How millions came to love the Little House on the Prairie TV series (1974-1982)

Little House on the Prairie - Ingalls family

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Based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s incredibly popular Little House books, the super-successful TV show Little House on the Prairie told the story of the Ingalls family and their life on a farm in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Originally appearing on NBC with a two-hour pilot on March 30, 1974, the series kicked off as a weekly hour-long show on September 11, 1974, and ran through May 10, 1982, with a total of 203 episodes.

Famously featuring Michael Landon as family patriarch Charles, Landon also spent a large amount of time behind the camera as well, directing 87 of the episodes, and writing many of them as well. Young actress Melissa Gilbert played Laura Ingalls Wilder, and appeared in all but 13 episodes over the show’s run.

MORE: Watch the whole series!

While the show gave a glimpse into the prairie life of the late 1800s, it wove modern themes and topics into the fabric of its episodes — covering alcoholism, racism, prejudice and drug addiction. Despite the occasional heavy topics, the show had its lighthearted moments as well.

After Landon decided to leave the show, it was renamed Little House: A New Beginning and featured a new cast… though this proved a ratings fail, and that version of the show was canceled after only 19 episodes. It would continue on in three different made-for-TV movies, concluding in 1984 with Little House: The Last Farewell, which actually incorporated the explosive destruction of the show’s sets into the final movie.

Cast of Little House on the Prairie -

“Little House on the Prairie” intro and theme music

YouTube video

Early reviews of the “Little House On The Prairie” TV series (1975)

“Little House on the Prairie,” one of the hits of the current season, has been renewed for the 1975-76 season on the NBC Television Network, it was announced by Lawrence R. White, Vice President, Programs.

White said: “We are proud of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and of our joint effort with Michael Landon and his fine staff and crew for the quality entertainment all have brought to millions of families across our land. And we are proud of these loyal families for rewarding this quality with their consistently loyal viewing.

The series, based on the perennially popular ‘Little House’ books by Laura Ingalls Wilder in which she recalls her girlhood with her family in their pioneering of the West 100 years ago, has been highly acclaimed by the nation’s TV critics as well as the viewing public.

Little House on the Prairie TV guide cover

After its premiere in September 1974, comments by critics included:

The Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald-Journal: “By all means let the entire family watch the Michael Landon series… all of man’s virtues are there.

The Christian Science Monitor: “… Yes, goodness, honesty… and joy… premiered… on NBC and one hopes it will find a permanent home there for years to come… a spiritual voyage of rediscovery… an astounding skillful production.”

The Cincinnati Inquirer: “There is no way ‘Little House on the Prairie’ can fail to become one of the 1974-75 season’s best new series. .. It is a beautiful hour visually, the script is interesting and believable and the cast is just dandy.”

The Los Angeles Times: ” …has the feeling of a built-in hit… an attractive cast, notably Karen Grassie.. .”

The Boston Globe: “There’s something fine about ‘Little House on the Prairie’ that should give it viewing popularity… It has an affirmative, positive outlook… Michael Landon and Karen Grassle are excellent as the parents.

The Washington Post: “…It’s a nice well-made family Western… almost certain to be the season’s new hit…”

The Cincinnati Post: “I feel sure ‘Little House’ will be a success, because not only is it beautifully played, but it is a reminder of the solid roots from which our country has sprung — kindness, hard work and loving, close-knit family ties.”

The lure of Little House on the Prairie, written by Michael Landon (1974)

[ORIGINAL] EDITOR’S NOTE — Michael Landon, who is chief protagonist of “Little House on the Prairie,” NBC’s hour-long Wednesday evening drama, tells how he became involved in the series in this exclusive story.

By Michael Landon

I have always believed that television drama should attempt to depict people as people.

All too often a script is filled with nothing but violence in an effort to disguise the fact that there is no real substance to the Story: that the characters are nothing more than one dimensional and the script has no real beginning. middle or end. Human relationships are based on credible situations stemming from how people think, what they do and where they live.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's famous 'Little House' books have long enchanted readers, young and old

Television drama must be credible to be good. Our NBC series is based on the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who tells the story of her life as she traveled with her family by covered wagon through Kansas, Minnesota and finally into the Dakota Territory.

