, and eventually given his own show, Father Murphy (1981), which was also produced by Michael Landon.
Melissa Sue Anderson was the only one on the show who was nominated for an Emmy, for her heartbreaking turn on season four, episodes twenty-one and twenty-two, "I'll Be Waving as You Drive Away: Parts 1 & 2", the episodes when Mary went blind. She didn't win.
Each 45 minute episode took, on average, seven days to shoot requiring four days on location at Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley for 'Walnut Grove' exteriors (and various Hollywood studio backlots for "Sleepy Eye", "Mankato" "Winoka", etc.), and three days in the studio for all interiors.
In the 1990s, after the show had long been in syndication, Kevin Hagen (Doc Baker) started an (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign, supported by several other regular cast members, to force NBC to make, what they considered, higher residual and royalty payments to them.
The series finale "The Last Farewell" ended with the town's residents marching out of town singing "Onward Christian Soldiers". The only buildings left standing were the church/schoolhouse and the Ingalls/Carter house.
Season one, episode seventeen, "Doctor's Lady" and season nine, episode ten, "Love", are virtually identical in plot, as both deal with an older man (Doc Baker and Mr. Edwards respectively) falling in love with much younger women and deciding to sacrifice the relationships, due to the age difference.
Father Murphy (1981) was not technically a spin-off of this show. Although it was executively Produced by Michael Landon, and starred many of this show's regulars, Merlin Olsen, Shannen Doherty, and Carl Dixon; there were no cross over characters or stories. These actors all played different characters than the ones they played on Little House. But it was usually shown on NBC in a block with Little House; and most viewers considered the two shows connected since there were so many common production people and actors involved. The media dubbed this show "Little House's Little Sister."
Blanche Hanalis wrote the script for the original pilot episode in 1974. However, although she had no further involvement with the series beyond the pilot, she continued to receive the opening titles credit: "Developed For Television By....." for every episode, including the TV movie specials.
This immensely-popular series debuted on Saturday, March 30, 1974, on NBC at 9:00 PM EST/8:00 PM PST, as a 2 hour movie, immediately following another popular show Emergency! (1972), before the series moved to Wednesday, September 11, 1974, on the same network at 8:00 PM EST/7:00 PM PST, for 2 years, before moving it to Monday, at 8:00 PM EST/7:00 PM PST, until series' cancelation.
Rose Wilder was Laura Ingalls Wilder's real life daughter. She is featured on this show as well. It is believed now that she was actually the ghost writer for the Little House series; since she was the established writer in the Family, and her mother was the one that had the fascinating "Pioneer Girl" history.
Before she starred as Hester Sue on Little House on the Prairie, Ketty Lester was a pop singer. Ketty Lester (born Revoyda Frierson; August 16, 1934) is an American singer and actress known for her 1962 hit single "Love Letters", which reached the top 5 of the charts in the U.S. and the U.K
Several of the the regular cast from Little House on the Prairie also appeared on The Love Boat, except for Michael Landon and Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush , including Karen Grassle, Allison Arngrim, Melissa Gilbert, Melissa Sue Anderson and Mattthew Laboretuex.
Melissa Gilbert said of her on- and off-screen chemistry with Landon, "He was very much like a 'second father' to me. My own father passed away when I was 11, so, without really officially announcing it, Michael really stepped in." When not working on the Little House set, Gilbert spent most of the weekends visiting Landon's real-life family. She once said, "The house was huge. We ran like banshees through that house, and Mike would hide behind doorways and jump out and scare us." In a 2015 interview, Gilbert said of Landon, "He gave me so much advice...the overall idea that he pounded into me, from a little girl, into my brain was that nothing's more important than 'Home & Family'; no success, no career, no achievements, no accomplishments, nothing's more important than loving the people you love and contributing to a community. Though we were working, really, really hard, we were 'Not Saving The World', one episode of television at a time, we're just entertaining people and there are more important things to do.... and have fun; no matter what."
Although in the Little House books (and on the TV show) Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that her sister Mary went blind because of Scarlet Fever. Specialists today say that this was unlikely; that the cause for Mary Ingalls' blindness was likely Meningitis. "They suspect that meningoencephalitis caused by a virus is the most likely cause of Mary's blindness. ...Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., agreed that scarlet fever probably didn't cause Mary's blindness. "I don't think scarlet fever causes blindness directly, though it is possible that there was some febrile illness that could have been mislabeled as scarlet fever," he said. A febrile illness is sickness that includes a fever." Later it was reported that Ingalls Wilder might have changed this reporting to people; both in the books and real life; because talking about viruses confused people back then; whereas Scarlet Fever was a simpler to understand explanation at the time: In 1937, in a letter to her daughter, Ingalls Wilder wrote that her sister had gone blind from spinal meningitis, and then crossed that out and wrote "some sort of spinal sickness."
