Catching Up With…Alison Arngrim From ‘Little House On The Prairie’

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Photo (right): Getty Images

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. 

Childhood rivals Nellie (Alison Arngrim) and Laura (Melissa Gilbert) in a scene from the first season of Little House on the Prairie.

On being part of such an iconic series at the age of 11…
“We didn’t know it would be iconic at the time. I’d never read the books, so I had no idea who Nellie Oleson was until I went to the audition. But most of us on the show didn’t think it would last longer than the first season. Even my own father said, ‘Oh, who’s going to watch this?’ (laughs) But if you’d told us back then that, 40-odd years later, people would be streaming the series on laptops and watching it on their phones, we wouldn’t have believed you. It really took off during the third season, and I think that’s when we realized that we’d tapped into something special. But the idea that Little House would become this life-long thing for us—as iconic a series as Star Trek—was a shock to the whole cast.”

On landing the role of nasty Nellie Oleson…
“I’d originally tried out for the parts of Laura and [her older sister] Mary, but the search for Laura Ingalls was like the search for Scarlett O’Hara—everybody auditioned. (laughs) So, I later read for the part of Nellie and did the scene from the episode ‘Country Girls’ [season one, episode two] which has her saying the bit about ‘my home is the best home in Walnut Grove’ and I had Michael Landon and the producers laughing hysterically. They asked me to do it again. And, like any good child actress, I said ‘Oh, yes, what would you like me to change?’ And they laughed and said, ‘Nothing, just read the part about the house again.’ By the time I’d left, got in the car with my father and drove away, my agent was already calling to tell me that the wardrobe fitting was on Tuesday. I was hired on the spot. I was stunned.”

On playing a villain…
“I was very shy as a kid—I was more the type who got beaten up by a Nellie Oleson in the schoolyard. This character was the opposite of me—I was never that brazen, and the things Nellie did and said to people I would never dare do or say. But I got to be somebody else completely and it was outrageous. Remember the crazy episode where I went down the hill in the wheelchair? Well, the episode is called ‘Bunny’ and it’s actually about the horse, but it’s known as the ‘Wheelchair Episode’ to anyone who has seen it. To have one scene from one episode of a TV series become so iconic that everyone knows it? Well, wow! What nerve did I hit? Amazing!”

On the difficulties of playing a character everyone loved to hate…
“Well, I grew up in a showbiz family and I was almost 12 at the time [I was cast], so I knew how to separate fantasy from reality. Everyone I knew were actors. My parents would have guests over for dinner and I’d have just seen one of them shot to death on a television show the night before—so I understood that people who died on TV weren’t really dead because they were sitting at our dinner table. Also, my mother [Canadian actress Norma MacMillan] was the voice Gumby and Casper the Friendly Ghost, but I knew she wasn’t really a green ball of talking clay. So, it bemused me that not everyone who watched the show had that same ability to separate the two. (laughs) I mean, the things people have said to me—you wouldn’t believe it! One time I was in a Christmas parade and someone [in the crowd] threw a cup of orange soda at my head. People have freaked out when I’m around.”

On her all-time favourite episode…
“The one where I go down the hill in a wheelchair. (laughs). They didn’t show things like that on The Brady Bunch or The Waltons, but it’s everyone’s favourite episode. I think I liked it because, every week on the show, Nellie would do terrible things but it would mostly just ruin Laura’s life. But in that episode, Nellie actually screws up everyone’s week. Pa has to drop what he’s doing to fix up a wheelchair for her. Mrs. Oleson is flipping out. Mr. Oleson is crying, because he thinks Nellie is actually crippled. So, what was normally confined to the schoolroom now affected the whole town. And leave it to Nellie to make everyone in the town drop what they’re doing and pay attention to her. That’s pretty bold, I think!”

On her showbiz family…
“I thought everyone was on TV until I was eight years old. Going into the family business just felt like a normal thing to do. My parents weren’t crazy stage parents, but when Little House happened they were supportive. My father was hilarious because, before I got Little House, I’d worked off and on as a child actor but I hadn’t worked since I was 10. My father said, ‘You aren’t really booking stuff anymore, it might be over. You might not work again.’ So, essentially I was washed up at 11. So when people ask me if my current work is my comeback I’m always like, ‘Honey, Little House was my comeback.’ (laughs) I’d already had a career and it was over by 10. I’m on my 57th comeback by now.”

