Little House on the Prairie is one of those shows you’ve definitely heard about, even if you haven’t seen it. The western drama series set in Minnesota was one of the most popular and successful shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It originally aired on NBC, and the program ran for a total of nine seasons and over 200 episodes.
Fans Identified With The Show
The show made stars of many of its considerable cast members, and because it was autobiographical it struck a chord with a lot of people. Little House on the Prairie explored many themes that weren’t present on television much at that time, including alcoholism and prejudice.
Many big-name celebrities made guest appearances on the show early in their careers. Let’s take a look at what the cast looked like then and what they look like now…
Karen Grassle as Caroline Ingalls
When she landed the role of Mama Ingalls, Karen must have thought her career was going places. She played matriarch Caroline Ingalls for the entirety of the show’s run. After watching her on TV you probably thought she’d been acting her whole life; however, it was her first proper acting role. She was an absolute gem of a discovery for the Little House casting directors.
The role of Caroline was one that required a strong actress with a lot of range, and for many years she was the glue that held the show together. During the show’s run, Karen also appeared in other programs. She starred in an episode of Gunsmoke and appeared in the comedy film Harry’s War.
Karen Grassle Now
Karen continued to act even after the end of the show, and she still performs to this day. Karen has appeared in several films and TV shows since moving on from her role as Caroline Ingalls. Among her credits are Hotel and two episodes of the hit crime show Murder, She Wrote. She also appeared alongside Kevin Costner in his 1994 Western Wyatt Earp.
Additionally, Karen reprised her role as Ma Ingalls in the TV movie Little House: The Last Farewell. It was the last of three Little House movies and centered on the family reuniting against a development tycoon. Since the turn of the millennium, Karen has started to explore her love of theater and has been endorsed as the face of Premier Bathrooms.
Melissa Sue Anderson as Mary Ingalls
When she took the role of Mary Ingalls, Melissa was already a pretty established name in the acting world. She won the part at the tender age of 12, but she had already appeared in Bewitched and The Brady Bunch! That’s a CV any seasoned actor or actress would be proud of, never mind a child who was not yet a teen.
Though she was successful prior to the show’s debut, there’s no doubt that Little House on the Prairie turned Melissa into a household name. The 163 episodes of the show that she appeared in developed her craft and enhanced her reputation. During the run of the show, she also managed to secure roles on The Love Boat and The Hanna-Barbera Happy Hour.
Melissa Sue Anderson Now
By the time Little House on the Prairie had wrapped, Melissa was almost 20 and had big things ahead of her. The Canadian starlet went straight out of prime time TV and into her first movie role, a slasher-horror film called Happy Birthday to Me. She has over 57 acting credits to her name and currently has a movie, The Brits Are Coming, in post-production.
In addition to continuing to perform as an actress, Melissa has also become a published author. In 2010, the now 54-year-old released her autobiography, entitled “The Way I See It”. The book chronicles her early life and career, particularly her experiences on Little House, as well as how her personal life was affected by the role.
Shannen Doherty as Jenny Wilder
Believe it or not, teen idol Shannen Doherty was actually a Little House on the Prairie cast member. She played the role of Jenny Wilder in the ninth and final season of the show. At the age of 11, Shannen took the role, and it was one of the earliest performances of her career.
Prior to playing Jenny Wilder she had made appearances in three other shows, including The Phoenix, and Voyagers! The character of Jenny was a boon for Shannen, and she went on to portray her in three subsequent TV movies. Michael Landon is widely credited with helping Doherty win the role after he saw her appearance on Father Murphy.
Shannen Doherty Now
One of the biggest stars to have come from Little House on the Prairie, Doherty went on to star in Beverly Hills 90210 and cement herself as a teen icon. Not content with taking over the teen high school market, Shannen also hit fame again in the late ‘90s as the star of ensemble fantasy-drama series Charmed. She also appeared in cult Kevin Smith films Mallrats and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.
