Melissa Gilbert Interview: Finding Her Real Life "Little House"
Image attributed to Eileen Connoly
Melissa Gilbert is best known as portraying Laura Ingalls Wilder, the second oldest daughter of Charles Ingalls (played by Michael Landon) on the NBC series Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983). During the run of the series, she appeared in several television films including The Diary of Anne Frank and The Miracle Worker. In 2012, she was a contestant on season 14 of Dancing with the Stars.
Gilbert served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild from 2001 to 2005. In 2009, her autobiography, Prairie Tale: A Memoir, was released. In 2016, she ran for U.S. Congress as a Democrat in Michigan’s 8th congressional district, and she won the Democratic primary but later dropped out because of health issues. Actress Sara Gilbert is her half-sister and former actor Jonathan Gilbert (who played Willie Oleson in Little House on the Prairie) is her brother. She married actor and director Timothy Busfield in 2013.
"I’d always wanted to have land, to have chickens, to have a garden, to be somewhat independent in many different ways, to also contribute to the plan, to give back, to try to leave a smaller carbon footprint and just be a conscientious human."
On May 10, 2022, Gilbert returns with a new hilarious and heartfelt memoir, Back to the Prairie: A Home Remade, a Life Rediscovered, which chronicles her journey from Hollywood to a ramshackle house in the Catskills during the Covid-19 pandemic. When her husband introduces her to the wilds of rural Michigan, she begins to fall back in love with nature, and when work takes them to New York, they find a rustic cottage to call home. She named the house Cabbage (a conflation of cabin and cottage), and the book details all of the blood, sweat and tears that the two of them endured just to make it habitable.
Melissa Gilbert: Hi, Melissa! It’s Melissa! (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) The last time I heard that was from Melissa Etheridge.
Melissa Gilbert: Well, I’ll take that. I like that a lot.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes. She’s so talented. How are you today?
Melissa Gilbert: I’m doing great. How are you?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’m good. I read the book in just a few hours. It’s an easy read and actually an inspiring, motivational story. That’s a lovely tribute by your hubby who wrote the foreword.
Melissa Gilbert: Thank you. Yeah. He’s the best.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you talk to Tim about certain chapters or bounce ideas off him while you were writing?
Melissa Gilbert: Yeah, for a myriad of different reasons. I wanted to make sure that I was getting things right, and I wanted to make sure that I got the dates right. Then I wanted to make sure that he was comfortable with some of the things I was writing. But he’s such an open book that he never said, “No. I don’t want you to tell that story.” Generally speaking, I got it all pretty accurate date-wise. He’s nothing but supportive.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Not only did you write about your life, you gave the readers tips on renovating a house, planting a garden and included some yummy recipes. What’s the main takeaway you want readers to learn from the book?
Melissa Gilbert: I sort of hoped that people might find it inspirational just by the mere fact that if I am able to do these things, anybody can do them without chopping off a limb or needing to run to an emergency room, which is generally what happens. So this was pretty amazing that we were able to do all of this without anything like that. I think I wanted to really share our experiences weeding through the initial Covid stuff and just to remind people of how resilient we really are and maybe to share a little of that hope as we continue to have to navigate obviously Covid and everything else that’s going on in the world now.
It seems like none of us can get any sort of a break, and there’s always something very horrendous going on that we have to deal with, read about, live with and understand on a global level. So I wanted people to know they’re not alone and maybe provide them with some hope, a little inspiration and some humor.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You said, “I had never stopped being Halfpint," which was a nickname Michael Landon gave you.
Melissa Gilbert: One hundred percent.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How did Little House on the Prairie affect your aspirations for the future?
Melissa Gilbert: I hear from people a lot, especially young women, how they wish they’d had a childhood like Laura’s was portrayed on Little House on the Prairie. Even though I played her, I also wished for the same thing (laughs). It took a global pandemic for me to find the lifestyle, not that I was completely off the grid or entirely without any sort of modern comforts. But I’d always wanted to have land, to have chickens, to have a garden, to be somewhat independent in many different ways, to also contribute to the plan, to give back, to try to leave a smaller carbon footprint and just be a conscientious human. I think that being on the show inspired me to have this life that I have now, for sure. One hundred percent.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I watched Little House on the Prairie during the first run of the series starting in 1974 and have watched the episodes again within the last few years on streaming platforms. I was more impressed, as I grew older, that the show tackled so many social issues like racism, alcoholism, poverty and adoption, just to name a few. That may be one of the reasons the series has remained popular even now.
