It’s nearly impossible to talk about Little House on the Prairie without talking about the show’s director/executive producer/star, Michael Landon, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 1991. When EW reunited many members of Walnut Grove—Ingalls kids Laura (Melissa Gilbert), Mary (Melissa Anderson), Carrie (Lindsay Greenbush, who split the role with her twin sister, Sidney), and Albert (Matthew Laborteaux), along with town bully Nellie Oleson (Alison Arngrim), Laura’s husband, Almanzo Wilder (Dean Butler), kindly schoolteacher Miss Beadle (Charlotte Stewart) and Ingalls matriarch Caroline (Karen Grassle)—memories of Landon were everywhere.
“What I remember the most from my audition was meeting Michael Landon,” says Melissa Gilbert, who wasn’t even 9 years old when she read for the part of Laura. “I didn’t know who he was and didn’t know why everyone was making such a big fuss about him. But then he had this unbelievable glow that was captivating. It’s trite to say he had me at hello. But he had me at hello. He made me laugh and feel instantly comfortable and there was something between us that I had never experienced in an audition room. It was special and it was instant.”
Gilbert became very close to the whole Landon family, taking vacations with them and befriending the Landon children as well. (Michael Landon’s son was even her prom date.) She laughs, remembering how playful Landon would be on set. “I’d catch frogs and Mike would put the frogs in his mouth and walk over to people and talk, and then the frogs would jump out. That was our big trick. He generally did it when there were women on the set who were standing off to the side, staring at him without a shirt or something. He’s say, ‘Hey Half-Pint, go get a frog.’ They’d always scream,” she remembers. “It was marriage security.”
Unlike Gilbert, Dean Butler certainly knew who Michael Landon was when he auditioned for the part of Almanzo. “Michael Landon was a superstar,” he says. “Big time.” Butler remembers how little the actor resembled that of his character. “It was as far from Charles Ingalls as you could get! Except for the hair, which was the same—and that was a bit of a deal with Michael. No one could touch his hair. I think he cut it himself. So you have the hair, but then you add to that the skintight jeans and the snakeskin boots and the shirt opened halfway down his chest with a gold chain, and he had the sunglasses and cigarettes. This was not Charles Ingalls.”
Butler was impressed that Landon could tap into what he needed to play the Ingalls patriarch so easily: “He had this rich emotional life inside him. He had a huge emotional heart he could deliver on command as needed any time. He understood that was his gift.” Landon made everyone around him want to do their very best. “You wanted to give it to him because he had this amazing ability to connect with people,” Butler says. “When he connected with you felt special.”
Landon’s gift for working with child actors especially impressed Butler. “He was incredible with them,” he says. “He got to be their pal, their father figure. He was able to do that so lovingly with them.”
For more on Little House on the Prairie and other classic TV and movie reunions, including Ghostbusters and Mean Girls, pick up a copy of the latest Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday.