Being cast as the future love interest for “America’s sweetheart” on one of the most popular shows on TV would be a daunting task for any actor, but that’s exactly what happened to Dean Butler when he was cast as Almanzo Wilder for NBC’s “Little House on the Prairie.”
Dean’s path to acting wasn’t a clear choice to begin with.
“The young man who was really my inspiration to try acting was someone who, in high school, was three years older than I was. I watched a young man named Warren Kelly light up the stage playing Henry Higgins in ‘My Fair Lady.’ I watched that and just said, ‘I have to do that.’ What’s sort of sad about this story is Warren just recently passed, like last week, of a very rare form of brain cancer. He was my inspiration for this and was just not someone that the public knew, but he was just such a consummate actor. You see an actor like him, who just commands the stage, and it turns on the light of inspiration. It was from that time, probably my sophomore year in high school, that I really got interested in acting. I really started chasing it professionally after my freshman year in college,” he said.
After doing commercials, Dean had the opportunity to be in a CBS TV movie-of-the-week called “Forever.”
“I was a nobody from nowhere who got this chance and it just worked out.Dean Butler
“I was a nobody from nowhere who got this chance and it just worked out. That brought me to Los Angeles, and that led to signing with a really fantastic agent, and that led to the ‘Little House’ interviews. So there’s a direct line between Warren Kelly, the ‘University of The Pacific,’ my northern California upbringing and ‘Little House.’ Parts of the ‘Little House’ pilot were shot just outside Stockton, California in March of 1974, which was just months before I started going to school there, so I think all of this was just sort of meant to be,” he explained.
Dean was cast as Almanzo Wilder in season 6 of the series. By this point, “Little House” was already an established hit for NBC.
“I think back on it and it was really a blessing. The show was a huge hit and there was really no pressure on me at all. Michael Landon was the star, the writer, the director and the executive producer, so all of this was on him and all of the rest of the cast who had established themselves as really popular staples in American television. I really got to ride on their coattails coming in. I can say that now, but at the time, I was feeling like, here’s this great hit, this wonderful show and great cast and I hope I don’t mess it up. There was that feeling of am I going to be good enough to fit in with this group? Am I going to be able to hold my own? All these kinds of things went through my mind. The reality was, Michael [Landon] was such a consummate professional and so good at what he was doing and so in command that really nobody had anything to worry about but him. He had it all in his hands and he wore all the major hats in the show. All we had to do was put ourselves in Michael’s hands and go for it. It was also a very welcoming cast and everybody was so friendly. I never sensed any hostility or judgements,” he said.
The success of any series, in large part, depends on the casting. The actors hired for the various roles have a major impact on the potential success. ‘Little House’ was brilliantly cast and it showed in the finished product.
“I think 90 percent of success, in theatrical enterprises, be it film, television or stage, is in the casting. If you can put the right people in the parts, you’ve done a huge part of your job. If you’re a Producer or casting Director, your success will largely depend on who you’ve put in those spots. Usually, someone in casting knows after about 8 seconds of you entering the room, if you’re right for the part. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Susan Sukman McCray, who was the casting Director. She brought me in and she really guided the whole process. By the time I met Michael [Landon], she had gone through hundreds of actors and Michael met with four actors for the part of ‘Almanzo’. So she really had a huge impact on the actors who made it onto the show,” he said.
Michael Landon was already an icon in the entertainment industry when “Little House on the Prairie” made its television debut. Landon had just come out of the long running western series “Bonanza” where he portrayed “Little Joe Cartwright” so the network had high expectations that “Little House ” was going to be a huge hit for them. The network immediately ordered a full season of 24 episodes.
By the time Dean met Michael Landon, he had completed 14 years on “Bonanza,” and another five years on “Little House.”