Michael Landon TV Guide cover

Inherent quality

When I was first exposed to the pilot concept for “Little House on the Prairie,” I recognized an inherent quality in the story that set it apart from every other series concept I had considered. The Ingalls’ story is a simple one, if you can call the struggle to survive simple.

As head of a family of five, Charles Ingalls had to cope with the drought and famine that dispossessed many farmers in the 19th century and provide for his family at any cost, even if this meant leaving for weeks at a time in search of work elsewhere.

In adapting these books to television, it is important to remember that what is being depicted on the screen is based on actual experiences and that back in the 19th century families lived from day-to-day with little or no security, and little if any money. Times were hard, but by the same token, the family unit was strong. Good times were had despite the anguish of an early frost or the loss of an acre’s corn.

How the railroads first crossed America (1968)
Human emotion

As I read through the series of books Laura Ingalls began publishing in 1932, I found them to be filled with human emotion: profiles in courage is an accurate description.

It is interesting to note that little mention was made of serious family conflicts, or the infant death of the Ingalls’ only son, Charles Jr. This was, in all probability, too powerful an experience for Laura to write about. She consequently decided not to include it in the text of the story.

There were a great many things to be considered before I became involved with “‘Little House” but over and above the attention paid to historic detail, family relationships and character development, one overriding concern was to make the Ingalls family come alive in the hearts and minds of viewers across the country and establish a bond that would span a hundred years.

Cast of Little House on the Prairie

Rapport established

Karen Grassle plays my wife Caroline on the series, along with daughters Laura (Melissa Gilbert), Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson), and Carrie (Lindsey & Sidney Greenbush).

Over the months we have established a rapport with one another that Laura Ingalls herself would have envied.

Shooting much of the NBC series on location, we have in many ways become a frontier family — experiencing the trials and rewards of working together as a family unit.

Special episode

Little House on the Prairie reaches back to the roots and granite of America, to the people who carved a life for themselves in the wilderness.

On Dec. 18, we are going to air a special two-hour episode of Little House, in which Ernest Borgnine will make a special guest appearance. Charles and Laura Ingalls have a child — their first son — and I think you will find this episode to be one of the most moving and poignant of the series.

I am very enthusiastic about our Little House on the Prairie because it captures on film what once was and will never be again.

‘Lot to feel’

CBS News Correspondent Charles Kuralt recently took a film crew out to the Old Oregon Trail near Scottsbluff, Nebraska. He stopped by the gravesite of Rebecca Winters, a pioneer woman who died on her way West, back in 1852. She is buried alone beside a railroad track that had been re-routed to avoid disturbing her grave. Rebecca Winters was nearly in sight of Salt Lake City when she died.

Kuralt closed by saying, ‘There’s not much to see here, but there’s a lot to feel. We’ve been to the Great Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, to Sutter’s Fort and the Golden Gate, and here’s a piece of advice: If you want to feel the westward movement in your American bones, pass up those places and stand here on the Oregon Trail beside Rebecca Winters — and watch the trains go by.”

Laura Ingalls could well have shared the fate of Rebecca Winters, but Laura and her family made it through the worst of times and the best of times. If indeed you wish to feel that western movement in your American bones, I think you’ll find it in the Little House on the Prairie.

Alison Arngrim as Nellie Oleson LHOP

“Little House on the Prairie” makes its TV debut (1974)

On Saturday (March 30 [1974]) Michael Landon stars in “The Little House on the Prairie,” a two-hour, fact-based World Premiere drama on the NBC Saturday Night Movie from 9 to 11pm. The motion picture tells the story of the Ingalls family in its move to Kansas from Wisconsin, and its struggle to survive there, as seen through the eyes of young Laura, who also narrates.

The family’s new life, like before, has its joys and sorrows. On the way to Kansas, the scenery is breathtaking and the sunsets incredible, but the horses break down. At night, the stars are almost touchable and it’s fun at the campfire to hear father play the fiddle. But the coyotes’ howl keeps getting closer.

To new territory: Little House on the Prairie (1974)

One hundred years ago, a young father, mother and their three children walked away from their cabin in the snowy woods of Wisconsin, climbed into a covered wagon drawn by two horses, and set out for the newly-opened territory of Kansas.

