About four decades ago, actress Karen Grassle was practically broke with nary a job prospect in sight and seriously considered saying goodbye to acting. Then she got the call to audition for an upcoming television show by the name of Little House on the Prairie.
That call and the character she originated, Caroline Ingalls, would change her life and her career forever—a career that, up to that point in time, had included stage roles on Broadway, regional theater, some television roles, and performing alongside such luminaries as Sam Waterston, William Devane, and Christopher Walken.
“They had seen everyone in Hollywood who would have been right for the part,” Grassle says in a phone conversation from her home in the San Francisco Bay area. “I went to see my agent and a call came for me to see Michael Landon.”
The roles of the children were already cast, as well as some of the adult roles except for the pivotal Ma Ingalls.
“Michael had made up his mind almost immediately,” Grassle recalls. “I was sitting on a long sofa and Michael was kneeling on the floor right next to me. He was really close. After I started reading, he leapt off the floor and said ‘Send her to wardrobe.’”
Grassle remembers Landon as an incredibly talented and intense person. He was complicated, she says, and while his public image was that of a family man—something that was true, she adds—it was also not the whole picture.
“He was gifted but had a lot of challenges with his own demons,” she says. “He was a real person. Artistic people are not always middle of the road. He was great when he was great, and horrible when he was horrible. I was fortunate to have such a gifted actor, producer, and director in Michael. We had a great crew and one of the most well-oiled sets in Hollywood.”
While the story, based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s bestselling series of Little House books, took place in Walnut Grove, Minn., the television show was shot in various locations in California and once a year in Tucson, Ariz., according to Grassle. It ran for eight seasons and can still be seen in syndication.
No one is more surprised than Grassle with the show’s popularity and the fact that the stories have so resonated with people around the world, both then and now.
“Even Michael didn’t realize it would last that long,” she says. “It was thought it would go on for three years.”
Grassle grew up in Ventura, Calif., where she developed her passion for theater and dance. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, majoring in drama and English.
She spent summers honing her theater craft at such places as the Pasadena Playhouse and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art before moving to New York to join the ranks of other unemployed artists.
She lucked out. Grassle made her Broadway debut in 1968 in the Lanford Wilson play The Gingham Dog, and although the show was short lived, she found herself working steadily on the East Coast and the Midwest before performing the works of Shakespeare in Warwickshire, England.
Then Hollywood beckoned, and Grassle got a call to do a lead in an independent film. She moved there and soon thereafter was cast in Little House on the Prairie. The rest, as they say, is history.
Out of the more than 150 episodes of the series, Grassle admits that the one from season seven titled “Oleson Versus Oleson” is her favorite. It was one of the more comedic stories, she says, that focused on an issue she strongly believes in: women’s rights.
“In the episode, the women in the town want the men to sign a petition for women’s property rights,” Grassle says. “The women protest and they forego their matrimonial duties. The writers based it on Shakespeare’s Lysistrata.”
But Grassle didn’t rest on her laurels. In 1978, she took her stance on women’s rights and co-wrote (with Cynthia Lovelace Sears) and starred in a TV drama entitled Battered. Performing alongside actors such as LeVar Burton, Mike Farrell, and Joan Blondell, Battered consisted of the interweaving stories of three women who were abused by their husbands.
Back then, domestic abuse was not out in the open as it is now, and Grassle and Sears were covering brand-new territory.
“We’d read a series of articles on wife beatings by a Texas journalist,” Grassle recalls. “Cynthia and I did original research, and we interviewed people in the field and women who left home due to domestic abuse. For me, this was a counterbalance to Little House. It became meaningful to people whose lives were disrupted by abuse. We made a difference.”
From a performance standpoint, she had no trouble with the Ma Ingalls character, Grassle says, because her own mother informed* the character tremendously. As an actress, though, she yearned to “spread her wings more often” when away from the Little House set and be more challenged when on the set.
“Yes, I did speak to Michael a lot about that,” she says. “You’ll have to read about it in [my upcoming book of memoirs].”
And, yes, Grassle is in the midst of revisions for her memoir, where she’ll reveal much more than she’s told me during our phone conversation. But until then, fans who wish to see Grassle in person have several options. July 16-17, 2016, Grassle will be making an appearance at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, Minn.
She also continues to perform on stage and will be starring in Driving Miss Daisy, Sept. 28 to Nov. 6, 2016, at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts in Fredericksburg, Va.
“Theater is my roots, where the actor has full sway,” she says. “No one can edit that performance. I do love it and before Little House I had done lots of Shakespeare. It’s a different medium from television and I enjoy challenges. I just love to act.”
When Grassle isn’t performing or writing, she tends to her home garden in Northern California and loves to travel to places like Prague and Vienna. Nevertheless, the “prairie” is never too far from her mind and heart.
“We worked hard on that show,” she muses. “It was helping people, meaningful for people. It was so rewarding.” )))
*Actors will do research into their characters’ backgrounds and history in order to do justice to that character and make it “real.” Grassle modeled Ma Ingalls on her own mother, perhaps imitating her movements, her feelings and emotions, and parts of her own history and making it Ma’s.