Charlotte Stewart Interview: "Little House" Star Talks "Bad Girl's Guide to Becoming Miss Beadle"
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Charlotte Stewart is famous for portraying the role of beloved schoolteacher Miss Beadle in the western drama series, Little House on the Prairie, which was an adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s bestselling series of Little House books. The show aired on NBC from 1974 until 1983. During the 1982-83 television season, the series was broadcast with the new title, Little House: A New Beginning without Michael Landon and Karen Grassle (Charles and Caroline Ingalls).
Stewart has also worked with controversial filmmaker David Lynch in the cult classic Eraserhead (1977) and the television drama Twin Peaks (1990). Other films include Speedway, Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, Slums of Beverly Hills, Tremors, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Irreconcilable Differences and Human Highway. TV appearances include Bachelor Father, My Three Sons, Bonanza, The Waltons, Gunsmoke, Highway to Heaven and The Young and the Restless.
"The 70s were an exploratory time with the women’s movement, the free love, and there was lots of marijuana and drugs. I was in my early 20s and an actress in a town where there were many nice looking men available. They were interested. I had a wonderful time, and I have no regrets."
Little House in the Hollywood Hills: A Bad Girl’s Guide to Becoming Miss Beadle, Mary X, and Me, Stewart’s autobiography, is released June 1, 2016. The book is a no-holds barred, heartbreaking and ultimately joyful account of 50 years in film and television.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Charlotte, Little House in the Hollywood Hills, is a very interesting read!
Charlotte Stewart: Thank you. Well, it’s my life, warts and all.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Neil Young said, “I didn’t know Miss Beadle knew so much about sex, drugs and rock and roll!” Did you get to answer that comment?
Charlotte Stewart: (laughs) Neil was laughing. I hadn’t even showed him the book yet. I’ve known him since the early 70s. I did a film with him called Human Highway that he wrote and directed. During the years, we just became friends. When I told him I was doing a book, he wanted to know what it was about. I said, “It’s about my life.” Neil said, “What do you want me to say about it?” (laughs)
I told him to make a comment about me. That’s what he decided to say, and I thought it was pretty funny. I have yet to show him the book. He’s known me for a long time. I’ve known him through many relationships, although he and I never had that kind of relationship. We just were friends. But I thought it was pretty funny that he said that (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I don’t recall seeing Human Highway, but will search for it on Hulu.
Charlotte Stewart: Neil did a re-release about a month ago. We were in Los Angeles. He was releasing it in 400 theaters across the country that day. We had a live Q/A with Cameron Crowe in a theater in LA that followed the screening. That was the last time I saw Neil. Afterward, he made the comment for the back of my book. I think he did it as a good friend, and I think he also knew if he said that, it would peak some interest.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): At first, you really didn't want to write about everything that happened in your life, warts and all. Are you glad you changed your mind and decided to do just that?
Charlotte Stewart: I am. It was very cathartic. My writing partner is Andy Demsky, and he’s a published writer. He had been asking me for a couple of years. I moved to Napa about nine years ago when my late husband became very ill with emphysema, and he needed to get out of LA. I basically retired and took care of him until he passed away four years ago.
I met Andy here, and he said, “You should write a book!” I said, “No. First of all, I don’t write, and secondly, who would want to read my story?” Andy said, “You’d be surprised!” He kept after me. I actually went on tour with Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie). She wrote a book called Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, which is so good. She was selling her book on our tour. I thought, “Oh my gosh! These things are just flying off the table! Maybe somebody is interested in someone from Little House on the Prairie!”
Andy and I starting meeting, and he was able to take my stories and put them in an order to make them clear. They are my stories, my life as I experienced them. It doesn’t mean that somebody else won’t disagree or say I left some stuff out, but some of it just wasn’t that important.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You unabashedly discuss your alcohol and drug use and the sexual trysts with Jim Morrison, Jon Voight, Bill Murray, Victor French, Ralph Waite, Mike Connors and Chad Everett.
Charlotte Stewart: I tried to be honest. We were in the late 60s, early 70s, when I went through a lot of the harder stuff. Maybe there’s somebody out there who has experienced the same thing, and maybe they aren’t able to face it or talk about it. I’ve come to terms with it. I did what I had to do at the time.
The 70s were an exploratory time with the women’s movement, the free love, and there was lots of marijuana and drugs. I was in my early 20s and an actress in a town where there were many nice looking men available. They were interested. I had a wonderful time, and I have no regrets.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I always envisioned Mike Connors as a playboy during his Mannix years. He is 90 years old now.
Charlotte Stewart: (laughs) He is? Oh my God. I was 25, no actually I was a little older than that because I did Little House on the Prairie not long after I did an episode of Mannix. Mike was very interested. I have no idea if he was married or not. It didn’t matter at the time. He was charming, and he wooed me. What can I say? In an era of free love, there weren’t a lot of consequences.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And no fear of AIDS yet.
Charlotte Stewart: No! Oh God no! Nothing like that. I would say that most of the men that I was involved with were pretty affluent and successful. It wasn’t like I was picking up men off the street corner. I was in a showbiz town. These were the people I worked with on a daily basis.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When you refused Michael Landon’s advances, did he treat you any differently afterward?
