The actress (formerly known as nasty Nellie Oleson) talks fame, AIDS activism and that time she famously tumbled down a hill in a wheelchair on Little House on the Prairie.
To set the record straight: Alison Arngrim is nothing like Nellie Oleson, the bratty character she played for seven years on the popular family drama, Little House on the Prairie.
The series, which ran from 1974 to 1983, was loosely based on the bestselling novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Set on a small farm near the village of Walnut Grove, Minnesota, in the late nineteenth-century, Little House focused on the adventures of the family's second daughter, Laura (played by Melissa Gilbert). But for all the hands-on farm labour and long treks to school, Laura's biggest challenge often lay in her on-again, off-again rivalry with schoolyard bully Nellie Oleson.
With her tight blond curls, piercing blue eyes and haughty behaviour, Arngrim was so successful at playing the villain that it sometimes coloured fans' opinions of her in real life.
"The things people have said to me—you wouldn't believe it," she tells Zoomer from her home in Los Angeles. "One time [as a teen], I took part in a school fundraiser and these two little girls came up behind me and kicked me right in the butt and the backs of my legs."
But, in reality, the 55-year-old actress-activist is the polar opposite of her TV alter ego.
Arngrim, a celebrated author, stand-up comedian and activist, is gracious, energetic and hilarious where Nellie was rude, sullen and too snarky for her own good. However, one can't help but admire how she's handled being regarded as one of the most loathed characters in TV history. If anything, she seems to get a kick out of it.
One her favourite examples of the lasting impression Nellie has left on Little House viewers involves her own in-laws.
"Before I got married to my husband, Bob, he called his parents to tell them the news [of our engagement]," she says. "They said, 'Oh great! What does she do?' And he told them I was an actress and they said, 'Amazing! Has she been in anything we would have seen?' So, Bob tells them about Little House on the Prairie and they immediately wanted to know who I played."
Here, like any good stand-up comedian, Arngrim pauses for added affect.
"He said, 'Nellie Oleson.' And I swear, it was like the line went dead. It was the longest, most uncomfortable a-pin-could-have-dropped silence I've ever experienced. Then they finally asked, 'She isn't like she is on the show, is she?' And Bob said, 'Yeah, she's a total bitch, that's why I'm marrying her!'", Arngrim says before collapsing into a fit of laughter.
Joking aside, Arngrim has also made a name for herself as a vocal AIDS activist, finding inspiration for her work in the death of her Little House co-star (and on-screen husband), Steve Tracy.
The two were "thick as thieves" on the set and Arngrim was devastated to learn of her friend's diagnosis. Tracy passed away in 1986 of AIDS-related complications at the age of 34, and it spurred Arngrim to take action. "For such a sweet little parcel, he was a very tough guy," she recalls. She immediately volunteered with the AIDS Project Los Angeles and signed up for the rigorous training required to work the hotline. Arngrim later moved up the ranks, working at the food bank, hospice and, ultimately, the speakers' bureau.
And she hasn't stopped there. Arngrim also speaks frequently on the issues of child abuse, lobbying with the group PROTECT, a political organization that dedicates its efforts toward protecting children from abuse and neglect. In 2004, she revealed on Larry King Live, that she herself was an incest survivor (although she has never publicly named her abuser, she has clarified that it was not at the hands of her parents).
From on-screen schoolyard bully to real-life advocate...
We caught up with Alison Arngrim to talk childhood fame, AIDS activism and her famous tumble down the hill. Click to the next page for the full Q&A.
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