On becoming a huge success in France…
“I started doing standup when I was 15 years old. It just worked with my personality. And, since 2002, I’ve had a one-woman show that’s all true stories called Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. It was while touring in France that I realized what a hit Little House was over there. The show reached France in 1976, which is really quick for an American show to go on reruns in another country. I think they aired the pilot episode as Christmas special. They loved the family and thought Michael Landon was great because he was so wonderful and sensitive and he cries. They really got into it. You know how we have Civil War reenactments in America? Well, the French have people act like ‘Indians and cowboys’ from the 1800s. They’re coo-coo for Coco Puffs with this stuff! I guarantee, if you go to France, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know Little House on the Prairie. And they’re crazy for Nellie Oleson. So I knew I had to get in on this action. I always say, ‘They don’t think Nellie Oleson is mean—they think she’s French.’ (laughs) I even created a French version of my [one-woman] show. I didn’t speak French when I started, and it took quite some time to learn it fluently. If you really want to learn a second language, write a two-hour show and then translate it.”

On performing intimate, personal accounts from her life…
“Back in 2002, I performed at Club Fez in New York City. The producer said I needed to do an hour and a half show. No one does that. People do 20 minutes, tops. That’s when I thought to do a Q&A session—which I still do after every show now. And I had this one friend tell me, ‘I like your show, I think it’s fine. But the stories you tell everyone at the bar afterward are much funnier.’ (laughs) So, I decided to take all those terrible true stories and worked them into the show because my life is crazy—some parts of it are even absolutely nuts. People are sometimes too shy to ask questions, so I give them pens and index cards before the show that say ‘Ask Alison Anything.’

And I always joke about the 10 questions I get the most:
Are you really a bitch?
Was that really your hair?
What was Michael Landon really like?
Were you and Melissa Gilbert really friends?
Where did you film the show?
What’s your favourite episode?
How much did you get paid?
Do you still get residuals?
Was Albert gay?
And what the hell was wrong with baby Carrie?

(laughs) Some people get really bold and outright ask me if I’ve ever had sex with Michael Landon, but ew, hi, I was 12, you freaks! But everyone is in love with him.”

Alison Arngrim (as Nellie) with her TV husband, Percival (played by close friend Steve Tracy).

On her friendship with her Little House costar Steve Tracy and how he inspired her HIV/AIDS awareness advocacy…
“For such a sweet little parcel, he was a very tough guy. He got sick back in 1985 and died in 1986. This was well before any of the drugs we have now even existed. The majority of the drugs at the time were in the experimental stage. There were even drug trials where people died because it was more toxic than they’d thought. It was a real Russian Roulette. Steve had tried some of the experimental drugs and I remember asking him if he thought they’d work. He told me, ‘No, it’s too late to save me, but I’m letting them do this on me because it may be successful and someone else can use it when I’m gone.’ And he was so brave. He went public with his diagnosis back when most people kept it a secret. Rock Hudson was on his deathbed before everyone found out, and Liberace never told people he had AIDS. But Steve did magazine interviews and went on TV to talk about it and people went bananas. People would call me worried that Steve had been in my house—this was back when people thought you got AIDS from touching the same doorknob as someone else. Everyone was panic-stricken. But Steve was very lucky, and he had his mom, sister and friends helping him with health insurance. But a lot of people were not in his position. So many people’s relatives stopped speaking to them and they were broke and being thrown out of their apartments and no one would help them. It was all really terrible, so I started volunteering with organizations that tried to find these people places to stay. Just a few months ago, I was with the AIDS Project of the Ozarks and they’ve done some incredible work and have a successful annual AIDS walk. Imagine being in a small community like that and having AIDS? Who do you talk to? What is your neighbours reaction? Yet, here is this project in this community that serves thousands of people. It’s amazing.”

On serving on the board of the National Association to Protect Children and her own experiences with child abuse…
“My friends, family and husband had known for awhile, but I’d never gone public because, ew, why? But when I got hooked up with PROTECT and saw that they’d already changed the incest exception laws in Arkansas, Illinois and North Carolina and they were headed to California, I was warned that people were going to ask me obvious questions about why I was taking part. I decided I was prepared to go public if I had to. And, sure enough, we had a battle on our hands in California. We had people in Sacramento who did not want to change this law. I did a one-hour segment with Larry King [in 2004] and the producers were excited to have me because I had a face people knew and would find comforting—I’d been in their living rooms [as a child]. We wound up changing the law and we won.”