Karen Grassle became a legendary television actress following her role as Caroline Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie.
The show, along with its various roles, is still to this day iconic. Not only that, but people all over the world can and do continue to watch the show.
Many of the actors from the show have previously spoken out about the wonderful atmosphere on set – by many accounts Michael Landon was a father figure and extremely kind.
However, according to Karen Grassle, things weren’t all as rosy as they might have appeared.
In an upcoming memoir, Grassle claims that Michael Landon lashed out at her several times, mocking her and telling “disgusting” jokes. Furthermore, the actress explained how Landon was of the belief that she shouldn’t get paid more than the child actors on the show.
Little House on the Prairie is a legendary show that is still aired in over 100 countries. In fact, the show has never been completely off the air since it premiered way back in 1974.
The historical western drama – about the Ingalls family and their farm in Plum Creek, near Walnut Grove, Minnesota – helped some of its actors become household names.
Karen Grassle – Caroline Ingalls
Michael Landon is the figure most people associate with the show. Sadly, he passed away in 1991.
Among the other actors, Melissa Gilbert and Karen Grassle both became icons through Little House. For me, it’s hard to choose a favorite from so many great performances.
Grassle’s life changed completely when she got the part of Caroline Ingalls, AKA “Ma”, on Little House on the Prairie.
Born February 25, 1942 in California, Grassle completed her college education at the University of California. She then traveled to London to study at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
She did plenty of theater work with the Shakespeare company, but unfortunately things didn’t quite add up when it came to her finances.
“I had spent a year in England, working with a Shakespeare company and teaching, and came back to the States flat broke,” she told Closer Weekly.
Yet some of the greatest happenings in life can be coincidences. It just might be that one is in the right place at the right time to get that shot they desperately need in life.
That’s exactly what happened to Karen Grassle, in any case.
Met Michael Landon
At the time Little House on the Prairie was casting for the show, Grassle was actually involved in another project. As everyone knows, she ended up being cast in Little House, all thanks to a happy coincidence.
“I was asked to fly to LA to play the lead in an independent movie, but when I got to the airport, there was no ticket!” Grassle recalled.
“I’d sublet my apartment and my boyfriend was [with me], so I wrote a bad check to get one. But when I got to LA, the movie fell through.”
At that point, her agent called her with a proposition. A new project had come up, one featuring Michael Landon. At the time, Grassle knew him as, “this guy from Bonanza.”
“I was not a big TV watcher,” she added.
The series that she would audition for was, of course, Little House on the Prairie. The drama was based on the life of the Ingalls family and took place in the 19th century Midwest. Landon was the lead of the show, and Grassle was to try out for the role of Caroline Ingalls.
“I was the only one at the interview,” Grassle told Closer.
“They’d seen everyone in Hollywood who was right for the part. They were down to the wire because they cast everyone else. After I read my second scene with Mike, he leaped up like a jack-in-the-box and said, ‘Bring her to wardrobe!’ But NBC had to approve me, so he interviewed for executives on closed-circuit TV.”
Karen Grassle – Little House on the Prairie
Grassle got the part – and her life changed thereafter. At first, her relationship with Landon was amazing.
“When I came on the pilot, he was extremely kind and sensitive and a good director and really gave me a chance to find my legs because [TV] was a new medium for me,” she says.
“So I have to say it started out really, really great. It didn’t stay great.”
Grassle explained that Landon always did his best to try and involve everyone.
“He was constantly trying to make the crew laugh and make everybody happy,” she recalled. “A very hard worker and he could be quite moody — he had a lot on his shoulders that first year. He had a falling-out with a producer very early on, so he was the only captain.”
Karen quickly settled in with all the other actors and actresses. She bonded particularly well with the children on set, especially Melisa Gilbert, who starred as Laura Ingalls.
When it came to her own role of Caroline, Karen decided to base her role on her own mother.
“If you read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books and see photos, Caroline was very tough and sturdy,” she explained. “My mother rode a horse barefoot to school, and as a young woman, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse! So I took her character, strength, and wisdom and infused Caroline with that.”
Even though Karen and all the people involved with the production enjoyed the hysteria that was Little House, some things that went on behind the scenes weren’t as ideal.
