Actress details her friendship with Michael Landon, battle with alcoholism in new memoir
Karen Grassley, who famously played Caroline “Ma” Ingalls in “Little House on the Prairie,” is getting candid about her journey to sobriety.
The actress recently penned a memoir titled “Bright Lights, Prairie Dust: Reflections on Life, Loss and Love from Little House Ma.” where she detailed her upbringing and struggles with alcoholism, as well as her alleged troubled relationship on set with her former co-star and boss Michael Landon. He played her on-screen husband, Charles Ingalls.
The former co-stars did not immediately respond to Granthshala News’ request for comment about the allegations made about Landon in Grassley’s book.
Despite his ups and downs, Grassley insisted that he had made peace with the actor before he died of pancreatic cancer in 1991 at the age of 54.
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Grassley, now 79, spoke to Granthshala News about writing her book, and what it was like to bring the beloved series to life, as well as the moment she realized it was time to calm down.
Granthshala News: Now what inspired you to write this memoir?
Karen Grassley: This book has taken years and years. I started here after moving to the Bay Area. I was semi-retired and didn’t have as many friends as I had in Los Angeles. All these memories started coming to the fore. So I started writing them. I thought that maybe one day my son would be interested in reading them.
And I just kept on writing. And the truth is, I had to let my guards down. I am a very private person. So I had to be willing to share a lot of my weaknesses with my family, my alcoholism, the trials I went through in “Little House.” A lot of things that I never really discussed in public. But it felt freeing. And I’m glad I did.
Granthshala News: It is said that you got the role of Caroline Ingalls at a very important juncture in your life. is it true?
to mow: very. I was so broken and so disappointed about my career. I was thinking, “I better go back to school and learn to do something else.” And I couldn’t figure out how in the world I would pay to go back to school. I had friends in Los Angeles who were doing television. I saw what they were being paid. So I thought, “I’ll try to get some TV work.” I thought it might help pay for me to go back to school. So my agency started sending me on auditions. And I think it was two or three months later that I got a call about this new series called “Little House on the Prairie.”
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Granthshala News: But you weren’t a fan of your character initially?
to mow: Yes sure. When I first read the script, I thought, “Oh, that’s kind of lowly. He’s prudent.” I hadn’t read the books, so I had a lot to do. And we didn’t have the same kind of research about Ingels today. So I got the job. But as soon as I started doing roles and interacting with kids, I gained a new perspective for my character. She is a woman who is so brave and loyal and is going to the forest with her little girls. She wanted to make a better life for them. I began to feel the nobility of the character and what it really represented.
Granthshala News: Michael Landon, even today, is seen as a loving father.
to mow: And he earned that image. He was one of the favorites on television and had one of the longest careers. He made this show and we are still talking about it almost 50 years later. For this he deserves a lot of credit.
Granthshala News: But you also saw a completely different side of it.
to mow: We all worked very hard. I didn’t think it was all that hard because we were all worker bees. There was no one on that set who was patting here and there. Where it got really tough for me was when it was time for the second season. If you were on a hit series, it was common practice to renegotiate your contract based on its popularity. Michael didn’t want to raise me. He began to reduce my share, my worth.
I was a professional. I had just completed a year of Shakespeare in England. I was on Broadway. I loved the kids and built a good relationship with them. You don’t get this with everyone. So I thought I had some value. And I stuck to my guns. This went on for months and months. I think it went on for over a year where I didn’t say, “I’m sick and I can’t come to work.” I decided that I would show up to work every day and do my job. But it was difficult because people knew he was angry with me. And he showed it in many ways. That’s why I had to go through it. But I also didn’t want to leave myself. I worked hard to be the actress I was.
Granthshala News: Why do you think Michael Landon was so hesitant to give you a pay raise?
to mow: I do not know. And until the day I die, I’ll never really understand why he ditched his heels and refused as he did. After a year and a half, I got an excellent contract that was suitable for the time. It meant a lot to me, but I paid a heavy price for it. I just wanted a fair salary.