Charlotte Stewart: No. No, not at all. I think he kind of chuckled at the thing. Michael was my boss. I wasn’t about to take a chance there. That just didn’t seem like a very smart move. But he was terribly attractive. It was a thought that crossed my mind.
Now, Victor French … that was totally different. We became very good “friends,” and I enjoyed his company a great deal. He was older and more sensible and not married. Of course, Michael wasn’t married then either, so that wouldn’t have been a consequence. I just didn’t think it would be a very good idea with Michael since I worked for him.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That wasn’t the first time I’d heard Michael Landon didn’t wear underwear during filming of Little House (laughs).
Charlotte Stewart: Oh my God! When I interviewed with him, I hadn’t met him, but I had done either two or three Bonanza episodes, so he might have been aware of me. I don’t know. But I walked in that room. There were five men in there, and I only saw one (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Wasn’t Victor French quite the prankster until literally right up until the end?
Charlotte Stewart: Yes, he was. He was great! He was just one of the most charming and funny men and had such a good heart. He was really suffering from his breakup with Julie Cobb. His marriage had broken up. It was kind of comfort time. It was very nice and very sweet. But none of us were expecting that to happen at his funeral. His attorney said, “And now a message from Victor.” We all looked up in the sky, and there’s this plane going over us with the message, “Eat Shit – Love, Victor.” (laughs) He planned all of that.
Victor met with his attorney and listed everyone he wanted to be invited to his funeral service. It was held at the Gene Autry Museum in Griffith Park. It’s basically a cowboy museum, and its open air. He knew exactly what he was doing. We just got the biggest kick out of it. I was standing with Michael Landon as this was happening. Of course, there were no cellphones back then. There was one pay phone on the patio, and I think all of us rushed to it to try to call somebody and say, “Look in the sky!” I loved Victor so much.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That was the last time you saw Michael Landon, in 1989, at Victor’s funeral?
Charlotte Stewart: Yes. That was the last time I saw Mike. When I heard that he had pancreatic cancer … he looked so good still on The Tonight Show. But I lost my mother to pancreatic cancer. I knew what was going to happen. Maybe there are better treatments now, but then it was a death sentence. It happened really fast. I knew what was going to happen. It just broke our hearts. All of us.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very sad.
Charlotte Stewart: Well, Michael was unstoppable, you know? To this day, I get emails all the time from people that want to know what it was like to be around him. It was hysterical. He was really funny. He was a good guy, one of the really good ones.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why has Little House on the Prairie remained so popular all these years?
Charlotte Stewart: It has been running for over 40 years, and people have grown up with it. Women have especially, although I have met men that say they watched it with their moms and grandmas. They’ve grown up with it, and now they’ve got children and grandchildren, and they’re bringing them along because it’s such a good family show.
I hear the same thing about The Waltons. It was a good family show with good values. Fans tell me there’s nothing like that on television anymore. I just appreciate that so much. I never saw fans until maybe less than 10 years ago. I didn’t go to any of the conventions or reunions.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Really?
Charlotte Stewart: I wasn’t invited. I was never invited. Then all of a sudden, Alison Arngrim said, “You’ve got to go! You have to see this phenomenon.” The first time I went, it knocked my socks off! I started crying as I walked down the aisle in a big outdoor park where there was probably 1,000 people clapping. It just overwhelmed me. I so appreciate our fanbase.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I always thought Miss Beadle was an important character because Laura Ingalls aspired to become a schoolteacher.
Charlotte Stewart: I think you’re right. Actually, in the books that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote, there’s only one mention of Miss Beadle when they moved to Walnut Grove and had school for the first time. Most of the character of Miss Beadle came from Michael Landon and my portrayal that was based on my sister because I had nothing to go on. There was no description other than “she’s pretty” and “she smells good.” “She smells like lemon verbena.” (laughs)
My sister had seven children all in a period of 15 years, so there was always a little one. These were rambunctious, healthy, happy kids, and they were all over the place. Everything was happening at the same time. They had a horse, two dogs and a cat, and people were running in and out of the house all the time. My sister just had this very calm exterior.
I thought, “That’s what Miss Beadle must be like.” She was a single woman, a spinster. She was a little older than most prairie women when they married. Of course, schoolteachers weren’t allowed to get married. They could not be married and teach. I based Miss Beadle on my sister, her patience, her sweetness, her logic and her intelligence.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You did an excellent job.
Charlotte Stewart: Oh thank you. I get lots of comments from teachers who say, “I became a teacher because of Miss Beadle.” There is no greater compliment.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you watch old episodes of Little House?
Charlotte Stewart: I do. I turn on the Hallmark channel usually first thing in the morning, so I’ve been catching some of the old episodes. I have the DVDs for the four years I was on the show. Andy hadn’t seen much of them, so we’d sit and watch various episodes so he could get familiar with them for the book. I will always love it. It was a really good time for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You talk about becoming an alcoholic due to your parents’ drinking.
