Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert might have been the “stars” of Little House on the Prairie, but the guilty pleasure of the show was conniving Nellie Oleson and the torment she brought to goody two-shoes Laura Ingalls.
For seven seasons, Alison Arngrim played the imperious Nellie, gloating over her nice clothes, nice house and generally lording over the backwater that was Walnut Grove. Little House has been off the air for nearly 30 years, but it’s in permanent reruns around the world and Arngrim has opened the barn door to reveal all the bizarre behind-the-scenes drama and surrealism in her memoir, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch.
Arngrim will talk about her life and sign books on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 7:30 p.m. at Outwrite Books.
Some of the more interesting tidbits from the memoir: Landon liked to drink on the set and didn’t wear underwear; Nellie’s on-screen husband was secretly gay; and saintly Melissa Sue Anderson, who played Laura’s blind sister Mary, was the real bitch on the prairie.
Off the set, Arngrim was dealing with her own surreal childhood. The daughter of a showbiz family, her father, Thor, was gay and Liberace’s talent manager, while her mother, Norma MacMillan, was the voice of Gumby, Casper the Friendly Ghost and nearly every other cartoon character on TV in the 60s. Her brother Stefan was a teen heartthrob, appearing in the Land of the Giants series.
However, Stefan was also sexually abusing his little sister, and Arngrim candidly writes about the assault in the memoir. “I didn’t want to sugarcoat it,” Arngrim says. “It’s not graphically written, but emotionally explicit. I think the more graphic you are telling about the abuse, the less people are able to comprehend or understand it.”
Arngrim eventually got help from a therapist and went on to become an activist in the fight against child abuse, leading the charge in California to overturn its deplorable “incest exception law” that gave family members probation rather than jail time for abusing their children, siblings or any family member.
A regular on the LA comedy scene since she was a teen, Arngrim’s memoir sprang from her one-woman show of the same name. Raunchy and dishy, the show has been a hit around the world. She’s especially beloved in France.
“I burned my fingers off at the keyboard writing this thing,” she laughs. “It was 130,000 words when I finished; you would have had to haul the book out of the store with a hand truck. Luckily, my editor helped me get it to about 300 pages. The sequel is going to be called ‘Confessions 2: No Rest for the Wicked.’”
One of the enduring legacies of the show is fan reaction when meeting Arngrim in person. In the book, there are tales of aborted meet-and-greets at the height of her Little House fame where children either ran in fear or, more disturbingly, attacked her.
“People refused to believe I was playing a character,” Arngrim says. “They thought I was Nellie. The fans have calmed down a bit, but a few weeks ago at a Las Vegas signing, this 50-year-old man kept asking, ‘why are you being so nice? When did you become so nice?’”
Arngrim’s book completes a trifecta of Little House-related memoirs, with both Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson having recently published their recollections. “If you had told me back then that we’d still be talking about Little House as three middle-aged broads I would have said you were insane.”