More recently, Doherty made headlines after revealing her diagnosis and battle with breast cancer. She has become a spokesperson for the illness and has been very candid about her experiences.
Alison Arngrim as Nellie Oleson
Alison rose to fame as a child actor when she won the part of Laura Ingalls’ nemesis, Nellie Oleson. The role thrust the sassy Alison into the spotlight, and Nellie became a huge part of the fabric of the show. The character proved so popular that after her departure in season seven, she was brought back for the ninth and final season.
Alison had one credit to her name pre-Little House, and that was in the 1974 feature film Throw Out the Anchor! During her stint on the show, she amassed other credits as well. Like many of her co-stars, she appeared on The Love Boat as well as Fantasy Island.
Alison Arngrim Now
Since the show ended, Alison has continued to act sporadically but has also transitioned into the arena of stand-up comedy. She has poked fun at her role on the show during stand-up routines but looks back fondly on the role. She also recorded a comedy album titled “Heeere’s Amy”.
Alison has also dedicated much of her time to a number of charitable causes. She is a survivor of abuse from her childhood and has dedicated time and effort towards trying to help others who went through similar situations. Arngrim is still good friends with her Little House co-star Melissa Gilbert, and the two keep in regular contact even today.
Dean Butler as Almanzo Wilder
Dean Butler stole the hearts of women everywhere when he portrayed Laura’s handsome future husband, Almanzo Wilder. It was a big role for Butler, and only his second credited acting appearance, after TV movie Forever. Dean played the character for 65 episodes from seasons six through nine. He also had an appearance on The Love Boat while on the show.
You can see from the picture exactly why Dean was such a heartthrob and beloved by fans. Laura finally got her man after years of pining for him. Butler had a bunch of appearances during his stay on Little House, including three TV films reprising his role as Almanzo. He also appeared on Fantasy Island and Here’s Boomer.
Dean Butler Now
His role on Little House on the Prairie kicked off a successful and memorable career for Dean, in which he has appeared in numerous films and TV shows. He is perhaps best known to modern audiences for playing the role of Hank Summers, father of Buffy, on smash-hit cult fantasy show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
He also had a foray into theater, appearing on stage in several of Stephen Sondheim’s shows. You might recognize him from Into the Woods or West Side Story if you’re a keen theater-goer! Butler is married to actress Katherine Cannon, whom he met during an audition.
Jason Bateman as James Ingalls
Shannen Doherty isn’t the only big name star to make a start on Little House. Jason Bateman actually had a role on the show in seasons seven and eight, playing the role of James Ingalls. The character was an orphan who was adopted by the Ingalls family, and it was his first acting role, following a short span appearing in advertisements.
It was pretty clear, even from Jason’s short stint on the show, that he was destined for big things. In fact, he is arguably the most successful actor to come out of the show, aside from some notable guest stars. Those 21 episodes propelled him to greatness, and his career exploded after the show.
Jason Bateman Now
Since the show has ended Jason’s career has blossomed, and most of us know him as the lead in comic masterpiece TV series Arrested Development. He has also successfully branched out into film, starring in movies such as Horrible Bosses, Tropic Thunder, The Gift, and Identity Thief.
Jason continues to be one of the most bankable names in Hollywood. He is still very active in the film and TV industry. His most recent works include Office Christmas Party and Central Intelligence. Arrested Development was also resurrected by Netflix for one season in 2016. Jason has a new Netflix show, Ozark, due out in 2017.
Kyle Richards as Alicia Edwards
The so-cute-you-can’t-even-stand-it Alicia Edwards appeared on the show in seasons two, three, six and eight. She was portrayed by 6-year-old Kyle Richards. The job was not Kyle’s first acting role, as she previously appeared in an episode of the show Police Women. However, this was her first regular role and one that would end up launching her career as an actress.