Melissa Gilbert: Yes. I think so, and I think people don’t really realize what they’ve seen until you just did. So many people just dismiss Little House on the Prairie or can dismiss Little House on the Prairie as being soft and overly saccharine and too sweet. As people watch it again, especially with adult eyes, what they will realize is we did tackle all of those difficult subjects, and we did do a lot of heavy material from, like you said, dealing with issues of racism, anti-Semitism and nativism to drug addiction and rape, abuse and alcoholism. There was so much, and all of that was at the forefront of what we were living through as people in the 1970s when Little House came out. Michael Landon, God love him, made our show very much about what our country was going through at that time and is still going through. So the lessons on tolerance, understanding, acceptance, love and all those good things still apply.
As we come out of this horrible pandemic that many of us have survived, God Bless those who haven’t and those who have lost loved ones. I’m still shocked that the numbers are continuing to go up. It’s so heartbreaking. Because of the political climate, too, and the way things are now, I think being in lockdown really enabled people to silo even more and have distance from other people.
George Carlin once had one of the greatest lines. He said that the degree to which a person is a jerk grows when you’re physically farther away from them. So if you’re standing next to a person at a cocktail party, you’ll turn to your friend and whisper, “That guy’s a jerk.” But if they’re across the room, you’ll say louder, “That guy’s a jerk.” The internet, for all of its advantages, has distanced us so much. It’s brought us together but also created a space where people can say anything they want to about anybody else.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So very true, which is a story about social media for another time.
Melissa Gilbert: Yeah. I think that got worse with lockdown because we had less interaction, and I think we’re learning how to be human again and how to be understanding and accepting and loving. I think shows like Little House on the Prairie that had those messages in there of all that is resonating more than they ever have. I’m hearing this from people a lot, and I heard it a ton not only during lockdown but during that summer of civil unrest. Because of the racial inequities in our country and in the world, I really started thinking about Little House episodes that were inspirational like “The Wisdom of Solomon” with Todd Bridges and all of the times we tackled the issues of race and nativism.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You said in the book, “Compassion and kindness are not partisan issues.” But can we say that they should not be partisan issues?
Melissa Gilbert: Yeah. They should not. It’s really disheartening and makes me incredibly sad because I grew up at a time when the country was going through a lot. The Vietnam War was going on when Little House started, and we were just discovering that all of the free love and drugs and all that stuff that was happening in the 60s actually ended up being not so good for anyone.
But the political climate was different. People with different political views could at least talk to one another without screaming and calling each other names. But now, it’s just so heightened, and the volume’s gotten so high. It’s really disheartening, and it makes it very difficult to teach kids and grandkids how to be loving people and yet teach them also how to take care of themselves, to be self-protected and not let anyone get up in their faces with their ideals or beliefs or opinions and to teach them what is right and what is wrong when you have leaders of the free world calling each other names and saying horrible things in public. It’s really hard as a parent and as a grandparent. It makes it very difficult for the rest of us.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you still have political aspirations?
Melissa Gilbert: I definitely feel like I’m much better as a boots on the ground person. I’m better in a local community. I’m better in the smaller sphere. I can be more passionate and more dedicated to the specific issues that I’m interested in and that move me as opposed to having to spread myself out across the board. I’m actually very blessed, not that I would wish multiple spinal surgeries on anyone, but the fact that my neck has given me nothing but trouble enabled me to not have to serve in the U.S. Congress from 2016 to 2020 (laughs). It’s a wondrous thing because it was a hard time to be a leader, and it would’ve been really difficult for me to be in that situation, flying back and forth and away from home and being angry and frustrated.
As a person who doesn’t serve in public office and doesn’t have to be in Congress or in the Senate, I can turn the television off when it starts to get too prickly and starts to make me feel uncomfortable, and I’m happy. But the people who serve have to stay there. They can’t just walk away. I think it would’ve made me incredibly unhappy if I’d had to follow through and gotten elected. I would’ve served gleefully and would’ve done the best that I cold but probably to my own detriment.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You had a couple of cervical spine procedures and suffered with chronic neck pain. How are you doing today?
Melissa Gilbert: I’m great. Absolutely zero pain. None. I don’t have chronic pain anymore.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That is really wonderful.