Granthshala News: How did this affect your relationship with him on set?
to mow: It was so hard going to work and knowing that he’s angry with you. You can cut the tension with a knife. And you thought he might be talking about you behind your back. He had a sense of humor and if he wanted to make fun of you, boy, were you skewered. He was very smart. I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I kept going to work.
Granthshala News: You worked on stage and set before the #MeToo era. How was your experience with sexuality in the workplace?
to mow: I was kind of lucky because by the time I got to New York, I had trained in England. I was already a professional. Many young women moved to New York or Los Angeles with little experience. They became very, very weak. But I didn’t mind if someone attacked me or anything like that. If someone made an unfair pass, I learned long ago how to pretend I didn’t care they were doing it or laugh it off.
What happened on the set of “Little House”… Mike decided to offend me while we were doing the scene in bed. It was terrible for me. It was so unbearable and I just tried to get over it. You know, he made these horrible jokes about female anatomy, making a woman’s body parts so disgusting. I just stood with all these men laughing at their jokes and there was nothing I could do. We didn’t even have a word for sexual harassment.
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Granthshala News: You were also very candid about your struggles against alcoholism. When did you first realize you needed help?
to mow: I resisted help for a long time. I tried to keep everything under control for a long time. I had no idea to what extent my alcohol problem was playing a negative role in my life, but it is very common… [alcoholics] Don’t want to don’t want to drink. We think of many arguments as to why things are going bad in our lives. But we don’t want to see the main object. This seems to be how the disease works.
My friend Tony, whom I have known since I was 7 years old, confronted me and told me I needed help. I had no way out of it. She knew me… I couldn’t fight the truth of what she was saying. After our conversation, it just happened another bad night where I fought with a friend – a very dear friend of mine.
Filled with self-pity, I went home. I felt that everything was wrong in my life and everyone was turning against me. The next morning, I woke up and said, “I should never have another drink, no matter what.” I thought that my life would fall apart. I thought I might lose my job. I can definitely lose my boyfriend. I thought I would never go to a good restaurant again. How can you go to a nice restaurant and not drink alcohol? How can you have Mexican food and not drink beer? I thought my life was over. But it was such a blessing.
Granthshala News: It sounds like you were a high functioning alcoholic.
to mow: Oh yes. I’m glad you picked it up. My father was the same. He used to go to work everyday. he worked hard. He paid his bills. And the wine killed him.
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As for me, I woke up every day with a terrible hangover. I went to work, I pulled myself together, I worked hard and I focused all day. And when he said, “It’s a wrap,” I either took a drink from the prop table or had one when I got home and started again. I felt in control because I was working. I didn’t lose my job. It gave me even more reason to continue the way I was.
Granthshala News: when did you recover?
to mow: It is June 1977. It is so meaningful because from that day on everything changes. I saw life in a whole new way. I was able to really figure out who I was and what I wanted in life. And boy, was it a lot of work. And it was all worth it.
Granthshala News: Do you remember the last time you talked to Michael Landon?
to mow: Oh yes, very good. I wrote him a letter just to say hello and let me know what was going on in my life. He wrote me back the best note ever. I remember he said, “Call me so we can discuss old times before we forget them.”
That’s why I called him. He told me about his family. We had good conversations with some of the people we worked with. But we fixed the fence. And I felt that there was a lot of forgiveness on both sides. We were missing the better parts of our relationship. And I was so grateful for that because it was a short time after Mike was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
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Granthshala News: Good to hear that you both reconciled before he passed away.
to mow: You know, we established a very good working relationship in the first year. And after the contract was finalized, we also had great days. Lots of laughs A lot of scenes where we played together and enjoyed each other’s talents… that was probably more human. He was very complex and came from a difficult childhood. So I think that for a person who comes to the table with a lot of issues and is somehow able to turn it into a creation that serves other people, deserves a lot of credit.
Granthshala News: Today you are recognized as one of the cutest moms on TV. How do you feel about that title?
to mow: I am grateful I have mostly based this character on my mother. And I didn’t realize until later that how much people really love this character. Initially, I could not understand the depth of people’s affection for him. But people still reach out to me and express how much they love her. It was very satisfying. And I’m very lucky.