“Michael had already spent 20 years of his life in primetime when I met him. Michael was just as big a star as there was in television at that time and as powerful of one as there was in terms of being able to influence what was going on around him. The reality of it was, he had a huge job to do. He didn’t have time for a lot of hand holding. He would hold your hand if you needed it, but he really wanted the actors to come in and deliver the goods. He had a schedule to shoot and airdates to make. As a new, young actor, I probably would have liked a little more care given, but on the other hand, you have to realize, when I needed direction, he gave it to me. He just didn’t have time to be your pal. I would say in all honesty, he wasn’t anyone’s pal. He was great with everybody but in a detached kind of way because he just didn’t have the time. If you were in a scene with him, you got his undivided attention. I think everyone wanted to be pals with ‘Michael Landon’ but there just wasn’t time for that. We were all like family but a family of cousins. There was a little distance between us, but we were still associated with each other. Michael didn’t have the benefit of a lot of the equipment directors use now, he trusted his eyes and his ears. He watched the scenes very closely and when he got it he knew it,” he said.
Oftentimes, you hear actors say they don’t watch any series they have acted in for various reasons but Dean, however, has watched “Little House” and has episodes he’s particularly fond of.
“As far as episodes I’m not in, at the end of the first season, there’s a two part episode called ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’. I think this is one of the finest episodes in the history of the series. There is just something beautiful in the storytelling about that. In the episode, ‘Laura’ goes to find God to get Him to give ‘Ma’ and ‘Pa’ a new baby boy [after the death of her infant brother]. Then here’s [guest star] Ernest Borgnine, playing the character ‘Jonathan’ on the mountain,” Butler said.
By the end of the episode, you don’t really know who Jonathan was, which is just wonderful storytelling.
“This character, Jonathan, was on the mountain with Laura when ‘Pa’ and Mr. Edward’s [Victor French] show up. They turn around to thank him and he’s gone. Where did he go? Who was he? Michael [Landon] just had a wonderful touch with that. In terms of favorite episodes I was in, that would be towards the end of season 6 in an episode titled ‘Sweet Sixteen.'”
This is when Almanzo and Laura’s love sort of blooms.
“It was a huge turning point for Melissa Gilbert as Laura and it was a turning point for me in the work I was doing as Almanzo and it was a huge turning point in the series. Now we were moving into the latter stages of the books and at the end of season 6, we are jumping into the happy, golden years of the last of ‘Laura’ [Wilder’s] initial publications,” he stated.
By the time this episode happens, we are near the end of the source material that drove the series.
“The audience loved this episode and I think it was number one [in the Nielson TV ratings] for the week. It ran twice in primetime that summer. Then of course there’s this famous first kiss that happens at the end of the episode. TV Land gave us an award years later for the most memorable kiss in television history. It was a funny kiss because Melissa’s mother was offscreen nearby crying. She was seeing her little girl have her first kiss ever, both onscreen and off so that was a big deal,” he said.
For Melissa, she had no life experience to lead her into this.
“She had nothing in her life to prepare her for this moment. Melissa was just gutsy. Melissa Gilbert is a gutsy woman and she was a gutsy little girl. She was just prepared to step in and do what needed to be done. If she was uncomfortable in the moment, she never gave that away. Years later we find out that she was actually terribly uncomfortable in that moment but you didn’t see that when we were doing it. She would have never given that away. She’s a gamer that way. I think a young woman of lesser courage and internal strength might have folded in that moment. It’s tribute to who Melissa is that she handled that so well,” he continued.
Going into season 8 of “Little House,” there was some uncertainty for the prospects of season 9. Most TV series don’t run for 8 seasons, so the longer the show continues on, the more uncertain of when the eventual end will be.
Episode 18 of season 8, “Days of Sunshine, Days of Shadow”, however, had an impact on that decision for NBC.
