Not-so-nasty Nellie: 'Little House' actress to visit Walnut Grove
LOS ANGELES -- Alison Arngrim talks fast when she's excited. On this particular day, Alison is excited because she's just found out that her book made The New York Times Bestseller List.
"Hardcover, non-fiction, No. 35," she reeled off its status at the beginning of the phone interview, pride radiating from almost 2,000 miles away.
On the phone, Alison is congenial, funny and an engaging conversationalist. Her friendly, real-life persona is a far cry from the acting role with which she will always be associated -- "Nasty" Nellie Oleson from the "Little House on the Prairie" television series.
"One of my very good friends, when we first became friends, he told me he used to have nightmares about me as a child," related Alison with a peal of laughter. "Nobody's thrown anything at me lately, but when I was doing a signing a few years ago, a lady walked up to the table, looked me up and down and said, 'I forgive you for all the things you did to Laura,' and walked away. I get some of the strangest things. My in-laws are educated, intelligent people, and there was just total silence when my husband told them who he was marrying. They said, 'She's not like that girl on TV, is she?'
"I even get recognized over the phone," she added. "You're Nellie. You get over it. It's worked out well in my favor."
Born to show-business parents -- her dad, Thor Arngrim was a well-known Hollywood manager, and her mom, Norma Macmillan was a voice actress who provided the voices for Casper the Friendly Ghost and Gumby, among others -- Alison started auditioning for acting roles as a tiny tot.
"I started working at 6 and had been auditioning since babyhood," she recalled. "I had a good-paying gig at age 6 for Hunts ketchup and did a couple of TV shows. I did 'Juvenile Jury,' and there was a movie when I was 10 -- "Throw Out the Anchor,' with Richard Egan. It was a total rip-off of 'Houseboat' with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren."
As puberty approached, Alison's father warned her that she might not work for a while, but then she got the audition for "Little House." Initially, she auditioned for the role of Laura, which eventually went to Melissa Gilbert.
"I read for Laura -- everybody read for Laura -- I read for Mary," Alison detailed. "When I saw Nellie, she was quite a bitch even in the sides, not a normal kid. I read it for my father, and he was just in hysterics. He said, 'Don't change a thing. Go in and do it like that.' Michael Landon and the other producers lost their minds and hired me on the spot. It was either the best compliment or the worst insult ever."
Alison was thrilled to get the part, although no one expected the show to be a hit, she recalled.
"Michael Landon was just off 'Bonanza,' and they wanted to make him 'Knight Rider' or some sort of glamorous cop. But he wanted to do 'Little House on the Prairie.' Here he was a sex symbol -- sexy Pa Ingalls. My father, the first day, said 'I don't know why they're spending so much on the sets. It's not going to make it.' Half the actors who took it didn't plan on getting tied down to a series. Three years later, we're all looking at each other, thinking, 'How did this happen?' No one anticipated that success."
"Little House on the Prairie" was a dramatic family series loosely based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books. It was set on the prairie of Minnesota -- specifically Walnut Grove in southwest Minnesota. But the series was filmed in the valleys of California and didn't always reflect the flat landscape of this region.
Alison inhabited the role of Nellie for seven seasons, taking the role from a bratty schoolgirl to a thoroughly spoiled young married woman. Despite their onscreen rivalry, she and Gilbert became best friends and had many behind-the-scenes adventures.
Actress to author
Alison shares some of those "Little House" exploits in her memoir, "Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated," which was released June 15.
"Technically, I started writing it years ago, right around the time Michael (Landon) died," explained Alison. "I thought he was indestructible. But I put it aside, thought 'Nobody will publish that.' Then, in the early 2000s, I started doing a one-woman show also called 'Confessions of a Prairie Bitch,' and started telling stories about my life. From 2002 to 2004, I started writing in earnest."
Initially, literary agents were reluctant about the project, unsure if there was enough "Little House" nostalgia to ensure the book's success. But the success of the musical version of "Little House on the Prairie," starring Gilbert as Ma Ingalls, revitalized the series and now it's on its fourth-generation of viewers, Allison noted.