During her stint on the show, Kyle also had a number of other roles in TV and film. She appeared in The Car, Eaten Alive, and, most famously, Halloween. By the time she finished on the show, at the age of 13, Richards had over 20 credits to her name. She was a seasoned pro by industry standards.
Kyle Richards Now
Kyle has seen her career go in a number of different directions since she left the show. In later years her acting has taken her into a number of different genres in film and television. For instance, she had a 21 episode stint on hit medical drama ER, as well as 12 episodes on Down to Earth.
But if you recognize Kyle and you’re struggling to place her it’s probably because of her role in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. She has starred in the reality show since it first aired in 2010 – a whopping 138 episodes! She also appeared as a contestant on The New Celebrity Apprentice, the show hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Madeleine Stowe as Annie Crane
You may not be aware, but actress Madeleine Stowe actually had a role on the show. She appeared in the season seven episode “Portrait of Love”. This was an early role for Stowe, who hadn’t yet branched out into mainstream films. She is one of the best-known and most successful stars to have appeared on the show.
Her role was as a blind artist named Annie Crane who faced conflict when her birth mother wanted to make contact. The role was a complex one, and the performance showed the depth and ability Stowe possessed as an actress, even at a young age. Her pre-Little House credits — Baretta, The Nativity, and The Amazing Spider-Man (the TV series) — had already gone a long way to cementing her talent.
Madeleine Stowe Now
There have been a few actors and actresses to appear on the show who have gone on to have very successful careers. And Madeleine has had one of the most successful of all. Since her guest appearance on Little House, she has gone on to appear and star in a lot of different projects. Most notably, she played the female lead in 1995 sci-fi noir film 12 Monkeys.
In recent years, Stowe has made the transition into television as many mainstream actors have started to do. She first had a major role in the drama series Revenge, playing the role of Victoria Grayson. She has also starred as Lillian in the 12 Monkeys TV show on the Syfy network.
Little House on the Prairie Cast Reunion
Many of the cast members from the show went on to have hugely successful careers, and others went on to do other non-acting related things. But they will always share the bond of working closely together for nine years. The kids grew up on the show and became adults, and many deep friendships were formed as a result.
You’ll note that this recent reunion picture is actually missing Michael Landon. The actor, who played Ingalls’ patriarch Charles, passed away in 1991 from cancer. He is sorely missed by cast, crew, and friends. And this picture doesn’t quite seem complete without him in it.
Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls
Before starring on Little House on the Prairie, Michael Landon was best known for his starring role on the hit western series Bonanza. Michael broke into writing and directing while on Bonanza, a talent that served him well once he starred as Charles Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie.
By then, Michael had become something of a heartthrob, despite rumors that he was difficult to work with. He ended up writing, producing, and directing Little House on the Prairie in addition to having a starring role. Because of Michael, Little House on the Prairie became the iconic and memorable show that it is today.
Michael Landon Later
Sadly, Michael passed away in 1991 from pancreatic cancer at the young age of 54. He left behind an incredible legacy, including writing, producing, directing, and starring in another hit show, Highway to Heaven. Landon was voted one of TV Guide’s 50 Sexiest Stars of All Time.
In the year that he died, Michael appeared on the cover of Life magazine, talking about his life, career, and his battle with cancer. He is interred in a family mausoleum in Culver City, California. His headstone says, “He seized life with joy. He gave to life generously. He leaves a legacy of love and laughter.”
Sean Penn as An Uncredited School Kid
Little House on the Prairie is notable for having had a lot of special guest stars. Many of these guest stars were unknown at the time but then went on to achieve great fame. One of these unknown actors was Sean Penn, who made an appearance in episode 112 of the show, “The Voice of Tinker Jones.”
It was Sean’s first role, and he got the part through his father, Leo Penn, who directed the episode. It wasn’t a very important role – Sean wasn’t even credited for his role as a schoolboy, but it gave him the acting bug.
