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The Interview

Alison Arngrim

by Windy City Times
Alison Arngrim, known as Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie, spent years trying to fight the stigma of the bad seed. Now with a new book (Confessions of a Prairie Bitch), a new show and strong activism work, Arngrim finally embraces the B word.

WCT: (Windy City Times/Jerry Nunn) Hello, Alison. So I have to tell you that I interviewed Melissa Sue Anderson for her book last time she was in town.

AA: (Alison Arngrim) Did she know it was for a gay newspaper? Does she know that there are gay people?

WCT: I am not sure if she knew. She seemed uptight. Is she religious?

AA: I don’t think she’s religious. I just think she’s not living on planet Earth. I never heard her mention God, Jesus, or going to church.

WCT: There was a holier-than-thou vibe so that’s what I got from her.

AA: Yeah, that’s the vibe. I’m religious and she’s just stuck-up.

WCT: I really didn’t get into her book because it’s weird how she did excerpts from the show and then writes it like a script in parts.

AA: Yeah, and what’s weirder is the excerpts from the show were written like they really happened and excerpts from her life were written like a script.

WCT: Exactly.

AA: I’m kind of going, “This is Earth and you’re who?” I don’t know if she did it for some kind of effect or she did because she has some sort of reality issue. What planet she’s living on? I don’t know because she won’t tell us because she won’t talk about anything. That’s her thing.

WCT: She told me she was just being professional with the show and that’s why people didn’t like her.

AA: She was 10. Who said that at 10? “I’m sorry I can’t go to your house because I’m having a professional relationship.” What is that? She said that we were not encouraged to be close and I was like please share with me this memo, because Melissa Gilbert and I were at each other’s homes every weekend.

WCT: As far as you, you had an interesting life. You were forced to grow up very young. The abuse you went through was mortifying. People don’t see that side so it’s great that you have this book for an outlet.

AA: That’s what I figured. I’m doing an autobiography so I guess it’s time to give it all up.

WCT: You did, but in a funny way. I appreciated your sense of humor.

AA: It kind of works. When things get bad it is good to have some kind of dark sarcastic world point of view. People who tend to survive horrible situations are the ones who can kind of laugh at really practically anything. It’s the way to go. Life is going to be weird and if you can’t find some humor in the worst situations you’ll go insane. Obviously, I can go to therapy. When Steve got sick I volunteered and did what I could. When there’s something important going on I get in there and get serious. I also look at the world and go, “How do you not laugh?”

WCT: Was Steve Tracy, who played your husband on the show, the only gay person on set, or were there other people in the closet?

AA: Probably not. Now this was Hollywood in the ‘70s. It’s not like now like Neil Patrick Harris. My dad knew Liberace, who was seriously going around telling people he wasn’t gay—and this was socially accepted. He would sit there—Liberace, for the love of God—and say, “No, I’m straight” and people were, like, “OK.” Steve was out to me and Melissa Gilbert and I imagine there were oodles and oodles of crewmembers and actors who were gay but just not really discussing it. I remember we would always ask, “Come on. Tell us who’s gay!”

WCT: I remember watching the show when I was young and thinking, “Why are there all of these hot men with no shirts and wearing suspenders running around everywhere?”

AA: I think Michael Landon was very aware of our audience. Demographically, they didn’t count how many gay people were watching. But I think Michael was aware we had gay and lesbian fans. He would take his shirt off and wear tight pants for the gays and women over 40. And over the years now we get the letters saying how the gay men who had a crush on Michael Landon, Matt Laborteaux and all the gorgeous men on the show. There was this tomboyish Melissa Gilbert stomping around saying she would rather play sports with boys and go fishing. Some young girls could look up to her and go, “Yeah, me too.” We had lots of things for our gay and lesbian teenagers.

WCT: Right. We all grew up and around the show.

AA: I call it the ultimate red-state/blue -state show. It’s something for everyone. And the most conservative people from the most conservative religious areas are happy because watch DVDs of Little House on the Prairie and they’re good to go. At the other end of the spectrum there are drag queens doing Jell-O shots while watching it. Everybody loves Prairie.

WCT: Now I watch them and some of them are so dark. I don’t remember them being so heavy.

AA: Oh, my God. Mary’s baby died and that horrible one where little Sylvia gets raped.

WCT: Oh. yeah. That one sticks out in my mind now.

AA: Ah, ah brutal stuff. You know, the 1800s were horrible times!

WCT: I thought Katherine MacGregor, who played your mother, had a tough role to play.

