Alison Arngrim Interview: 'Confessions of a Prairie Bitch,' Living in the Shadows of Nellie Oleson
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Alison Arngrim, best known to viewers worldwide as portraying the incredibly mean and nasty Nellie Oleson on the long-running hit NBC series Little House on the Prairie, continues to amuse audiences through her film, stage, and television appearances.
In addition to her 7 years on Little House, Arngrim guest starred on The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and the NBC movie of the week, I Married Wyatt Earp. She mocked her own status as an “ex-child star” on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, during their month long parody “Hollywood Survivor.”
“He was always taking his shirt off. Those pants were just a little tighter than men wore them in 1874…”
The multi-talented performer’s stage work includes Sienna: Queen of the Tango, Butterflies Are Free, Hidden in the Laughter, Dear Brutus, The Wool Gatherer, Cry of Players, and the French bedroom farce, In One Bed and Out the Other.
Arngrim’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.”
The former Little House actress has recently launched her book, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated. In the read she details the childhood sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her brother and relates how she was hated by Little House fans on the screen and off.
Confessions of a Prairie Bitch is witty, poignant, and downright hilarious just as the author is herself.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Confessions of a Prairie Bitch was an interesting read. Your standup routine came before the book, right?
Alison Arngrim: Thank you. Yes, I’ve been doing standup for years and it kind of became this one-woman show. I guess as I started telling more and more stories, I thought, “You know, I should be writing more of these stories down.” I began writing them right after Michael Landon died, but it wasn’t in book form.
I began to talk to literary agents. Then Melissa Gilbert got her book deal out there and we talked back and forth about it. Hers came out first – I thanked her in the back of my book for going first. Now you have the musical (Little House on the Prairie The Musical starring Melissa Gilbert) and Melissa Sue’s book … hers and mine are virtually out simultaneously, which is hilarious.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you read Melissa Sue Anderson’s book?
Alison Arngrim: I have. It’s a little slow going. It’s polite. It’s so funny because I saw people complaining about it, but it’s very like her. It’s very reserved and she doesn’t want to tell you too much about herself.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Melissa Sue said that she was basically shy on the set and took acting more seriously than the other child stars. I assume she’s speaking of you and Melissa Gilbert.
Alison Arngrim: Well, yes, if she’s referring to the star of the show (Melissa Gilbert) and me as another child actor (laughs). From things she has said in interviews, why do I get the feeling she’s still completely looking down her noses at us? I told my husband that I sometimes get the feeling that she just thought Melissa (Gilbert) and I were juvenile delinquents. My husband said, “You were juvenile delinquents. That may have something to do with it.”
I think Melissa Sue had a very protective mom and that she did see herself as a serious actress at 11. But, Melissa (Gilbert) had been working since she was 2 and I’d been working since I was 6 and we both came from show business families. So, it’s not like we were amateurs. She may have been told not to hang out with us because she said, “None of us on the set were encouraged to be close.” I always said to that, “I didn’t get the memo.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Melissa Sue said she received many marriage proposals while on Little House on the Prairie. I’m assuming you did not.
Alison Arngrim: No, I’m lucky I got the one I did in real life! When Michael (Landon) came to me and said, “Oh, your character’s getting married,” I couldn’t believe it. I said, “Oh my God, you mean you came up with a character that would show up and marry Nellie Oleson?”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What has been the worst thing a fan has ever done to you in public?
Alison Arngrim: Well, I got hit by a soda can in the Santa Monica Christmas parade. That was nice. Of course, there were the girls who knocked me to the pavement. I talk about that in the book. People still have it in their heads that I’m Nellie Oleson. It’s not just the kids, it’s the grownups also.
Melissa Gilbert had a party a couple of 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.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Isn’t that just amazing how some people seem confused between real life and the imaginary world of television?
Alison Arngrim: It’s like people who watch soap operas and wind up screaming at people in the supermarket for cheating on their wives or something.
I have to admit, it does make me wonder. I mean, “How good a performance was that?” There is Melissa Sue talking about all of the acting involved. Well, people say this person or that person should be nominated for an Emmy. On the other hand, I wasn’t nominated, but everybody thinks I’m really her. What does that mean? What category is that where they truly believe it is you?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Best performance to convince everyone the character is real (laughs).
Alison Arngrim: Yes, I’ve still got people walking around scared of me. I’m 48 years old and people say, “Oh, you’re much nicer in person.” I have to say, “Well, I would hope so.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There is a real character from the Little House books called Nellie, right?
Alison Arngrim: Indeed. The real one is Nellie Owens. Melissa’s character, Laura, is based on Laura Ingalls Wilder of the books. Some historians say that there were 3 girls – a Stella, a Nellie, and another girl who were very mean to Laura and she combined them to form the character.
