Photo courtesy of Alison Arngrim

Alison Arngrim talks ‘Little House on the Prairie’

The entertainer and author opens up about her time on “Little House on the Prairie” and why playing a character hated for onscreen meanness took a toll on her.

6 mins read

Alison Arngrim was born into the entertainment industry. Her father, Thor Arngrim, was a Canadian-born Hollywood manager. Her mother, Norma MacMillan, who was from Vancouver, British Columbia, was an actress. She did voices for animated characters like “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” “Gumby” and “Sweet Polly Purebred” from “Underdog.”

After starting her career as a child model and actress in television commercials, she auditioned for “Little House on the Prairie.” Her character on that series would become a household name.

Arngrim was 11 when she took the role of the little girl America loved to hate, “Nellie Oleson,” and she said being able to vent her rage may have saved her sanity. Arngrim suffered years of sexual abuse as a child and has been open about that trauma.

“When you live with abuse, you have a lot of rage and anger, and I had a place to actually take it and vent it as Nellie,” Arngrim said.

Photo courtesy of Alison Arngrim

Although she was cast in the antagonist role of “Nellie Oleson,” she also auditioned for two other parts before landing that one.

“Well, it was so crazy, because I had not read any of the books. I didn’t even know there was a Nellie Oleson. I was totally clueless. But after I went to the first audition, they kept calling me back.  I’d actually read for the part of Laura. Then I read for the part of Mary.The audition for Laura was like the search for the Scarlet O’Hara of eight-year-olds,” She said. “I kept coming back to these auditions and they finally called me back to read for Nellie Oleson. I had no idea what they were talking about. I was sitting there with my dad and I turned to him and said, ‘This is not a normal part.’  He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, this girl’s a total bitch.’ And my dad was just cracking up. He told me, ‘Don’t change a thing. You go in and you read it like that.  Don’t rehearse it anymore. Don’t read it again.’ So I went in and it was Michael Landon and Kent McCray and I read it for them. They went nuts. They started laughing hysterically.”

One of the parts Michael Landon and Kent McCray wanted Alison to read was from season 1, episode 2 and was titled “Country Girls”. In the episode, Arngrim’s character has made fun of the Ingalls girls for wearing homemade dresses to school. While reading an essay to the parents of the school’s children later that day, “Nellie” brags about all the expensive things in her home.

Photo courtesy of Alison Arngrim

“What got them at the interview, I believe there was a school essay I had to read about my house and my home, except that all “Nellie” talks about is how much everything costs,” Arngrim said. “’My home is the best home in all of Walnut Grove.’ It’s hilarious. It was that part. And that’s what was killing them and they said to do it again. I asked, ‘What part do you want me to change?’ And they said, ‘Nothing.  Just read the thing about the house again.’ That was it. I was hired on the spot.” 

“And I think it was because, I don’t know that all the other 11-year-old kids necessarily got the joke,” Arngrim stated. “Yes, Nellie was bragging and mean, but she was also not as fabulous as she thought she was and was making a fool of herself.  I’m not sure everybody got that and I kind of did.”

Alison’s character would become hated by viewers for her onscreen meanness. Some of that actually spilled over into Alison’s real life in the form of hate mail and threats.

“To be 11 or 12 years old and have everyone call you a bitch to your face every day of your life is very strange,” Arngrim said. “I’ve been spat upon, beaten and pelted with garbage at a Christmas parade, had an orange soda thrown at me in a parade, and  I was actually beaten up at a personal appearance. That’s when we realized I couldn’t dress in character for events.”

Photo courtesy of Alison Arngrim

Even after all these years since the show originally aired new episodes, the view people have of Arngrim’s character, Nellie Oleson, continues.