Sean Penn Now
Since then, Sean has become one of the most famous faces in Hollywood. He has ventured beyond acting and has also become a filmmaker. Outside of the film industry, Sean is a political activist. He has two Academy Awards under his belt for his roles in the films Mystic River and Milk.
His big breakthrough as a leading actor was in the film Dead Man Walking, which garnered him an Academy Award nomination and won him the Best Actor Award at the Berlin Film Festival. He received two Oscar nominations for the films Sweet and Lowdown and I am Sam, and he has won many other awards throughout his career.
Matthew Labyorteaux as Albert Ingalls
Matthew Labyorteaux (sometimes spelled as Matthew Laborteaux) is best known for his role as Albert Quinn Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie, which was also his breakthrough role. Unlike most of the characters in the Ingalls family, Albert Ingalls was not based on a real-life character from the semi-autobiographical Little House on the Prairie books.
Instead, Albert was a character created specifically for the show, first appearing in its fifth season as the adopted son of the Ingalls family. Labyorteaux would go on to play the character for the rest of the show’s run for a total of five seasons.
Matthew Labyorteaux Now
After Little House on the Prairie went off air, Matthew continued to act with guest appearances on many shows, including Highway to Heaven which was written, directed, and produced by Michael Landon, who also starred in, wrote, produced, and directed Little House on the Prairie. Matthewalso had a number of voice-over roles, including some voice work on the Disney film Mulan.
A video game aficionado, Matthew became the U.S. Pac-Man champion in 1982 with a score of 1,200,000. Matthew and his brother, Patrick, founded the Youth Rescue Fund in 1992, a charity organization that helps young people in need and is partnered with Los Angeles Youth Supportive Services.
Victor French as Isaiah Edwards
Victor French began his television career as a stuntman, following in his actor father’s footsteps. He was known for appearing in westerns, appearing 23 times on the television series Gunsmoke, the longest-running western of all time. He later went on to be cast in his most well-known role, Isaiah Edwards, on Little House on the Prairie.
He appeared from 1974 to 1977 before taking a break from the show to star as a police chief in the show Carter County. When Carter County ended, Michael Landon invited French back to Little House on the Prairie where he reprised his role from 1981-1984 and also directed some episodes.
Victor French In Later Years
French passed away just a few short years after Little House on the Prairie ended. A lifelong smoker, he lived only two months after being diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Like his co-star Michael Landon, he died from cancer a couple months after his diagnosis at the age of 54—talk about a crazy coincidence!
French starred in another Michael Landon show before he passed away, portraying the character Mark Gordon on Highway to Heaven which was written, produced, and directed by Landon. He was in more than 100 episodes of the show, and it was his final role.
Leslie Landon as Etta Plum
Michael Landon had a difficult childhood, so he made sure to provide his children with the best opportunities possible, which included taking them under his wing on set. His daughter, Leslie Landon, had a few guest appearances on Little House on the Prairie between 1975 and 1981 before landing a regular role. Leslie appeared on Little House on the Prairie between 1982 and 1984 as the school teacher, Etta Plumb.
She was featured in 15 season-nine episodes as Etta and also played the character in three Little House on the Prairie television movies. The other characters she played on the show were minor roles, including a plague victim in season one, Kate in season three, Marge in season six, and Pam in season eight.
Leslie Landon Now
Despite being the daughter of an actor, director, producer, and writer, Leslie did not catch the acting bug. In fact, her only other credit in show business aside from those on Little House on the Prairie was in a 1982 episode of the western television show, Father Murphy, portraying Kate Jones in “The Dream Day.”
Rather than pursuing acting, Leslie concentrated on her studies, obtaining a BA in psychology and an MA in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University and a Ph.D in marriage and family therapy from the California Graduate Institute. She got married and changed her name to Leslie Matthews and co-wrote the book When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving, and Other Losses.
Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls
It can’t be easy being catapulted into the national spotlight as a 9 year old, but that’s just what happened to Melissa Gilbert. California native Melissa won the role after beating out over 500 other actresses for the part. She played the role of Laura, the second daughter of the Ingalls family. The show chronicled the highs and lows of the family, and much of the focus was on Laura’s development and growth.
In many ways, the show can be seen as a coming-of-age, or Bildungsroman, following Laura’s journey to adulthood. Melissa gave a depth and maturity to the character and stole the hearts of viewers all over the world.
Melissa Gilbert Now
Since Little House went off the air, Melissa has continued to work. The show took up almost a decade of her life, and pretty much all of her teenage years. She played roles in movies such as The Diary of Anne Frank and Heart of the Storm. She also appeared in TV shows, including Nip/Tuck, Babylon 5, and Batman: The Animated Series.
In more recent years, Melissa has turned her attention toward the political landscape. The lifelong Democrat actually ran for U.S. Congress in Michigan and won her primary. But she was forced to drop out due to health issues. It’s unclear whether she will return to politics as she may want to spend more time with her husband and two children.
Jonathan Gilbert as Willie Oleson
Jonathan Gilbert played Willie Oleson, the son of Nels Oleson and Harriet Oleson and the sister of Laura Ingalls’ frenemy, Nellie Oleson. He started his career on the show at the young age of seven. The character of WIllie Oleson was in all nine seasons of the television show, appearing in a total of 140 episodes.
In addition to his recurring role on the popular series, Jonathan appeared in three made-for-TV movies based on Little House on the Prairie. He reprised his role in The Little House Years, Little House: Look Back to Yesterday, and Little House: The Last Farewell.
Jonathan Gilbert Now
Despite appearing on Little House on the Prairie for so many years, Jonathan did not have much of a career outside of the show—possibly because there were already too many actors in the family. If his last name sounds familiar, it’s because Jonathan is the adopted brother of Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls Wilder on Little House on the Prairie.
His adoptive parents, Barbara Crane and Paul Gilbert, were also actors. Jonathan appeared in one movie outside of the Little House franchise, The Miracle Worker. He now works as a stockbroker. According to his sister Melissa, he moved away from California and cut off contact with her for unknown reasons.
Bonnie Bartlett as Grace Snyder Edwards
Bonnie Bartlett’s father had tried to break into the acting business in his younger days but became an insurance salesman when he failed to land his big acting break in Hollywood. Determined to live out her father’s dream, Bonnie began taking acting lessons after high school and slowly broke into television by appearing on soap operas.
For years, she only accepted small roles so that she could focus on raising her children. Bonnie landed the recurring role of Grace Snyder Edwards on Little House on the Prairie in 1974, portraying the role until 1977 when she left the series.
Bonnie Bartlett Now
Bonnie Bartlett became much more recognizable following her tenure on Little House on the Prairie. By the 1980s, her career had picked up considerably. She made appearances in the miniseries V, North and South: Book II, and Boy Meets World.
She gained fame and acclaim playing Ellen Craig on St. Elsewhere, winning back-to-back Emmys alongside her husband, who also played her husband on the television series. They were only the second couple in history to win acting awards on the same night, both winning Emmy Awards in 1986 for their portrayals of Dr. Mark and Mrs. Ellen Craig on St. Elsewhere.
Lucy Lee Flippin as Eliza Jane Wilder
Film and television star Lucy Lee Flippin has had many roles, but she is best known for portraying Almanzo Wilder’s sister and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s sister-in-law, Eliza Jane Wilder, on Little House on the Prairie. Her role on the television show was not as significant as it was in the books, and she appeared only in a recurring role from 1979-1982 for a total of 18 episodes.
While her role on Little House on the Prairie was not a particularly big one, it was her first significant role in a television series. Lucy had several small roles on the small screen and on film prior to Little House, including a bit part in Annie Hall, but it was Little House on the Prairie that gave Lucy her big break.
Lucy Lee Flippin Now
Lucy’s role on Little House on the Prairie led to many more television appearances, although her role as Eliza Jane Wilder remains her most well-known part. After her stint on Little House on the Prairie ended, she played Fran Castleberry, the sister of Polly Holliday’s character, on the television show Flo. She appeared in 23 episodes of Flo and also had guest roles on other iconic shows such as The Golden Girls, Full House, Charmed, and Beverly Hills 90210.
She also appeared in several films such as Little Black Book, Soccer Dog: The Movie, and Rat Race. In addition, she performed onstage at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse.
Katherine MacGregor as Harriet Oleson
Katherine MacGregor is an actress who is best known for her comedic portrayal of Harriet Oleson, the mother of Willie and Nellie Oleson and the wife of Nels Oleson. She appeared on the show from 1974 to 1983 for a total of 153 episodes. Before appearing on Little House on the Prairie, Katherine had a number of film, television, and theater credits.
She started her acting career on and off Broadway in the 1950s and began her film career in an uncredited role in On the Waterfront, which starred Hollywood heartthrob Marlon Brando portraying the part of “a longshoreman’s mother.”
Katherine MacGregor Now
Despite her success on the series, Katherine MacGregor did not continue acting on the small screen after her role on Little House on the Prairie ended, not even appearing in the television movies based on the series. By the time she appeared on the show, she had been divorced twice — from her first husband actor Bert Remsen and her second husband, actor, director, and teacher Edward G. Kaye-Martin.
After her role on Little House on the Prairie wrapped up, Katherine chose to withdraw from television and film acting in favor of acting in local stage productions. She became devoted to her Hindu religion and taught acting to children at the Wee Hollywood Vedanta Players. Katherine retired in the early 2000s and passed away in 2018.
Melissa Francis as Cassandra Cooper Ingalls
Melissa Francis started her acting career in a Johnson & Johnson shampoo commercial when she was only six months old. After that, the young actress then went on to portray Cassandra Cooper Ingalls for two seasons on Little House on the Prairie. In addition to her role on Little House on the Prairie, Melissa appeared in nearly 100 television commercials throughout her career.
The child star also appeared in other television series and several TV films, including Mork & Mindy, Galactica 1980, St. Elsewhere, and ALF. Her film appearances include roles in Scavenger Hunt, Man, Woman and Child, and Bad Dreams.
Melissa Francis Now
Melissa Francis only had three acting credits to her name after the 1980s. She appeared in an episode of Hardball in 1990, and had small roles in the 2009 film Race to Witch Mountain and the 2012 film The Dictator. Leaving her child acting days behind, Melissa went to Harvard University to study economics and became executive editor of The Harvard College Economist magazine and captain of the Harvard Polo Team.
She later turned her screen experience to television journalism, becoming the primary weekday anchor for FNC’s America’s News HQ. Melissa also published a book in 2012 called Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir.
Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter
Melissa Francis’ revelatory autobiography offered some stunning details about her childhood. In Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir, Francis outlined the painful struggles she had to overcome with an abusive mother – one who threw tantrums and experienced depressive episodes, who threw her daughters out of the family car multiple times, who had their neighbor’s dog put to sleep out of spite, and who stole her children’s TV earnings.
Rather than let this terrible upbringing keep her down (as did her sister, who turned to alcohol), Francis says she grew stronger from the experience and became even more motivated to succeed.
Lessons From The Prairie
Although Melissa Francis survived growing up in an abusive household, she learned that the outside world could be cruel, too. In a second book of memoirs called Lessons From The Prairie, she recounts her days as a new journalist climbing the corporate ladder to her eventual position with Fox News.
In one harrowing encounter, Francis’ boss showed up at her home in the middle of the night, drunk, and graphically described the acts he wanted to perform on her. She only got him to leave by pretending to be violently ill. Francis started looking for a new job the very next morning, but still regrets not reporting the incident.