I’m going to be upfront right at the beginning of this article – Melissa Anderson has been my sister-in-law for over 20 years, marrying my brother, writer/producer Michael Sloan, on March 17, 1990. She is a great wife, an exceptional mother, and has given me a beautiful niece, Piper, and a handsome nephew, Griffin.
For seven years, from 1974 to 1981, she portrayed Mary Ingalls on the popular family series Little House on the Prairie. Twenty-nine years after leaving the show, her new book The Way I See It has been published, chronicling her experiences on the series.
Missy arrived at Borders Bookstore in the Northridge Mall, in Los Angeles, a little early to sit down and speak with me about ‘the way she sees it!’
How did this come about? Did you want to write a book, or did the publishing company approach you?
No, I never ever thought of writing a book, ever, ever. I was approached and I thought it was a mistake. I thought they meant Michael, because he’s the professional writer in the family.
It turned out they were interested in me. I was surprised no one had written a book already, and the next conversation was, ‘Well, Melissa Gilbert is coming out with a book in a few months.’ I said, ‘Well, there you go.’
By that time I had considered it enough, and I thought of a way I could present it that I thought might work and make it a little bit different.
I didn’t want it to be like every other memoir, I didn’t want it to be dark and depressing, but yet I wanted it to have some substance and I wanted people to learn something and take actors maybe a little more seriously, including child actors.
You choose to do sections of your life in screenplay format, how did you think of that and how did you choose the stories that you wanted to make into ‘scenes?’
I had to put myself through the beginning of the book, at age 11, and I think to do that it would be easier for me to write me believably in a screenplay format, so I think that’s why it happened. I had to learn to pick the scenes very carefully.
I realized that they had to be lighter moments, because to take the reader out of the narrative would pull them away if it was an important moment in the book. So it had to be the right ones that were light enough that it wouldn’t matter and it would still flow.
In 1978 you were nominated for an Emmy for your role as Mary. What was your reaction when you first heard of the nomination?
It was interesting, because when I first started writing about it I didn’t remember it at all, and then suddenly it came to me, ‘I think I know why I don’t remember this.’
At five o’clock in the morning, I was at the nomination ceremony announcing [the nominees], and so I think that’s how it happened.
So I wasn’t somewhere watching it and hearing it that way. I think I was there and the other person announced my name. It was very exciting and I went out to my favorite restaurant for lunch.
You were the only actor in the series to ever be nominated. Did the atmosphere change on the set because of the nomination?
Yes, I think everybody was really happy for me on the show. And they should have been in the sense that it really elevated the show’s [critical acclaim and ratings]. It was huge. Mike Landon was odd about it.
He actually said, ‘You know you’re not going to win.’ And I, of course, didn’t think I was going to win, you never do. I was up against all these leading actresses.
In those days if you were featured in an episode they would put you in the leading category, they don’t do that any more. You stay in whatever your billing category is, which is fairer.
I was up against Michael Learned (The Waltons) Fionnula Flanagan (How the West was Won), Sada Thompson (Family), and one or two other people I can’t remember right now (Kate Jackson, Charlie’s Angels, Susan Sullivan, Having Babies).
So I never in a million years thought I would win, and truly it was just as much fun to be nominated. I had a great time. And I was so relieved when I didn’t win, because I thought, ‘What am I ever going to do if I have to get up there and say something?’ I thought I was going to die.
So I only remember feeling it from Michael, and that was his insecurity. There he was, the nicest guy ever, but he’d gotten very complacent with his acting, and I think I say that in the book.
It would have been interesting to see what his acting could have been like if he’d been directed by someone else, that really was a taskmaster, that really would make him work and make him stretch.
I think he could have been a fantastic actor. He was a good actor, but he did just what he had to do. He had a formula that worked, but I think it would have been interesting to see [what he’d been like] if he had got out of his comfort zone.
What is your greatest personal accomplishment and your greatest professional accomplishment?
Well, personal would have to be my kids. Professionally I think I’m proud of my work in The Equalizer. I loved doing that, it was my favorite thing I’ve ever done. My son just watched it.
I tried it show it to Piper years ago, and Griff saw some of it and it scared him, so off it went. I knew now he was certainly old enough, and I said, ‘Griff, I think you’d really like it, because I think The Equalizer is your kind of show,’ and he loved it.
I was in and out of the room, but I saw bits and pieces and I thought, ‘Gosh, I wasn’t bad in that.’ Because you’re never as good as you think you are and sometimes it turns out better than you thought.
I wanted to live up to the material, because the writing was so good. I was proud of being associated with that show.
Do you have a favorite moment from the show that you consider the quintessential Little House on the Prairie moment?
The first episode of the show, Harvest of Friends, we follow Pa into town, with his broken ribs and everything, because he has to finish stacking the feed in order not to lose his oxen, and then he would lose his crop.
So we help him when he falls, and then the whole town helps.
That was such a Little House moment, but it was so nice, and for a beginning episode it really had all those correct, right elements for the series. Without being too schmaltzy, it was on the verge but not quite, it was really good.
Do you think Little House could be made now, would people watch it, and if not, why not?
No, I don’t. I think the only reason Little House ever sold in the first place was because of Mike Landon. If he hadn’t been in it I think no one would have cared.
But the other reason is it’s a show that needs to be told in a slow fashion, and the audience today is too sophisticated, and that may be a nice word, yes, sophisticated, but also has no patience.
I think the way the stories were told on Little House, they had to develop slowly, and we would never find an audience because they don’t have enough time.
Even with Mike Landon, you wouldn’t be able to find an audience in the three episodes you get (to be successful).
Footnote: Following our interview Missy did an outstanding presentation, reading excerpts from her book and bringing people up to help her act out some of the scenes included in the tome, before sitting down and signing copies for her fans.