Everyone hated to leave Wisconsin, especially to say goodbye to grandma, grandpa and friends. But father said they had to travel. Too many people were moving in and scaring off the game he hunted for food and clothing. Besides, in Kansas, the government was offering 160 acres free to anyone who would homestead their plot. A man could be his own man there.

The father — young, rugged and restless — was named Charles Ingalls. His wife was named Caroline and the three children, all girls, were Mary, 11; Laura, 10 and little Carrie, 3. Mary was pretty, but timid. Laura was not so pretty, but very bright and adventurous. Carrie was just happy.

Years later, when Laura grew up, she married Almanzo Wilder. As Laura Ingalls Wilder, she began to write books about her family’s life in the America of those early days. She called the first book, about the Wisconsin days, “The Little House in the Big Woods.“ The second book about the move to Kansas and the struggle to survive there she named “The Little House on the Prairie.”

Seven more books followed. They came to be known as the “Little House books.” Harper & Row published the first one in 1932, the last one in 1971, with each one topping the one before it in sales. More than 1,500,000 copies were sold in the past two years.

Early Little House TV show promo still

These figures impressed show business executive Ed Friendly, who went from vice-president in programming with NBC in New York to co-executive producer of Rowan and Martin‘s Laugh-In. Friendly said he spent months exploring the possibility of preparing companies to acquire the rights to the series in September 1972.

“One big reason why we won,” said he, “was our announced intention up front to present these books as a saga, a series of dramatizations in which the characters will grow and change.” Friendly said he spent months exploring the possibility of preparing this saga for the motion picture screen before convincing himself that it more properly belonged on the television screen.

Friendly said he also was convinced that Michael Landon, former star of Bonanza — as Little Joe — would be perfect as the young father. Landon, in turn, was so enthusiastic about the story that he not only wanted to star in it, but also direct it. Friendly concurred and started the wheels turning.

Screenwriter Blanche Hanalis, who also did the TV adaptation of the novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” was engaged to write the script. A cast was painstakingly assembled-TV newcomer Karen Grassle to play the mother, spirited Melissa Gilbert to play Laura, lovely Melissa Sue Anderson to play Mary, and, as baby Carrie, a tiny thing with a big name, Lindsay Sidney Greenbush [Lindsay and Sidney were actually the names of the twins who played the role].

TV Guide 1979 Little House on the Prairie

At the same time, Friendly and associate producer Kent McCray were crisscrossing the Southwest looking for the right place to film this story. Needed were snow and woods for the Wisconsin scenes. rolling plains for the Kansas scenes. For the former, it was decided to use the hills outside Sonora, California. For the latter, the plains outside nearby Stockton.

Finally, in January, everything was ready and the cameras rolled. It was decided to shoot the Sonora (Wisconsin) scenes first for fear the snow might melt. No danger. It was freezing cold on those grey dawns in outer Sonora. Filming continued through February, followed by editing, dubbing and adding the music. Now comes the culmination of all this activity, going back to the 11-month effort to get rights to the books.

Three girls from Little House on the Prairie

Little House on the Prairie TV series starts 4th season on NBC with new cast members (1977)

As the fourth season of NBC-TV’s high-rated “Little House on the Prairie” begins this fall, a new family will be introduced to share in the adventures of Charles Ingalls, his wife and daughters.

Former All-Pro Los Angeles Rams football star Merlin Olsen joins the cast as a robust farmer and woodsman named Jonathan Garvey. His family will include Hersha Parady as his wife, Alice, and Rusty Gilligan as their young son.

Michael Landon, the show’s executive producer, portrays Charles Ingalls. Karen Grassie stars as his wife, Caroline. The three Ingalls daughters are portrayed by Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary), Melissa Gilbert (Laura) and twins Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush (alternating as Carrie).

The series, which follows the adventures of the Ingalls family in southwestern Minnesota in the late 1870s, is based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic stories about life on the American frontier.

Landon, who writes many of the segments himself, will alternate directorial duties with William F. Claxton. Claxton will alternate as producer with John Hawkins this season.

“Little House on the Prairie” is filmed at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, nearby locations and in Northern California.

Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls/Pa

The fact that Michael Landon was a star athlete in high school has proven an enormous help to his career as an actor, writer, producer and director.

His continued interest in conditioning has helped him keep pace with his sometimes maddening schedule, which he endures five days a week, from dawn until dusk.

Landon, who grew up in Collingswood, NJ, was a track star throughout high school. In 1964, he established a high school javelin mark of 193 feet, seven inches. In an AAU meet that same year, he threw 211 feet.

Among the 42 college scholarship offers he received, Landon chose USC. However, a torn ligament shattered his hopes of continuing in athletics and proved to be the impetus for an acting career.

Forced to drop out of school, he took a job in a warehouse where a fellow worker, an aspiring actor, asked him to help him with his lines for an audition. Landon’s interest was sparked and a short time later, Warner Bros. signed him to attend its acting school. A number of small roles in pictures followed, plus a few parts in “live” television. It was a role in “Restless Gun” that brought Landon to the attention of the series’ producer, David Dortort, who was casting for the “Bonanza” pilot. Landon portrayed Little Joe for 14 years on the NBC-TV hit western.

When “Bonanza” bit the dust in December, 1972, Landon put all his efforts into writing and directing. He wrote and directed “Love Came Laughing,” the premiere episode of the “Love Story” series, and he directed the TV drama about the life of baseball’s Roy Campanella.

Since the premiere of “Little House on the Prairie,” Landon has written many segments as well as serving as executive producer of the high-rated series. This season he will direct every other episode.

Last year Landon brought to the screen a semi-autobiographical story about a teen-age bedwetter in an NBC World Premiere movie titled “The Loneliest Runner.” The film, one he had wanted to do for years, is a sensitive look at a youth’s problem from both the boy’s and the parents’ view.

Landon’s spare time is spent at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., with his wife, Lynn, and their seven children: Mark (28) and Josh (17) by his first marriage; Cheryl (23) by his wife’s first marriage; and four of their own, Mike Jr. (14), Leslie Ann (15), Shawna Leigh (6) and Christopher Beau (2).

Landon enjoys workouts at the gym, tennis, golf, handball and basketball — when he can find time.

Michael Landon and his family at home (1975)

Cast of Little House on the Prairie (LHOP) - Ingalls

Karen Grassle as Caroline Ingalls/Ma

Karen Grassle won out over 47 other actresses for the role of Caroline “Ma” Ingalls because “she looks the way a pioneer woman should look,” says executive producer and star Michael Landon. “She presents a clean, wholesome, proud look.”

Her “look,” when she auditioned for the part, was “clean, wholesome” — no make-up and she wore a plain dress.

Off camera, however, Karen is an attractive blonde dressed appropriately for a 1970s liberated woman (jeans and tops).

Make a ruffled prairie sweater, fringed pioneer jacket & more (1982)

It was that liberation which led to an acting career. Determined to be an actress, she entered the University of California at Berkeley as an English major, and later added theatre arts. After receiving her degree, she won a Fulbright scholarship and went to England, where she studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.

She then returned to New York and performed in repertory theatre; on Broadway in “The Gingham Dog” and “Butterflies are Free”; as Imogene in Joseph Papp’s production of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline”; and, in between, in three different daytime TV series.

Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls

Melissa Gilbert, 13, started acting 10 years ago. She first appeared before the cameras at age 3 in a TV commercial.

She was so good that dozens of commercials followed, as did appearances on “Gunsmoke,” “Emergency!” and “Tenafly.”

Her interest in show business comes by way of her father, the late comedian Paul Gilbert; her mother, a former dancer-actress, who Melissa credits for teaching “me not to act but to think”; and her grandfather, Harry Crane, a top television writer.

After three years of playing Laura Ingalls, Melissa confesses, “I love work except for one thing; it keeps me from doing things with my friends, but that’s all.”

The new teen-ager has plans for college; she intends to study art. “I don’t need to study drama, because I think I already know how to act.” Everyone on the “Little House” set would likely agree to that.

Melissa Gilbert: The Little House star is all grown up (1982)

Melissa Sue Anderson as Mary Ingalls

Melissa Sue Anderson, the pretty 14-year-old who stars as Mary Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie,’ is a very down-to-earth young lady despite her nationwide popularity.

