April 14, 2011 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Life on the ‘Prairie’


Alison Arngrim (Photo by Gor Magaera)

There was a time, actress Alison Arngrim recalls, when her character Nellie Oleson — nemesis of the wholesome Ingalls girls on the hit ’70s show “Little House on the Prairie” — got a little too mean.

Arngrim mostly relished the juicy part. She found the screaming, howling and throwing things a great release. But there was one time she thought the writers took it a bit too far.

“There was one episode that was almost too mean,” Arngrim says during a lengthy phone interview from her house in Los Angeles’ Tujunga neighborhood. “It’s the one where I’m tormenting this poor girl who stuttered. I was kind of cringing when we were filming it thinking, ‘Oh man, I would never do this.’ I had to go to speech class as a child too, so it hit a nerve with me and I know how traumatic it can be. So I’m thinking, ‘OK, I’d pretty much slit my wrists before I’d torment somebody like this.’ This poor girl was sobbing and I’m making her say, ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,’ again and again. ‘I can’t hear you!’ It was pretty sick. I even felt a little sick while we were doing it.”

Arngrim’s “Little House” memories are mostly fond, though. She’s been touring her one-woman show “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch” for years. Last year she adapted it into an autobiography that’s drawn raves.

Her former co-star Melissa Gilbert (Laura), whom Arngrim calls her best friend, says she “devoured” “Confessions” in two days and, “after reading it I admire her more than ever.”

Arngrim is in Washington this weekend for “Stand United,” PFLAG D.C.’s gala and silent auction slated for 6 p.m. Saturday at the Washington Plaza Hotel in Thomas Circle. And she says she couldn’t come to town without stopping by Nellie’s Sports Bar, the gay pub across from Town on U Street, N.W. Owner Doug Schantz met Arngrim last summer in Provincetown, Mass., and told her to stop by if ever she was in D.C. She’ll sign copies of her book there tonight (Thursday) at 6 p.m.

Even though the bar wasn’t named after her character, Arngrim thinks the connection is funny.

“He sent me all the T-shirts, hats and everything with the Nellie’s logo,” Arngrim says. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this is awesome!’ I wear nothing but Nellie’s Sports Bar clothes.”

Arngrim, now 49 and a nearly life-long AIDS, LGBT rights and child abuse advocate, started working at age 6. When “Little House” was casting, she read for both the Mary and Laura parts, but landed Nellie instead. She credits “the Michael Landon academy” as her acting school and says “it came weirdly naturally.”

The uppity Oleson clan — wealthier and snobbier than the Ingalls — provided the show with its comic relief. Her “Little House” parents, Katherine MacGregor (Harriet) and Richard Bull (Nels) — both 86 — are doing well. She keeps in touch and remembers them fondly.

“They adored each other but they would have these hysterical arguments,” Arngrim says. “This was back in the ’70s when Prop 13, which slashed property taxes and in a way kind of ruined the state, was big. It was this bizarre political thing in California at the time and was very controversial. Katherine and Richard were sitting on the set debating this thing and you would have sworn it was Mr. and Mrs. Oleson. It was so good, you could have filmed it. They were just like an old married couple.”

Arngrim says Bull is still working, “which is crazy.” MacGregor, she says, was “one of the funniest” people on the set.

“She was like Mrs. Oleson in some ways — not mean but just completely bananas.”

Alison Arngrim as Nellie Oleson. (Photo courtesy of the archives of Alison Arngrim)

The adult actors were gracious to the many child actors on the show, she says. They addressed them by their first names but included “sir” and “ma’am,” as they did with the crew.

The show filmed at Paramount then later at MGM on Stage 15 where “The Wizard of Oz” was also filmed. Arngrim claims she and Gilbert found pieces of the yellow brick road on the set. The outdoor scenes where facades of the famous Oleson’s Mercantile and Nellie’s Restaurant were built, were filmed at L.A.’s famous Big Sky Ranch.

“It’s so funny, they shoot everything there,” Arngrim says. “All these truck commercials that show how these big trucks can go through all this terrain. They’re totally driving through Walnut Grove. It’s hilarious. You see it on shows and commercials all the time.”

One thing she doesn’t miss is the famous Nellie wig, which she says was “practically nailed to my head.” It’s her own hair in the first few episodes but hers wouldn’t “hold the curl” so for the rest of the run it was a wig. She remembers the “Little House” stylists Ziggy Geike and Larry Germain pinning it on her each day with “about 8 million pins — it was excruciatingly painful.”

Several long-time cast members left after the seventh season, including Arngrim. Her contract was up and she says she didn’t see her character, who’d grown up, gotten married, had twins and become nice, going anywhere interesting.

“I thought, ‘OK, I’m done.’ It’s time to get out the door and do something else. Even Michael (Landon) hadn’t realized it would go on this long and become this monster. … This was pre-’Friends’ so we didn’t have the big salaries and they weren’t offering any great incentive to re-sign. If I’d known it was only going to go on another two years, I might have stayed but my family was reminding me I didn’t want to end up like Miss Kitty on ‘Gunsmoke.’”

Arngrim laughs when she recalls how producers simply “cloned” several of the characters who left. A new, equally wholesome family moved in the Ingalls old house when Landon and Karen Grassle left. And the Olesons adopted holy terror Nancy.

“I was kind of this royal, imperious bitch, but she was more psychotic,” Arngrim says. “She was more ‘Bad Seed’ crazy, than Nellie. But it didn’t really work and it only went a couple more years.”

Arngrim’s activism sprang from her “Little House” work. Actor Steve Tracy, who played her husband Percival, was gay and died of AIDS in 1986.

“It was extremely traumatic for all of us,” Arngrim says. “He’d left this cryptic message on my answering machine and said he had cancer, kind of. I said, ‘What is cancer kind of?’ I knew something horrible was happening. This was in ’86 and there was just nothing then. Life expectancies were about nine months. And he was very ill.”

Even though PFLAG is a little different from the AIDS organizations for which Arngrim has long volunteered and worked — she was a full-time employee of Tuesday’s Child from 1989-1993 — she says it’s an important group she’s long admired.

“These families who treat their gay children like they’re from outer space, I’ve just never understood it. It’s like, ‘Jesus, what’s wrong with you?’ So this group that had the audacity to actually not reject their gay children — what a freaking thought — it’s a great thing. Nobody’s free till we’re all free.”

Go here for Arngrim’s appearances, book information and more.

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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