"If you'd told me 30 years ago that we'd be having this conversation, that it would be all over the world -- it's showing in places where I didn't even know they had TV," she said. "It's insane. It's out on DVD in all these countries. I have the English ones, the German ones; the French ones are way more uncut than the American versions. I guess the Dutch DVDs, they're completely uncut. I have to go online and order them from Holland."
The book project also got a boost when TV Land presented Alison with a couple of unusual awards referencing the Nellie role: Character Most Desperately in Need of a Timeout (2006); and Siblings That Make You Grateful for Your Own Crazy Family (2008).
Meanwhile, Gilbert had also started working on a book, and hers was published first.
"We did the 'You take this story, I'll take that story' -- divided things up," said Alison. "She got hers out first, and I even thank her in the acknowledgements for going first. Like a hat on a stick, she went out there and said, 'Shoot me.' She walked into the fire, and the thing was a smash. People did want to know what really happened.
"At this point, I was in New York doing my show, and a literary agent walks in and said, 'Is there a book to go with this show?' I said, 'Funny you should ask ..."
Alison is particularly pleased that HarperCollins -- the original publisher of the "Little House" books -- chose her manuscript. In addition to "Little House" anecdotes, Alison shares some personal stories about her life outside the series.
"I also talk about my insane show-biz family," she said, adding that her dad died while she was writing the book. "I share how I was abused as a child, how my husband on the show died of AIDS, so I ended up doing all the AIDS activism I've been doing and working with PROTECT (The National Association to Protect Children) to protect abused kids -- all the things I'm able to do because I was Nellie Oleson. It's the whole story, a lot of intense stuff in there. ... I've lost a lot of people close to me ... the whole bizarreness of my life. There's also an appendix with websites for every issue talked about in the book. ... But I also talk about how Melissa and I became best friends and how Melissa Sue Anderson (who played Mary) won't talk to us."
Anderson aside, Alison keeps in touch with many of the surviving members of the "Little House" cast. She reported on a recent congratulatory e-mail Karen Grassle (Ma Ingalls) sent after reading the book and about going to the dress rehearsal of the "Little House" musical in the Twin Cities and attending a later performance of it in California with the actresses who played Miss Beadle, Carrie and Baby Grace on the TV show.
"The girl who is Nellie is fabulous," she noted about the musical version of her character. "My favorite thing about Nellie is her dresses. She's always in pink, and each time she appears the pink is a little bit brighter. By the end of the show, it's practically day-glo. I was dying of laughter. It's a cute trick."
In the wake of the book's publishing, Alison's life has been a whirlwind of travel. She's toured to promote the book at events in New York and California. This week, she's in France and will return to Los Angeles briefly before the next stop on her agenda -- Walnut Grove on July 24-25.
"I haven't been there since '91 or '92," she remembered. "It was kind of intense. I saw where Laura lived, and that was spooky and weird. It didn't look anything like the Simi Valley (in California, where the series was filmed)."
The visit to Walnut Grove made such an impression on Alison that she encouraged Gilbert to visit the southwest Minnesota town, which she later did with the cast of the musical.
"You stand on the mound -- talk about feeling energy from a place," Alison reflected.
Alison undoubtedly left an impression on the good folks of Walnut Grove, too, by throwing herself into Plum Creek at the Ingalls family dugout site. This time around, she's anticipating a command performance, but is also looking forward to seeing the Wilder Pageant and visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum.
"I've got to see if my pantyhose are still in the museum," she said. "Somebody called me two years after I was there and said, 'They have your pantyhose in the museum.' I peeled them off after I went in the creek, and somebody must have dug them out of the trash."
Alison Arngrim's appearance July 24 in Walnut Grove will include autograph sessions from 9:30 to 10:45 a.m. and 11 a.m. to noon at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum; speaking from 2:15 to 3:15 p.m. at the Family Festival in Walnut Grove City Park; book signing and autograph session from 3:15 to 4:30 p.m. at the Family Festival; book signing and autograph session from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Wilder Pageant; and on July 25 a book signing and autograph session from 10 to 11 a.m. at the museum. She is also scheduled for a book signing at 6 p.m. July 26 at the Barnes & Nobles store in The Mall of America, Bloomington.