Actress describes her friendship with Michael Landon and battle with alcoholism, in a new memoir
Karen Grassle is speaking out about her sobriety journey. She was the famous character Caroline “Ma”, Ingalls on .
Recently, the actress wrote a memoir called “Bright Lights, Prairie Dust”: Reflections on Love, Loss, Life, and Love from Little House’s Ma. She shared her childhood and struggles with alcoholism, as well as the troubled relationship that she had with Michael Landon, her ex-star and boss. Charles Ingalls, her husband on-screen, was his role.
Fox News asked former stars for comments on the claims made by Grassle in his book about Landon. They didn’t immediately reply.
Grassle insists that she made peace with actor despite their differences. He died in 1991, aged 54, from pancreatic cancer.
Grassle, 79 years old, talked to Fox News about her book, what it was like bringing the series to life, and when she realized that it was time for her to get sober.
Fox News What inspired you to write this memoir? Karen Grassle This book took years and years. After I moved to the Bay Area, I began writing it. I was semi-retired, and didn’t have the same number of friends in Los Angeles as I had here. These memories all began to come back to me. I began to write them down. They were something I thought my son might be interested in reading.
I kept on writing. The truth is that I had to let my guard down. I’m quite a private person. It was necessary for me to openly share my vulnerability about my family, my alcoholism and the trials I experienced while running “Little House.” Many things I have never discussed publicly. But it felt freeing. It was a good decision.
Fox News It’s said that Caroline Ingalls was a role you were fortunate enough to be given at a crucial time in your life. Is it true?
Grassle: Very. I was so broken and discouraged about my job. I thought, “I should go back to school to learn how to do this.” I didn’t know how I was going to pay for school. Los Angeles had friends who worked in television. I was amazed at what they were earning. I decided to try my luck at TV work. It could pay me back to school, I thought. My agency began sending me auditions. It was probably two to three months later that I received the call regarding the new series “Little House on the Prairie”.
Fox News But you weren’t initially a fan?
Grassle: Oh sure. I remember thinking, “Oh, she’s kinda a downer” when I first saw the script. She’s prudish.” I hadn’t read them so it was a lot of work to catch up. I also didn’t do the same amount of research on the Ingalls as we do today. I was offered the job. As I began to play the role and interact with the children, my perspective changed. She is a strong, loyal woman who bravely ventures into the wilderness with her two little girls. She wanted to make their lives better. I was able to see the noble character of her and the true meaning of her character.
Fox NewsMichael Landon is, to this day still, a loved father figure.
Grassle And he earned that reputation. He was a favorite on TV and enjoyed one of the longest career. This show was created by him and is still talked about nearly 50 years later. This deserves an enormous amount of credit.
Fox News But you also saw a completely other side of him.
Grassle We all worked hard. It wasn’t hard because we were all workers bees. Nobody on the set was lazy. It was the second season that was really difficult for me. It was not uncommon to negotiate your contract with a popular series based on its popularity. Michael refused to give me a raise. He began to diminish my part, my value.
I was a professional. I just completed a year of Shakespeare in England. I was a Broadway performer. I loved the children and developed a great relationship with them. It’s not possible to have that kind of relationship with everyone. So I felt I had something to offer. And I stayed true to my convictions. It went on for many months. It went on for over a year without me saying, “I’m sick and can’t go to work.” I decided that I would go to work every day and show up for my job. It was hard because everyone knew I was mad at him. He did it in many different ways. That was what I had to do. But I didn’t want give up on my dreams. To become an actress, I worked hard.
Fox NewsWhy did Michael Landon seem so reluctant to give you a raise,
Grassle I don’t know. To my very last day, I will never understand why he refused to negotiate. I was able to get a great contract, which was appropriate for the situation, after about a year. Although it meant a lot, I had to pay a high price. I wanted a fair wage.
Fox News: What did this mean for your relationship with him?
Grassle: It was difficult to go to work knowing that he was angry with you. The tension could be cut with a knife. You felt like he was making comments about you behind your back. He was funny and would make fun of you if he could. He was extremely clever. I was not sure what was going to happen. But I continued to work.
Fox News You worked on sets and stages before the #MeToo era. How was your experience with sexism at work?
Grassle I was fortunate in a way, because I had previously trained in England by the time that I arrived in New York. I was already a professional. Many young women came to Los Angeles or New York with little or no experience. They were very, very vulnerable. I didn’t have a problem with anybody ever assaulting me, or any other similar behavior. I was able to make a joke of someone making an inappropriate pass and pretend I didn’t see it.
Mike humiliated me during scenes on the “Little House” set. This was horrible for me. It was too much. I tried to make it through it. He made terrible jokes about female anatomy and made women’s bodies sound disgusting. I was just there, watching all the men laughing at his jokes. I couldn’t even do anything. We never even spoke of sexual harassment.
Fox News: You were very open about your alcoholism struggles. What was the first time you realized you needed help?
Grassle I refused help for a while. I tried to control everything for a while. My alcohol problems were a major part of my life. I didn’t realize this, but it is very common. There are many reasons why life is not going well. We don’t want the key. This seems to be the way the disease works.
Toni, my friend whom I have known since I was 7 years old, approached me and said that I needed help. It was impossible for me to get out of this. I knew her… and couldn’t deny the truth of what they were saying. It was just one more bad night that I had with my friend, a dear friend.
I came home weeping with self-pity. Everything in my life felt wrong, and I felt like everyone was against me. The next day, I woke up and declared, “I must not take another drink, regardless of what happens.” My life was going to end. I was afraid I would lose my job. I definitely might lose my boyfriend. I thought I would never go to a nice dinner place again. You can’t go to a nice restaurant without drinking. What is the point of going to a Mexican restaurant and not having a beer? My life seemed over. It was a blessing.
Fox News It looks like you were an alcoholic who is highly functional.
Grassle Yes. That’s a great point. The same was true for my dad. Every day he went to work. He worked hard. He paid his bills. He was also a victim of alcoholism.
My hangover was so bad that I woke up each morning with a horrible hangover. I got up and went to work. I was able to keep my head together, worked hard, and concentrated the entire day. When they said “That’s it,” I took a drink from the prop tables or had one at home, and then I started over again. Because I was working, I thought I was in control. I had not lost my job. I had more reason to continue doing what I did.
Fox News: When did you get sober?
Grassle It was June 1977. Because everything changes starting that day, it’s very meaningful. It changed the way I saw life. It was possible to discover who and what I wanted in my life. It was hard work. It was worth it.
Fox News Do you recall the last time that you spoke with Michael Landon?
Grassle Yes, it is. To say hello to him and keep him informed of my life, I wrote him a short letter. I received the most thoughtful note back from him. He said to me, “Give us a call so that we can discuss the past times before they forget.”
I called him. I was told about his family by him. We had a great conversation about the people we had worked with. We came to an agreement. It was clear that both sides were open to forgiveness. We were focusing on the positive aspects of our relationship. It was only a short time later that Mike was diagnosed as having pancreatic cancer.
Fox News It is good to know that you both made peace before he died.
Grassle We had a great working relationship the first year. We also had many good days after the contract was settled. There were many laughs. There were many scenes when we shared our talents and played together. He was probably more human than that. He was complex and had a hard childhood. It is a credit to someone who can bring a lot to the table and turn it into something that helps others.
Fox News Today you are a beloved mother on TV. What do you think about this title?
Grassle: I feel honored. The character was largely based on my mother. It was only later that I realized how much people love this character. At first, I didn’t fully understand the depth of people’s love for her. People still reach out and tell me how much they love her. It has been very rewarding. It’s been a great experience.