Nellie Owens was the real one who lived in Walnut Grove. She had a brother named Willie, and the parents ran the store. I think Harriett’s name was really Margaret. But, Nellie is buried just outside of Portland, Oregon, and I’ve been to the grave. I’ve been to the cemetery where Nels, Willie, and Nellie are buried.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you met any relatives of Laura Ingalls?
Alison Arngrim: I have. One of Charles Ingalls’ relatives came to the set years ago. When I was in South Dakota recently with a bunch of the cast, some of the baby Carrie relatives were there. I met a Mr. Kirry who is the great grandson of Nellie Owens and her husband. So, I did actually get to speak with my own great grandchild (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You said in the book that Michael Landon did not wear underwear.
Alison Arngim: Yeah, you want to go back and play some episodes again to see him running down the hill and then ask yourself, “Can I tell?” I think I’ve probably done a great service and upped the DVD sales overnight with that one (laughs). He knew that women were watching the show.
Did you ever notice that whenever Pa got hurt he never broke his arm or ankle, it was always his ribs? That’s when the shirt came off and the ace bandage came on. He was always taking his shirt off. Those pants were just a little tighter than men wore them in 1874, too (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I imagine women were hanging around the set just to catch a glimpse of him.
Alison Arngrim: Yes. They were madly in love with him. In the 1970s it was very fashionable in Hollywood to go around in tight jeans and no underwear. So, he just incorporated that into the show (laughs). Women were crazy for him. Every now and then we’d say, “Oh, good Lord, he’s not wearing underwear again!” We thought it was hilarious!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I always wondered how Ma and Pa Ingalls could be engaged in intimate relations at night with their children only a few feet away in that tiny cabin.
Alison Arngrim: I know … what was it, two rooms? Also, look how much they worked. Pa was out there plowing the fields, then headed off to the mill. She’s out there with the chickens and cows. It’s like, who had the time or energy? I mean, I’ve been married for 17 years and we both work. We barely have the strength or time or energy and we’re not out milking cows at 4:00 in the morning (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I also read that Michael Landon wanted to blow up the set on the last episode so it wouldn’t be reused later.
Alison Arngrim: It’s true. He had a point because they recycle anything they can get their hands on. He’d had a long running battle with NBC because they were always trying to tell him how to do the show. He usually ignored them. But, he wasn’t going to let them have the set.
Michael said, “You know, they could come in the very next week we leave and film everything from a Porky’s style sex comedy to a slasher flick with dead bodies everywhere right there in the mercantile and there would be nothing we could do about it. I’m not sure I could handle the therapy America would need if something particularly violent or unsettling was done … people really identified with those buildings.”
Michael was also looking for a great grand finale to the show, so why not blow up the set! He also liked to blow things up – he was very childlike in that way (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have a favorite episode?
Alison Arngrim: I do like the one that everyone else likes where I go down the hill in the wheelchair. Although, the music box with the poor little stuttering girl is just brutal! Also, I like the one that has the most dream sequences and Laura dreams of being in a dungeon. Mrs. Oleson and I are the executioners. That’s just so bizarre. I don’t think you saw that in a lot of 1970s family shows.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you still have a close relationship with Melissa Gilbert?
Alison Arngrim: I do. We’ve been Facebooking, Tweeting, and texting each other. She’s on the road with the musical. I have my big book signing here in LA on Thursday. Melissa can’t make it because she’s in Kansas City and doing the last run of the show. But, she’s going to make in back in town (if her back isn’t bothering her) to come to my other signing. We’re very tight.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Her brother, Jonathan, left acting after Little House.
Alison Arngrim: Right, although a couple of years ago he was doing something at a theater in California and we thought he might be coming back into the business. But, he likes to be very mysterious about what he’s doing.
At one point, I had a phone number where I was leaving messages for him and the girl I spoke to said, “Well, I think he’s in Costa Rica.” So, we’re not quite sure where he is. I had some contact with him last year because we were going through all of that stuff about getting residuals from NBS and we all had to talk to each other.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interview Magazine): Do you have any contact now with Stefan, the brother who molested you?
Alison Arngrim: No. I probably talk to Jonathan Gilbert more often (laughs). I think people sometimes try to make these relationships work, but they usually don’t. He has had serious drug problems over the years and it just doesn’t … it doesn’t work.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you discussed the abuse with him since the two of you became adults?
Alison Arngrim: Yes, I think I addressed that in the book. I indeed did talk to him. That’s the thing. It’s not a situation where he even denied doing any of it. He said they were the greatest experiences of his life. I mean, this is not someone who has expressed any remorse or said he didn’t do it.
I’m probably fortunate in a way, though. If you look at what happened with the Catholic Church where they were told, ‘No, no, no, don’t press charges. Don’t do anything. We’re sorry.” Then the guy snuck out and did it again.
I didn’t get, “Oh, I’m sorry.” I got, “Yeah and what are you going to do about it?” That sort of saves me a trip of going through the beating myself up and wondering, “Oh, he says he’s sorry, what should I do?”
Since he hasn’t denied it and he isn’t particularly sorry, I can sort of jump to the next level, sort out my feelings, and say, “I don’t want this person around.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is Stefan still acting?
Alison Arngrim: Sometimes, yeah.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You speak in the book about drug abuse as a child. Did you have problems later in life stemming from the molestation?
Alison Arngrim: Well, Melissa Gilbert talks in her book about her problems with alcohol and cocaine. I didn’t have those problems in adulthood. As one of my friends said, “Well, you know, you got all of your disappointments and problems out of the way early.”
In the 1980s when every standup comic and actress I knew was on cocaine, I was the one sitting in the corner going, “Well, sorry, you’re on your own.” I had seen this all as a child so I had absolutely no interest in that whole scene. So I skipped that.
I did find that right after the show, because I didn’t have the structure that I’d had so consistently on the show, that it does come back to get you later. Sometimes you can put it in the back of your mind and say, “Well, I’m just going to go on.” But everything later sort of comes back to haunt you. At 19 I was on my own and it just came back to bite me. That’s when I did go into therapy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your parents didn’t believe you as a child when you tried telling them of the abuse.
Alison Arngrim: They were oblivious. A couple of friends of my parents who have read the book said, “Wow, I get it, but man were those people blind!”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yeah, when a six year old tells her parents that she wants to move out, that should have been a clue.
Alison Arngrim: Right. I said that I had to save enough money to get my own apartment and leave. Wouldn’t you go, “Why?” I swear, if anyone had just said, “I think we need to talk,” or “Is there something you’d like to tell us?” But when I think about it I cannot for the life of me recall anyone seriously sitting down going, “Is there anything seriously wrong or is there something going on that you’d like to discuss?” Nope.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When your dad finally “got it” years later, did he continue to have a relationship with his son?
Alison Arngrim: Yes. That’s something that is extremely common. I’m always amazed every time that happens, but it’s interesting. If people feel that the perpetrator is their friend, often they will reject the victim. I’m just lucky they were still speaking to me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I guess you could say that the abuse led to your first professional acting job in a commercial.
Alison Arngrim: Yeah, I know that’s weird. It’s like the stories you hear from actors. Jodie Foster’s father left and there was no support, so the kids wound up going to work to pay the bills. Didn’t Tina Turner’s second career come out of finally leaving Ike? She had to go on the road because she had no money left. So, the Tina Turner career we know today all came out of tragedy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The Hunt’s Ketchup commercial was priceless. You were covered in tomatoes and the words out of your six-year old mouth (to the horror of the director and the other adults) were, “Get this goddamn tomato juice off of me.”
Alison Arngrim: I’m hoping that commercial shows up on You Tube! I know that it’s out there. I was on some TV show and someone found a clip and I was amazed! It was black and white, but it’s hysterical.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Some child stars not only endure abuse, but other hardships as well. What advice would you give to young actors to prevent the fame from totally engulfing them?
Alison Arngrim: Save your money. Normally you would do what your parents tell you: don’t take drugs, stay in school, and bank your money. But the problem is, the parents of child stars lose their minds and they are not saying all that. They say, “If we pull you out of school we’ll say we’re home schooling you, but we won’t do it. We’ll just use the time for more work and auditions. You don’t need to go to school because there is money to be made.” You have parents saying, “My kid’s taking drugs but she’s a movie star.”
Look at the Lohans – doesn’t the mother think that there is anything funny going on with these kids? Then you have parents spending the kids’ money like wildfire. The Gosselin family, John and Kate … are they role models for children? They make a TV show about their babies and use the money for plastic surgery. What are these children learning, my God?
If a child star’s parents are screwed up, I would say to them, “Is your money in the bank? Do you know exactly where it is? If no one can show you a piece of paper or a bankbook, you need to go speak to someone else. If your parents are telling you it’s okay for you to have a cocktail or smoke a joint at a Hollywood party, you may need to talk to someone else. If your parents say that it’s perfectly okay for you not to attend school, you may need to talk to someone else.”
Gary Coleman’s parents may feel terrible now, but he had a kidney disorder. When I was a child I had to get a work permit, something my parents handled by the book. I had to go to the school principal and have him sign off on the permit. I had to have a “C” average or better. I couldn’t be flunking subjects or be in any trouble.
