Karen Grassle Interview
I originally contacted Karen Grassle through her agent in the summer of 2000, but had to wait until 22 May 2001 to get a reply! This was due to Ms Grassle's hectic schedule, touring the USA with her play Wilt . It was well worth the wait! Thank you so much, Karen Grassle, for sharing so many Little House Memories with us!
BARNABY MARRIOTT: What are your memories of the late Michael Landon, who was such a driving force behind Little House on the Prairie as its star and executive producer, not to mention writer and director on many occasions?
KAREN GRASSLE: Michael was totally in his element being in charge of the show - writing, directing, producing and starring. He was incredibly profilic and capable.
Michael was very extroverted, so it wasn't so much a matter of coping with all this, as simply being up to the physical demands.
During the first season, he became very ill and his life was in danger. He had to be packed in ice for the fever and we were all very worried. At this time, I was able to step in and do extra scenes, and to help with the resolution of the story, for which he was grateful when he returned. We were all amazed at his physical endurance.
BM: What was it like playing the loving mother of so many children on the show and how did you feel towards all the actors/actresses who portrayed them - Melissa Gilbert, Melissa Sue Anderson, the Greenbush & Turnbaugh twins, Matthew Laborteaux, Jason Bateman and Missy Francis?
KG: I worked most closely with the two Melissas and the Greenbush twins for years before the show added more kids. I loved all of them. It was hard watching them have to deal with the situation because as sensitive as Mike and others were to the facts they were kids, they had to produce and they had to produce on cue.
It was painful to see them go through the stresses that adult actors find challenging. Matt and Patrick's parents seemed to handle the situation with a lot of grace, and so did Baby Grace's mother. Hollywood is not a world I would chose for my own child.
BM: Which episode of Little House on the Prairie is your own personal favourite and can you tell me why?
KG: "Country Girls", probably, because it was so true to the books and Laura's memory. It established Caroline's character from then on.
BM: Personally, I think some of your best acting was prominent in the episode "A Matter of Faith" in which you had some very harrrowing scenes. What do you remember about the shooting of that particular episode?
KG: Thank you. "A Matter of Faith" was written for me so that I could show off an greater range. I think Mike was hoping that I could be nominated for and win an Emmy. I learned a great deal about acting for the camera from that show. It has been gratifying that so many people remember it and love it so much.
BM: What was the best and worst things about making a television series set in the 19th century?
KG: The best thing was not living in the 19th century! We have a tendancy to romanticize that time and way of life. For women, there was never-ending domestic duty. Of course, we romanticized it on the show and knew we were doing so, because the style was that of a "story", not real pioneers - dirt, sunburn, smelly outhouse, etc.
It was the story of an ideal family, with values that could be imitated and problems that could be worked out in a single episode. The worst thing was wearing hot clothes in the summer - not too bad, huh?
BM: Do you remember the first time a fan of the show recognized you in public and are you still recognized as Caroline Ingalls to this day?
KG: No, I don't recall the first time. Yes people still recognize me, but lots of times I don't notice it. The nice thing about Caroline is that people respect her, so they don't grab at me or tear my clothes, or anything scary.
BM: Did you know from the beginning that Little House on the Prairie would be such a popular show and how was it leaving it in 1983 after eight seasons?
KG: I did know it would be a "hit". Eight years I did not imagine. It was hard for me to stay in one place and do one character year after year, as I have a somewhat restless nature. I'm terribly grateful for the continuity and security that it has provided, and the freedom I have to do interesting and creative work now.
BM: What was it like filming the show in California's Simi Valley?
KG: Simi Valley was in the county where I grew up, so it was ironic to me to "come home" after so many years in the east working in New York, all over the country, and in England. Right in my own backyard, as the song goes.
I had an acting coach there one summer when I was in college. We worked on my voice and on some scenes - Saint Joan, I recall. He wanted me to go to Hollywood then, but I went back to school.
The weather was harsh out there. Our first week there was a heat wave, and our director and Alison Arngrim (Nellie) collapsed from Heat Prostration. The medic was putting cold cloths on our necks and foreheads to keep us going.
Under the oak tree in the little town, it could be very pleasant in the shade. I loved to sit there and talk to Karl Swenson, our miller. He was always reading something interesting.
BM: Are you still in contact with any of the show's cast?
KG: I am in contact with Charlotte Stewart most often, though I am looking forward to contacting the others not that I am back in California again. Kevin Hagen, Charlotte, her husband David and I all had dinner together quite recently. Kevin, Dabbs Greer and I have stayed in tough pretty regularly. I'm crazy about the grown kids - they have all turned out to be such terrific people.
BM: What are your memories of the following cast members?
Richard Bull (Nels Oleson) - Dick Bull was such a fine professional. I loved working with him. He and his wife used to go to England every year to go to the theatre, and he would tell me about it.
Katherine MacGregor (Harriet Oleson) - Scotty MacGregor was a good pal, very kind and supportive when my father died, suddenly. She also introduced me to my new dog, when my old dog had died.
Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson/Dalton) - Alison began to shine as she hit her teen years. She wore wonderfully campy 50s outfits and, when she could drive, got a funny 50s car.
Charlotte Stewart (Eva Beadle/Simms) - Charlotte and I did some socializing in those days, and we do now. We find we have even more to rapport now than we did then.
Victor French (Isaiah Edwards) - Victor loved to talk about acting. He married Julie Cobb, who was the little sister of my first acting partner in college, Vince Cobb. Victor also hired me to do work in his first directing gig for television.
Kevin Hagen (Doctor Hiram Baker) - Kevin was very, very attractive to women and as a single dad, he had his hands full. He was always as sweet as pie.
Dabbs Greer (Reverend Robert Alden) - Dabbs was another favourite of mine. It sounds saccharine, but we really had a great bunch of marvellous actors on the show. I was able to introduce my little girl to Dabbs when he was in Santa Fe, making a film when we were living there.
BM: Can you recall what it was like for the cast and crew during the filming of "The Last Farewell"?
KG: It was not a happy atmosphere. We were all glad to see each other, but there was something frantic and frenetic about the plot, and the whole idea of blowing Walnut Grove all sky-high. I had the feeling that Mike had to do it, so that it would be over, for the network must have been offering him lots of money for yearly or bi-annual movies of Little House .
BM: If there was ever to be a Little House reunion episode, would you be willing to reprise your role of Caroline one more time?
KG: Sure I would play Caroline, who else?!
BM: Briefly, could you tell me what it was like working on the 1994 film Wyatt Earp , opposite Kevin Costner?
KG: I was thrilled to get into that film. My part was rather small, but I was happy to have the chance to work with those people. Kevin Costner was very smart an a prince to work alongside.
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