Dispute with Michael Landon on set
As Little House started to gain more and more viewers, becoming widely popular in the process, the stars of the show wanted in on the success. At that time – having become one of the household names – Karen Grassle felt that she deserved more money.
However, her pursuit of a better contract resulted in a heated argument with Michael Landon instead.
“Michael was prodigiously talented,” she told Closer. “A complicated character from a dysfunctional family who loved his crew. But when the show was in the top 10 and I said, ‘Gee, it is time to renegotiate my contract,’ Michael did not want to pay me. It was very difficult.”
As one might imagine, things on set became a little sticky after. Karen’s dispute with Landon caused a serious rift in their relationship. She was even afraid to talk to anyone about her not being paid accordingly.
Why? Well, she feared that she might ruin her and Landon’s relationship irreparably.
“I didn’t speak up publicly at the time,” she said. “Unless the fact that I continued to negotiate meant that Mike might have said things about me that could have been detrimental.”
Had a ‘healing’ phone call
40 years have now passed since Grassle appeared as Caroline Ingalls in Little House. Even though she had said dispute with Landon over her salary, the two started talking again shortly before Landon’s passing in 1991.
“We had a friendly call about the good old days,” Grassle said. “I was glad we had that healing.”
As mentioned, Karen has previously spoken out on the sometimes tense relationship between her and Landon on set.
Now though, with her set to release her memoir, she’s taken another swing at Landon, accusing him of several things in the process.
In her book – as reported by the Daily Mail – Grassle explains how Landon lashed out at her several times, including how he mocked her, told her “disgusting” jokes, and insulting her by saying she shouldn’t get paid more than the child actors on Little House.
“I felt insulted as his co-star on a hit series,” she claims. “I didn’t want to gouge anybody, but I expected a fair wage.
“He would say things like, ‘The network has done some testing and Ma is not the favorite character so they don’t want to give you more money.’ Or he’d say ‘You know, it’s a jungle out there.’ Or ‘Well, Karen there has to be some parity between you and the girls,’” Grassle explained, referring to the young actress that played her and Landon’s on-screen daughters.
After Landon and Grassle’s dispute over money, the star actor began to cut her scenes and leave her out of the storyline.
“I kept up the professionalism”
Moreover, Karen claims that Landon mocked her body and facial expressions to members of the crew. Ultimately, she felt that she couldn’t call him out for what he did to her.
“It was almost like I was frozen,’ she said. “But, as a woman in the 1970s film industry, I was so accustomed to these putdowns, it never occurred to me to sharply rebuke him. I kept up the professionalism. I’d be the good girl, play the part, and hope.”
Interestingly, Karen isn’t the first co-star to have spoken out about Michael Landon’s behavior on set. In her book The Way, I See It: A Look Back at My Life on Little House, Melissa Sue Anderson – who starred as Mary Ingalls – explained that Landon was a “great father”. That said, he apparently wasn’t the most pleasant person on set.
“At work, he was controlling, and he could be mean at times. He would single out certain people and tease them publicly and relentlessly,” she wrote.
“He could also be vindictive. I remember him telling me the main reason he decided to blow up the town of Walnut Grove at the end of Little House was so that no one else would ever be able to use our sets.”
Landon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1991. He passed away just three months later at the age of 54. At the time of his diagnosis, Landon was about to star in another series called Us.
Michael Landon – cause of death
In an interview with People, his family spoke about his last days. Wife Cindy said that people were left devastated when Landon shared the news about his cancer.
“I could feel every nerve in my body,” Chris, one of his sons with Cheryl Lynn, said. “Like it was all lit up.”
Landon underwent chemotherapy and adopted an organic lifestyle involving a vegetarian diet and acupuncture.
Tragically, though, within just a month the tumor on his pancreas had doubled in size. Doctors shortly afterward found that the cancer had spread to his liver.
In the early afternoon of July 1, 1991, Michael Landon passed away with Cindy by his side.
His last words were: ‘I love you.’
“I think it was watching him go through the whole process that prepared her,” Leslie Landon, daughter of Lynn Noe said in an interview with People.
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