Charlotte Stewart: I don’t think it was “due to.” I’m pretty sure it’s a hereditary disease. You lean that way maybe under a certain amount of pressure. Drinking was so accepted in the 1950s. There were all the cocktail parties. My parents were functioning alcoholics. They didn’t beat me. They didn’t crash cars or anything.
We came from a small farm town, and there was one movie theater. The only entertainment was cocktail parties. People would dress up on weekends and go drink their highballs. It was perfectly accepted. I didn’t realize that I had a problem until much later in my life. I just couldn’t control it. I had no off switch.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Having an abortion must’ve been a traumatic experience in a time before it was legalized in the United States.
Charlotte Stewart: It was terrible. It was a horrible experience. Because of the times, there were no legal abortions. It was against the law. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who went through that at that time and had to hide it. I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell anybody. Tim (Considine) and I kept it to ourselves. I would hope, in this day and age, no one would have to go through that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What were your first impressions of David Lynch?
Charlotte Stewart: (laughs) He and his wife came to our house for dinner when he brought me the script for Eraserhead. David was this geeky, gawky guy who wore a straw hat with a hole in it and wore two neckties. He had kind of a strange manner about him, but he seemed to be a nice enough guy. He was a student filmmaker then. I’m still available for student filmmakers. I will do it for free. I love to encourage them. The ones I had done before Eraserhead took a day or maybe four at the most. Once you start, you can’t really drop out.
I was working for years on Eraserhead. It took David years to make that film (laughs). I was doing that at the same time I was doing The Waltons. I did the first episode that played on the air. I lived in Topanga Canyon, a very rural area between Los Angeles and Malibu. We shot after 11:00 at night on Eraserhead until about 5:00 in the morning. Then I’d change my clothes and drive to Warner Bros. and shoot The Waltons. It was a crazy film, but many people like it. There are still fans of Eraserhead wherever I go.
I saw David recently in northern Washington. I went up there to do a small part in the new Twin Peaks series, which I wish I could talk about, but I can’t. It’ll be out next year.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You had to sign a nondisclosure?
Charlotte Stewart: I did. We all did. All 217 people in the cast. I couldn’t tell you anyway because I never saw a script, just my part. None of us saw anyone else’s part. That’s the way it was when we did the original Twin Peaks. For at least the first five episodes we shot, we were fine. We all got scripts. We all got to hang out on the set and do all that. Then suddenly, when it hit the air and all hell broke loose, everybody wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer and what was going on. We were sworn to secrecy, and we stopped getting scripts. That’s just the way it was.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Usually there are some leaks on the Internet.
Charlotte Stewart: I think everybody is behaving very well. I’ve seen absolutely nothing. They’ve finished shooting. It’s all wrapped. It’s all in the can. Sunday will be our big cast party, so my husband and I are driving down to LA. That’ll be fun.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Kevin Bacon has signed on to star and executive produce a TV series adaptation of Tremors. However, it may not have been picked up by a network.
Charlotte Stewart: Oh my God! You’re kidding! I didn’t know that. Nobody’s mentioned it to me. I think that’s very funny because for years after he did the movie, I would read articles about him, and he would never mention Tremors! What I get from the fans is that they love it. They just love it. It was a very brief series on the Sci-fi channel or something back several years ago. They asked me to do it, and at the time, I had done a commercial that I was under contract to for two years. I was not allowed to do anything else, so I had to turn it down. That was very disappointing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s going on in your life now, Charlotte?
Charlotte Stewart: I’m getting ready for my book tour. My husband and I are flying to Richmond, Virginia, in a few weeks to do an event called the Great Southern, which is a Twin Peaks celebration. We’re going to Minnesota to the Walnut Grove Museum to appear. In July, we go to Green Bay, Wisconsin to another Little House museum. I’ll go back up to North Bend, Washington to do the Twin Peaks Festival.
In the meantime, I have a home business. I make what I call “Beadle Bags.” They’re tote bags with pictures of the cast on them. They can be used as shopping bags or book bags. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years. I give a percentage of the profits to my local hospital cancer program, which I’ve been doing ever since I moved to Napa. It’s a free program for patients who are in cancer treatment to help them get back on their feet. I’m a cancer survivor. I had breast cancer 26 years ago.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How’s your health now?
Charlotte Stewart: My health is terrific! I’m perfectly fine, and happily remarried!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Congratulations!
Charlotte Stewart: Thank you. I ran into an old friend two years ago Christmas Eve. We hadn’t seen each other in 30 years. We clicked, and that was that. We got married August 30 of last year. I’m starting a brand new phase of my life, and I’ve never been busier. Things are better, better than ever!
I can look back and remember everything. Some of it was very traumatic to go through like the death of my husband. That was very hard. Thank God we decided to go through it together. He knew he was terminal, and we were able to spend at least the last three years of his life in a lovely place with comfort and with close friends and family. That’s why we moved here because I have family in the Bay area, and I needed their help because I didn’t know if I could take care of him alone.
I have a wonderful family here, a sister and brother, a zillion nieces, nephews, grand nieces and nephews and wonderful friends. My life is good.
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