She recently began babysitting for a neighbor at a fee of 75 cents an hour and she’s delighted. Added to her weekly allowance, Melissa is learning to budget according to her needs.

This is just another example of Melissa’s normal childhood despite television success. A straight “A” student in school, she would rather read a book than climb a tree. A quiet, slightly shy girl, she enjoys the pursuit of individual interests from her collection of bells to cooking her favorite recipes.

Melissa’s show business career began when her dance teacher urged her parents to find an agent for her. She began doing commercials and has since appeared in such shows as Brady Bunch,” “Shaft,” and two TV movies, Michael Landon’s “The Loneliest Runner” last season and “James at 15.”

Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush as Carrie Ingalls

“Little House on the Prairie” has been a growing experience for Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush, the identical twins who alternate in the role of Carrie Ingalls.

When the series premiered, the girls, who take turns in the role because of a California law which limits the working hours of children, were a mere 4 years of age. Today, they are blossoming 7-year-olds who have grown from an initial non-speaking role to one with dialogue.

The young actresses began their careers at age 3 when a family friend mentioned that a casting director was looking for young twins to play the part of Jill in the TV movie, “Sunshine.” Michael Landon spotted them and signed them to a series role as Carrie.

Other acting credits include “Electra Glide in Blue,” “40 Carats,” and “Five Easy Pieces.”

They are the daughters of actor Billy Greenbush and Carol Greenbush, a former actress.

Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls and Merlin Olsen as Jonathan Garvey - LHOP TV
Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls, and Merlin Olsen as Jonathan Garvey

Merlin Olsen as Jonathan Garvey

Merlin Olsen, a former Los Angeles Rams football star, tackles his first television series role as the colorful farmer-woodsman Jonathan Garvey in “Little House on the Prairie.”

Although a regular role in a TV series will be new to Olsen, he has appeared on such NBC-TV shows as a Bob Hope special, “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and “Tomorrow,” plus guest appearances on “Kung Fu,” “Petticoat Junction,” “The Hollywood Palace,” “The Joey Bishop Show” and “The Merv Griffin Show.”

His motion picture credits include “Mitchell,” “Something Big,” “One Train to Rob,” and “The Undefeated.”

Olsen recently signed an exclusive long-term contract with NBC as an actor and sports analyst.

The former football great was graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a B.S. degree in finance from Utah State in 1962. He earned an M.S. in economics from Utah State in 1970.

How millions came to love the Little House on the Prairie TV series (1974-1982)

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Comments on this story

3 Responses

  1. The series is classic and will always be, but the book is racist. The way Indians are vilified, spoken about and treated is shameful.

  2. The series is classic and will always be, but the book is r-a-c-i-s-t. The way Indians are vilified, spoken about and treated is shameful. The mother in the book wished them dead. Read for yourself.

    1. I disagree that the books are racist – you can’t erase the past behaviors but you can learn from them; I mean. Look at it this way, the prairie pioneers take advantage of things like the Louisiana Purchase, a chance to have their very own land offered by the government, to make new settlements. The dangers are Indians; and they remain very fearful and ignorant (the correct term being Native Americans, which was not used until mid 20th century).
      Meanwhile, in the 30s, in the wilderness; there are no tablets laying around the cabin for one to swipe and wiki the Apaches to figure out exactly why they like to scalp; why they’re pi#$ed. All they know is that nobody wants to befriend a scalper. It is important to understand that much of the ignorance and lack of sense in past centuries is not identical to “racist” or trying to “vilify” the Indians. Unfortunately, today’s social media and major news stations will do exactly that: discriminate toward a certain group of people and vilify them because the discriminators have agendas and false ideologies and will knowingly use social media to manipulate; get others to react and jump on the bandwagon. That’s not what I see author Wilders exercising in the series. But I digress. Basically, mistreatment of our Native Americans is not the US’s shiniest moment; and today, countless Native Americans receive benefits because they were treated cruelly. If you erase these shameful times in our history, then you might as well remove the benefits and programs that Indians receive today because nothing bad happened to them (it’s been erased). And nobody will learn anything. I recommend for others to refrain from reacting; stop redefining ‘racisim’ and overusing it as a blanket convenience.

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