In an interview for the Husky PawPrint Allison Arngrin (AKA Nellie) said, "I am one of the few who think it (blowing up the town) was actually a pretty interesting idea. It was a VERY Michael Landon thing to do." She explained that many of the actors in the finale did not like the idea of the town blowing up. So, some of the actors refuse to watch it. (Melissa Gilbert can be seen breaking down and crying real tears during this sequence). It's interesting that Arngrim feels this way since she's not in the sequence at all as she had left the show in the previous in season 8.
For the last year it was on television this show was renamed Little House: A New Beginning, with Melissa Gilbert as the star now; no longer Michael Landon. It wasn't really a new beginning like the title suggested though, it was the ending. The show only lasted a season in this format and then it was cancelled!
Karen Grassle (Ma/Caroline Ingalls) has talked in interviews about Michael Landon's decision to blow up the Walnut Grove set as a spiteful show of protest against NBC; who decided to cancel the show. She has said Landon's blowing up the set was very "sad"; and she "wishes he hadn't done that."
Just as Charles always called Laura "Half-Pint" on the show, Michael Landon always called Melissa Gilbert "Half-Pint" behind the scenes during the production also. This was to avoid confusion with the other Melissa, Melissa Sue Anderson. (She was called "Missy" to avoid confusion as well; no one was called Melissa.) Ironically, another Melissa would show up by the end of the show's run; Melissa Francis; she played Caroline and Charles' adoptive daughter Cassandra (and onscreen sister to Jason Bateman).
Melissa Gilbert got a nose job somewhere between season 5 and season 6 on this show. (There's a clear difference between her nose at the beginning of the series and at the end of the series; nine years later!) The amazing thing is that at the time, nobody noticed.
Michael Landon was given a chance to wrap up the series with three television movies. Oddly enough, because of a scheduling fluke, the second film (a Christmas story; Bless All the Dear Children) ended up airing a year after it was originally intended to run, in December 1984. So the third film, Little House: The Last Farewell - which worked as a series finale, wasn't actually the last to air.
Whereas Karen Grassle (and other cast members) thought it was "unfortunate" that Michael Landon decided to blow up the town at the ending; Michael Landon himself was proud of that decision. Landon remarked about this to the The New York Times in 1984: "I think it makes for a good strong pioneer ending. It was also a nice catharsis for the cast and crew. There were lots of tears when we finally blew up the town. The actors had all become very attached to their own buildings, so it was very emotional."
Shortly after the show wrapped; when Jonathan Gilbert (AKA Willie) turned 18; he left home and never returned, and has not really spoken to sister Melissa Gilbert since then. She has said in many interviews they "don't have a relationship." Reportedly he has become a successful stock broker.
Katherine "Scottie" Mcgregor did not return for any of the TV movies. Landon explains Harriet's absence by saying she's in the hospital, and no one really knows what's wrong. It's never resolved if she gets better at the ending or dies or not; that's a plot thread Landon left hanging.
The show transitioned from Paramount to MGM studios in the late 1970s. As they were tearing up the old MGM sets so they could build new Paramount/Little House sets over them, they uncovered the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz. Melissa Gilbert and the other kids on the set went nuts.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In her autobiography "Prairie Tale", Melissa Gilbert said she confronted former co-star and on-screen niece-in-law Shannen Doherty about sleeping with Gilbert's then-husband, Bo Brinkman. Doherty answered "Well, you know I always wanted to be you." Gilbert stormed off and never spoke to Doherty again. "It was a little too Single White Female for me", she said.
Hersha Parady debuted in the show in a one-off role as Charles Ingalls' sister-in-law Eliza, in season three, episode six, "Journey in the Spring", returning in season four as Alice Garvey, who would eventually die in the blind school fire episodes, season six, episodes twenty-one and twenty-two, "May We Make Them Proud: Parts 1 & 2". The fire was started accidentally by Albert, played by Matthew Laborteaux, who also made his Little House debut in "Journey in the Spring", playing a young Charles Ingalls, in a flashback sequence.