Karen Grassle, who played Caroline Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie spoke at the Book Tavern Monday. Photo by Charmain Z. Brackett
Karen Grassle, who played Caroline Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie spoke at the Book Tavern Monday. Photo by Charmain Z. Brackett

Little House on the Prairie actress visits Book Tavern

 A career in acting provided an unexpected yet invaluable benefit for Karen Grassle.

“Show business gave me a gift,” said Grassle, best known as Caroline Ingalls in the television series “Little House on the Prairie,” who was in Augusta Nov. 21 speaking about her book, “Bright Lights, Prairie Dust” at the Book Tavern. “Not only did it allow me to do what I love, but it taught me resilience.”

And who doesn’t need resilience right after a worldwide pandemic, skyrocketing prices, war and crazy weather events? Grassle asked.

“These are not easy times,” she said.

Her parents had survived the Great Depression and had their children as World War II raged. Grassle grew up in California. All her parents wanted was safety and security for their daughters, she said. When Grassle’s mother learned of her daughter’s decision to pursue an acting career, Grassle’s mother sobbed.

“Anything but politics or the theater” was her mother’s response.

But Grassle couldn’t resist the draw of the theater.

The role of Caroline Ingalls might not have happened. Grassle attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts on a Fulbright Fellowship and had been living in London off her savings until it ran dry. She returned to the states broke, she said, but she had a role lined up in an independent film. Unfortunately, that fell through. She was stranded. She returned to her parents’ home, slept on the couch and considered going back to school to get a “real job.”

She borrowed some money from her mom – at 5% interest, Grassle noted —  to get some headshots done. And within a couple of months, her agent called about the “Little House on the Prairie” pilot.

Michael Landon was sold on Grassle immediately, but Ed Friendly who was one of the show’s producers wasn’t so sure. The television network wanted a well-known name, and Grassle wasn’t famous.

Working on the show with its wholesome image wasn’t always squeaky clean behind the scenes. Grassle said.

Karen Grassle signs a copy of her memoir at the Book Tavern Nov. 21. Photo by Charmain Z. Brackett

Some scenes such as ones where Landon and Grassle’s characters would talk in the bedroom were filmed with crew members piled into the set. In between scene takes, it would be impossible for Landon or Grassle to move around with so many people packed in.

They’d stay in place for long periods of time allowing for interactions among the cast and crew. She recalled Landon making crude sexual comments, she said. She was one of only two females in a cramped space filled with about 30 men. Adding to an uncomfortable situation were contract troubles for Grassle early in the second season. The situation proved so difficult for Grassle that she went into a depression and developed an alcohol addiction.

Grassle said she overcame her addiction and found a way to make peace with Landon before he died in 1991.

After Grassle spoke, she answered a few questions, shedding light on how she created her iconic role. She didn’t learn a lot about the character from reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series, she said.

“There wasn’t a lot of history either. I knew that she was a one-room schoolhouse teacher. I knew she’d been dirt poor and getting an education for her girls was really critical for her. Well, these were the same things as my mother, so I basically based the character of Ma on my own mom. I knew her. I knew strengths. I knew her stories about going to school barefoot and knowing Native Americans when she was a kid in summer and stuff like that. She also was a one-room schoolhouse teacher,” she said.

Grassle’s book was published November 2021 and is available at the Book Tavern.

Charmain Z. Brackett is the publisher of Augusta Good News. Reach her at charmain@augustagoodnews.com

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One response to “Little House on the Prairie actress visits Book Tavern”

  1. Brian says:

    This was proof postive that Augusta has a premiere bookstore and perfect tour-stop for authors that would normally pass us over. The house was filled and the vibe was fantastic–on a monday afternoon, no less. More of this please.