“That episode is one in which everything goes wrong! There’s diphtheria, the stroke [suffered by ‘Almanzo’], the tornado that blows the [‘Almanzo Wilder’] House down and his crops lost to the hail. They just threw every calamity that could occur in this two part episode. It had a very good [Nielson] rating and that’s when NBC gave the ok for us to do the last season. That’s when Michael stepped away. I think he knew he could no longer do those scenes between his character and the characters of his children. One of the beautiful things about the show was the scenes where ‘Laura’ would sit on ‘Pa’s’ lap and have these heart to heart scenes. They just couldn’t do those scenes anymore. ‘Laura’ was married at this point with a family of her own, so beautiful heartfelt scenes between them, the ones that were the bread and butter of the series and ones they did so well together, those scenes just couldn’t be done anymore. Michael [Landon] tried to replace that and brought in more young kids. He had to adapt and he did a wonderful job,” he explained
As often happens when a series does end, some props or souvenirs find their way to some of the actors’ homes. For Dean, that was the iconic hat worn by Michael Landon in his portrayal of “Charles Ingalls” and then worn by Dean Butler in his portrayal of “Almanzo Wilder” in the final season of the series.
“I do have the hat. On the inside in blue ink are the initials M.L. on the inside band. What I’m bummed about is I don’t have the hat I originally wore on the series. The little round top hat that was a lot like Dan Blocker’s hat [‘Hoss’ on Bonanza]. Hats are a fascinating thing in westerns because of what they say about those who wear them,” Butler said.
Michael was very particular about that first hat Butler wore.
“I think the only reason I switched to his hat in the final season was the network wanted it to still be present as it had become such an iconic hat. In retrospect, we probably shouldn’t have changed the hat. I mean a guy doesn’t change his hat just because his father-in-law leaves town. The great thing about the original hat Michael chose for me was they had brought in a lot of hats and Michael immediately gravitated to this round top hat because he wanted this very simple, uncomplicated thing. He wanted my character to be very uncomplicated. He wanted him to be very pure. It’s understandable given the fact that my character was going to be asked to interface with America’s sweetheart. Whoever played my part was going to have to be very upstanding, no deep agenda, kind of person. The hat was a big part of selling that,” he explained.
The show has continued to draw in new generations of fans since it stopped airing original episodes in 1983 for the regular series and 1984 for the final TV movie.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, this gave many people more time than usual to watch TV and interest in the “Little House” series grew even more.
“I think this past year has been a particularly interesting time for ‘Little House’. The program shines a light on a way through difficult times. I think this past year has been a vivid illustration of difficult times and people found ‘Little House’ and found some peace and comfort in it, which is very gratifying,” he said.
The impact of the show is still felt by many of the actors who were part of the series. Each new generation that discovers the show, has fans who are enamored with the character of Almanzo Wilder.
“Through the years, I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of affection coming from young women who loved the show. I’ve always looked at that as ‘Laura’ [Ingalls] was every girl’s best friend. ‘Laura was a wonderful role model and she was someone young girls emulated so there was naturally a lot of interest in the man who would capture ‘Laura’s’ heart. So I’ve been the beneficiary of that for 40 years. It’s been a pretty remarkable thing and something I’m extremely grateful for.” He explained.
Dean has gone on to direct and produce, in addition to his acting. In 2008, he produced and directed a documentary on the real Almanzo Wilder titled, “Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura.” Then in 2015, he produced and directed, “Little House on the Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder”.
From 2011-2019, he was the Producer and a writer for “Feherty.” This was a talk show about golf hosted by David Feherty.
Reflecting back over his life and career up to this point, Dean remembers Michael Landon telling him that “Little House” would be around after everyone who had been on it was gone.
“I remember we were in-between shots and Michael said that people would be loving and watching the show long after we were all gone. At the time I was around 25 to 26 years old so I couldn’t even conceive of that. To me it just didn’t seem possible. Michael was in his early 40’s at the time he said the show would outlive us all. It seemed so unlikely to me then but now it just seems inevitable. We will remember the 30th anniversary of Michael’s passing this July. So many of our cast members have now left us. Given the way the show has remained so popular, it’s just inevitable that it continues on. Television gives you an immortality that you otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s just an incredible gift. I often said when I ultimately pass, something about ‘Little House’ will be written in the first line of the obituary. If I’m remembered as being part of this beautiful program that celebrates family, community and overcoming hard times, that is a tremendous legacy to have. I just couldn’t be more grateful,” he said.
Dean Butler continues to show the talent and professionalism in his work that got him the job of a lifetime. It’s a job he’s thankful for and grateful to be apart of the iconic series that showed us what true community is all about.