Autographs, pictures, discussion panel, comedy show, scene auctions and many other appearances kept Alison Arngrim who played Nellie Oleson and Dean Butler who played Almanzo Wilder in the popular ‘70’s television series “Little House on the Prairie,” busy last weekend.
Butler and Arngrim were brought in for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant 50th Year Celebration, and what a crowd they pulled in. Most of their appearances were filled to capacity and visitors got to see a side of the actors they have never seen.
Neither actor was your stereotypical celebrity star. Both were approachable and eager to answer questions and interact with their fans. Their stories and experiences from filming “Little House on the Prairie” were shared with the many fans who came from all directions and distances.
Some fans just wanted a photo, while others were happy with little statement and/or an autograph. There were also the fans that took advantage of every opportunity and attended all the events that “Nellie” and “Almanzo” were to make.
Arngrim had been working as a child actor since she was five years old. When she was eleven years old, she auditioned for the roles of Laura and Mary for the pilot episode of the “Little House on the Prairie”, but when she auditioned for the role of Nellie Oleson she was hired on the spot. That was back in 1973, and the first season started airing in 1974.
Butler was a little older when he started the series. He auditioned during his spring semester while he was a senior attending University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. The campus happened to be just 20 miles from the location Little House was filmed in Simi Valley, California. “I was hired before I graduated. I went to graduation on my 23rd birthday and then two days later I am doing my first day of work on Little House,” said Butler.
Both actors acknowledge that Little House has been a wonderful thing in their lives. Michael Landon, actor, director, and executive producer said of the show, “People are gonna be watching the show long after we're all gone.” At the time, network television was about it, but now, “It's gone from network television to local television, to cable television, VHS, DVD, Blue-Ray and now the show is streamable on three different services, Peacock, iTunes, and on Amazon Prime,” said Butler.
The show has now been translated into 40 languages and aired in over a hundred countries around the world and it’s been incredibly successful even to this day.
“The set of “Little House” was so intimate in person when you looked at it. You are in this little community, and everyone is unique, but you don't realize that behind all that, it was really ahead for its time. A really sophisticated filming unit with the best people, the most skilled craftspeople, cameramen, art directors, makeup artists, wardrobe people. All of it was just absolutely top-notch,” said Butler.
Arngrim talked about the music David Rose wrote for “Little House.” He followed Landon from the series Bonanza. The music helped make the show a success. Rose wanted the music to be big, evocative, and emotional, and to accomplish the task, he frequently used a 60-piece orchestra. Arngrim said he also created little “theme music” for some characters, so you knew your character “made it” if Rose created a theme for them. And yes, Nellie had her themes.
While Landon had his serious side, he also had a “Wonderfully, twisted, warped sense of humor. He liked to make outtakes, and he liked to play jokes, and he liked to laugh, even while we're doing a very serious episode,” said Arngrim. His jokes broke the tension on the sets and allowed the crews to have fun and laugh. That was something other actors from different series frequently noticed.
Arngrim said one of the most rewarding parts of playing a role on Little House was, “We got to play people who were based on real historical characters and from an iconic set of books of literature, so that was really fun.”
“The show just went on and on, and every actor dreams of that. ‘If only I got a pilot that actually sold, if only one of the shows I was on lasted more than one season.’ Here we were for nine years, total craziness. So yes, so much about it was massively rewarding, I mean of all the shows I could've been on as a kid, I won the lottery.”
Butler recalls, “One of the things that Michael loved about doing “Little House” and was hugely important to him was the idea that multiple generations of a family could sit down and watch the television show. That was a big emphasis in why he did it the way he did. When we go out, we experience that too, because you see parents with their children or grandparents with their grandchildren. We get the whole multiple generational connection and so to be a part of that is really rewarding.”
Arngrim talked about the chemistry the actors had on the sets, she said Richard Bull and Katherine MacGregor (Nels and Harriet Oleson) had great chemistry. She said MacGregor had a way of doing her own thing, but you could play off of her even if you didn’t know where she was going. It was easy to be reactive to her antics, and she always gave “Nellie” something to work with.
“I didn't do a lot of scenes with Katherine but the electricity that she created in scenes, everybody felt it. Her spontaneity is just an incredible life force,” said Butler.
“Landon was great to be in scenes with because when he was able to step away from being the director and the producer. You got to experience someone who really could connect in the scene, and he was really good, he listened, he was very responsive, and you felt like you were in a really nice experience with him.”
After all these years, Arngrim said she still has people who share stories of a lady they work with that they call “Harriet” or “Mrs. Oleson.” Others tell stories of a school bully they call “Nellie.” After all these years, people still connect with the characters in “Little House.”
At the time the show was running Butler said it was fantastic for his dating life, but to be associated with a great show that was so loved was amazing. “On a professional level or a personal level, the most meaningful experiences of my life have come out of “Little House on the Prairie.” So, it's been a gift. Awesome,” said Butler
Two incredible actors that played important roles in an iconic television series, “Little House on the Prairie.” The show ceased its production almost 40 years ago, but their fan base continues to grow and pass from generation to generation. The actors in real life? Approachable, genuine, and filled with stories one could listen to for days.