I had to be reasonably functional in school and show a report card. Then I had to have a doctor’s appointment every 6 months to renew the permit. I had to go to the doctor, have a physical, and the doctor had to say I was fit enough to be working 9-hour days on a set … and then sign the form. How does a little boy whose had transplants and dialysis get a doctor to sign a form every 6 months saying that he’s fit enough to work 9-hour days? Who signed it?
I knew poor Dana Plato. I knew all of these people. It was an NBC show at one time, so they were at all of the parties. A lot of these people couldn’t read and write. I mean, they were just barely functioning literates. Where did they get their “C” average and who signed their work permits?
Gary Coleman’s parents feel terrible now, but who put the kid with kidney disease to work full time? I know a lot of these parents just simply stole their money. I’ve heard horror stories. Some have gotten ripped off in investment schemes. You’re supposed to look to the wisdom of your parents, but with child stars that often goes completely to hell.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You decided for yourself, before you were told, that your dad was gay.
Alison Arngrim: Well, yeah, it was kind of hard to miss. I saw the TV show, The Odd Couple, and Felix Unger. I said, “Oh look, they made a TV show about my father!” People would say, “He’s not gay.” But it was very strange. I can’t even pretend to explain it.
Yes, my parents were married and yes, they stayed married. They didn’t have separate bedrooms or separate beds and their children weren’t adopted. But they had what was known as an alternative open marriage thing going on.
I’m starting to hear from people saying, “You know, one of my parents was gay.” It was the 50s and 60s. Now it’s all over the news. Of course people were gay and having kids back then.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were around some interesting people as a child; Beatrice Lillie, Debbie Reynolds, and Liberace just to name a few.
Alison Arngrim: Yes, there is a whole chapter in the book called “Mom, Dad, and Liberace” (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You went trick-or-treating at Liberace’s house.
Alison Arngrim: It was so funny because I just got in touch again with Quinn Cummings who was in the film The Goodbye Girl. She has a book out and she is fabulous. Quinn lived next door to me and in her book she talks about going trick-or-treating and very interesting people would come to the doors (laughs).
I remember going to Liberace’s Hollywood house and a butler came to the door with an entire tray. It had these jellybeans in these darling little plastic pumpkin containers. It was amazing. He made sure the candy tray was just perfect.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Alison, you are touring now?
Alison Arngrim: Yes, we’re all over the place. I’ve got 4 book signings in LA and I’m going to San Francisco for a couple of shows. Other than that I’m in France again because, you know, they just love me (laughs).
In addition to loving Little House on the Prairie, the French also love country music. They have a huge country music festival in the south of France and I’m going to that to be the Grand Marshal. As soon as I come back I go straight to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, the scene of the crime (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is that a reunion event?
Alison Arngrim: Yeah, they have a whole Little House on the Prairie pageant. I think Dean Butler is going to be in town for another event, but we’ll try to get together.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever thought about doing another television series?
Alison Arngrim: Yeah, now that there’s some really interesting stuff going on. Valerie Bertinelli is on TV Land with Hot in Cleveland and there are some things made now that could be fun.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about your work with abused children.
Alison Arngrim: The National Association to Protect Children, protect.org, is great. We actually have a petition now that we’re getting signatures on. We’ve been fighting in Washington to get more funding for the FBI and for what they call the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. They know exactly where people are when they upload child pornography.
As soon as they put the photos up online, the FBI knows where they are. But, they don’t have the physical manpower to arrest them all. In these raids there are children living in the house. They’re doing this with their own kids or nieces, nephews, and neighbor’s kids, so when the FBI raids the homes they can save the children.
We’re asking for more money to help this cause. I mean, we’re asking for a lot less than any bank getting bailed out, but we can’t get them off the stick to do it. That’s why we have a petition saying, “I support the immediate arrest of child predators or child pornographers that are known to the FBI and I support the Congress allocating more money to do so.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Good luck with the petition. How do you fill your time when you’re not working or traveling?
Alison Arngrim: Weirdly, I garden. I’m not going to be home a lot so my husband needs to make sure the plants don’t die. My tomatoes are going crazy this year. I’ll have a full crop … not many plums or peaches, but lots of tomatoes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Alison, good luck on the book sales.
Alison Arngrim: Thank you. I believe it is doing very well. I already heard one bookstore reorder after a week. But, as I always say, read Melissa Gilbert’s book and Melissa Sue Anderson’s book … collect all three!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, it was definitely the year for Little House on the Prairie stories.
Alison Arngrim: You can also get the DVDs. You know, a lot of scenes have been cut out over the years, but the French ones are less cut than the American versions.
Also, I just found out that the Dutch DVDs have more original scenes than even the French DVDs. The Dutch ones are in English with subtitles. The French DVDs are in French. So, if you go online and order the Dutch version of Little House on the Prairie, you can get all of the original scenes!
Photo Credits: Front slider photo courtesy of DC Publicity
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