AA: Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Remember when they adopted the little girl Nancy?

WCT: Yes.

AA: When Katherine is sitting there on the floor in front of the door saying, “If you can come home with me I’ll spoil you, too.” Genius, and she’s still alive. She has not changed a bit. She’s 85 and still driving. It’s kind of terrifying. She’s sweet but she just scares the wits out of people. It’s just how she talks.

WCT: Your dad on the show was so likeable.

AA: Richard Bull was voted most like his character. He’s so Mr. Olson and he lives in Chicago now. Still working he’s on TV all the time. Did you see the movie Normal with Jessica Lange?

WCT: I did.

AA: The father who had the Alzheimer’s in the wheelchair. Jessica was the wife and the father of the guy who was having the sex-change surgery is Richard Bull.

WCT: I have to see that movie again.

AA: Go back and watch it. He’s really good. He does a lot of voiceovers. He does a lot of commercials and stuff. But he was like the voice of sanity on the set. It was Richard who was always sensible and calm.

WCT: He must be if he is like that character. Did things get easier for you when they changed your character and made her nicer? Was the public nicer to you or were they still calling you names in the street?

AA: People were like thank gawd she got married. They were sort of relieved but you don’t live that down and the reruns just keep going. I’m 48 years old. I still have people coming up to me and saying, “I hated you!” The story in the book about the woman forgiving me, that was just a few years ago.

WCT: You’re still living that? And the show is now on the Hallmark Channel.

AA: Oh, yeah. It’s in 140 countries. I’m just hated all over the world. If you look at Facebook page half the posts aren’t even in English. It’s total insanity out there.

WCT: After the show was over were you scrambling to try to find something else?

AA: When you get off of shows like that people think now you are going to move onto something different. You know with Hollywood they get a TV show that works and they do six more like it. Well, Melissa Gilbert was really hell bent on feature films. She was hanging out with Rob Lowe and trying to get in the whole bit. Nada. Not going to happen. We were always trying to be these gorgeous sexy young girls. That’s why I’m so glad I had stand up comedy because it was difficult to get work and I was absolutely typecast.

WCT: Well, that has to be hard.

AA: What blew my mind I would get called to play the bitchy girl. Well that’s okay. I like playing the bitchy girl. I like playing the villain. But they would call me for westerns and period pieces. I thought, now that’s a little weird. Type cast me because of my character but type cast me because of the dress? I’m only allowed to be in something without horses? The first TV movie I did was called Come On Over and it was a western. I would get some offers for scary ‘80s movies where you had to be a cheerleader, naked, dead or a combination of all three—ew.

WCT: Sounds rough.

AA: I’m in the ladies room with Mary McDonough of The Waltons and Susan Richardson, that adorable blonde chick from Eight is Enough and we’re talking about being offered horrible roles because we’re all trying to get work. Susan said, “I’m just not being offered anything. It’s just dismal.” Mary said, “I’m being offered stuff if I’m naked.” I said, “I offered to go nude and they still wouldn’t hire me!”

WCT: [Laughs] That sounds like a bad joke.

AA: Yeah it was just insane. That was the whole cult era it was. When I look at how roles evolved for women to now young actresses don’t realize how bad it sucked. They complain now but oh man, there was zero back then.

WCT: Would you ever do a reality show?

AA: I don’t like reality television, but shows like Dancing With The Stars are all throwbacks to traditional game shows. I adore them. There’s a Facebook page right now for getting Alison on Dancing With The Stars. People who watch it are getting dance lessons and they are getting exercise, so it’s a good show.

WCT: Do you want people to go to your website?

AA: Oh yeah go to my website or my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter. I’m in a lot of different nonprofits for HIV and AIDS. I still have to harass people so they know HIV still exists and it’s not cured. I mean, hello? That’s my public service announcement for the day.

WCT: Our community loves that you are doing that.

AA: Hopefully, they will legalize gay marriage. Any second now you’ll pick up the paper and gay marriage will be legal. What does Robin Tyler say? “No, no it’s marriage equality. Don’t call it same sex marriage because everyone knows after you are married sex is never the same.”

Alison’s autobiography, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, is available now and she is appearing at Davenport’s, 1383 N. Milwaukee, on Sept. 9-10. Tickets are $20 with a two-drink minimum and can be purchased at

Arngrim will also be at Borders, 2817 N. Clark, on Saturday, Sept. 11, at 2 p.m. for a discussion of Confessions as well as a book-signing. Call 773-935-3909 for more info.

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