Melissa Gilbert: Yeah. It’s really a dream.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you have any plans to act in the future?
Melissa Gilbert: I’m always available. Just this past winter, I went in to do a new play in Chicago for several months that ended up shutting down because of Omicron. We opened at Halloween and were supposed to run through March, but we had to close right after New Year’s because the audience just stopped coming because of Omicron, and the people in our company started getting sick. We had to cancel performances because we didn’t have enough people. I did not get it. I still have not gotten Covid.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Will you and Tim be working on any acting projects together?
Melissa Gilbert: In every project, we think about working together in some capacity. It’s our favorite thing to do, and if we don’t have an actual job coming up where we can work together, we’ll create something
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I saw the episode of FBI: Most Wanted where your son, Michael, made a guest appearance. I was quite impressed.
Melissa Gilbert: Thank you. Thank you for appreciating his work. He’s a talented young man, and I was really excited. He’s auditioned for things Tim has directed before and not gotten the parts. So we were really excited that he actually got this one.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You spoke in the book about your relationship with Sara. Are you also communicating with your brother Jonathan?
Melissa Gilbert: I actually am. I’ve been speaking to Jonathan since we reconnected at Christmastime of 2019, I want to say. Maybe it was even 2018. We have been in constant communication since then pretty much, and he’s doing very well. We haven’t been able to see each other because he’s on the west coast, and I’m on the east coast, and travel has been rather prickly. So I’m hoping to get back to LA at Christmastime this year and see my mom, my sister and him, and maybe get everyone together again. We’ll see.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I just can’t imagine how you felt when you found out your father committed suicide, and you had been told he had a stroke. You talked about how you struggled and suffered anxiety when you found out.
Melissa Gilbert: Yeah. It was a very hard time for me. I would say the hardest, but there have been others that have been also equally as difficult and emotionally wrenching. It was sort of a combination of things that made it so difficult. Obviously, finding out the circumstance in which my father died and that he died by suicide was hard enough, but the fact that I didn’t know and that it was covered up so thoroughly by the adults in my life and that nobody else new, there were so many layers to what I felt. Then just dealing with the suicide itself and the guilt of being the survivor and all the emotional baggage that comes with it was difficult.
It was a very, very hard time for me for about a year, and I credit my extraordinary therapist at the time for helping me walk through it and my physician for working hand-in-hand and finally putting me on medication for a year. I just was not eating or sleeping or functioning, and I needed some help. Thank goodness, I had the resources to get the help I needed and the help for my family, too, because it affected them immensely. Michael was a little boy sitting next to me when I found out, so he was there watching the whole thing, and it was a scary time for him.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What are your everyday tasks now at the Cabbage?
Melissa Gilbert: My daily tasks are what I call my chicken chores every morning. So I go out, I clean out the coop, collect their eggs and give them their morning treats. Then at the end of the day, they get to free range and get their evening treats. I turned over the garden and finally got to empty my compost that I’ve been doing for the last two and a half years. I was able to mix that in with the soil to prep the beds to plant, cleaned the whole house and switched over from the winter clothes to the spring clothes. When I say clean the house, because of the wood-burning stove, everything gets sooty. So this year, we’ve had to clean the walls and the ceiling, too, because everything was looking dingy. Now, we have a puppy, so our days are consumed with puppy training and all of that stuff on top of that, which is actually really fun. She’s a very easy puppy.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is there anything too much to handle there in the country that would make you two move back to the city?
Melissa Gilbert: No, and we still have our place in the city for work, and if we want to go to the theater or see the kids. Our calendar is completely flipped where we used to spend the week days in the city and come up here on the weekends, we’ll block out time to go to the city for several days or a week, and then come right back here.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: As we share the same first name, I’m curious to know whether you like the nicknames “Mel” or “Missy.”
Melissa Gilbert: I don’t. I’ve never liked Missy. That was Melissa Sue Anderson’s nickname anyway. I went by Mel for a while. I’m not crazy about it. But my sister’s kids call me Auntie Mel, and that’s perfectly fine and charming. I actually really like my name. What about you?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I completely agree. I also really like my name. Melissa, I enjoyed the conversation.
Melissa Gilbert: Me as well.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I wish you continued success with your home and future projects.
Melissa Gilbert: Aw, thank you so much. I appreciate it.
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