“People still have it in their heads that I’m Nellie Oleson. It’s not just the kids, it’s the grownups also,” Arngrim explained “Melissa Gilbert had a party a few years ago at her house. A grown woman who was in the industry (her husband was a big producer) actually stood there and said, ‘It’s so nice to see you two getting along finally.’ Melissa and I thought, ‘What is she talking about?’ The woman said, ‘Well, you made up.’ Then Melissa said, ‘Oh no, you mean on the show!’ This woman had to have been 40 years old and she couldn’t figure out why I was at a party at Melissa’s house.”

“Little House on the Prairie” ran on television from 1974 to 1983. Arngrim was in 104 episodes up to 1982 where she then departed the series.

Oftentimes actors will have favorite episodes of shows they have done. Alison has her favorite ones from “Little House.”

One of her favorites is the season 3 episode 2 episode titled “Bunny.”

In the episode, Nellie Oleson is injured after falling from Bunny, a horse that used to belong to Laura Ingalls Nellie’s mother blames Laura for the accident.

“It was very clever,” Arngrim stated. “I mean nowadays, they probably would have CGI’d the whole thing, but back then, with primitive methods, trying to make it look real, they had me in a wheelchair that literally had a steel cable so I could start to go down the hill and it could be stopped. And then they had a well-trained stunt woman go down the hill and do that somersault in mid-air. I do a lot of things, but I don’t do major somersaults. She did the somersault into the water and they had me come up spitting out the water.” 

“But they still needed another shot,” Arngrim continued. “They said, ‘We want to see you in the chair going down the hill, but it’s too dangerous to push you down this hill.’  So they took me, the chair and the whole setup to this other hill that was not quite as steep, but It was a longer, slower climb.” 

They put Arngrim in the chair, set the camera up on a dolly and exclaimed, “Okay, go!”

“Now, although, yes, it wasn’t as steep as that other hill,” Arngrim said. “Remember, there is still no safety equipment, there are no brakes on the wheelchair. There is no seat belt. I’m in my nightgown, underwear, and bedroom slippers. There’s no safety equipment of any kind. No padding.” 

And Arngrim had a real broken arm!

“When we shot that episode, it was already in the script that I pretend to be paralyzed but they wrote in the part about Nellie having a broken arm,” she said. “I, like the idiot that I am, went skateboarding shortly before this and managed to fracture my wrist.  So I’m bouncing around, totally unstrapped in this chair. It’s going down a hill, hitting rocks… and me with a real broken arm.  So it was actually quite terrifying.”

Since leaving “Little House” in 1982, Alison has continued performing, appearing in numerous films and shows including “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island,” “The Last Place on Earth,” “Le deal” and “Make the Yuletide Gay”. 

Alison’s one-woman show, “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch,” which started at Club Fez in New York, has now become a global phenomenon, having performed to packed houses in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Maui and the South of France, where she performed entirely in French to a standing room only crowd at the “Palais des Congres” in her all French version entitled “Confessions d’une Garce de La Prairie.”

Photo courtesy of Alison Arngrim

The former “Little House” actress has also written an autobiography titled “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.” In the book she details everything from her childhood sexual abuse that she suffered to how she was hated by Little House fans both on the screen and off.

She also dishes on the other cast members and details her friendship in real life with Melissa Gilbert.

She is also passionate about her charity work. Her former castmate Steve Tracy, who played her on-screen husband Percival Dalton, passed away from complications from AIDS in 1986. As a result, Alison has been actively involved with the AIDS project ACT UP, as well as volunteering with the AIDS hotline. 

She is also involved with the National Association to Protect Children, something she is very determined to help with.

Alison’s character on the series may have become the girl everyone loved to hate, but unlike her TV character, Alison believes in giving back and helping those who can’t help themselves. That is something that perfectly embodies what the series was all about.

Jimmy Reno

Jimmy Reno has always had a passion for the creative arts. Singing and writing have been at the forefront of his career. A professional Christian country singer and songwriter, he discovered his love for writing and journalism later on. Working as a freelance journalist in addition to his music, he contributes to the Daily Planet. An avid, life-long Superman fan, discovering the Daily Planet and contributing to it, was a dream come true.

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