‘Little House on the Prairie’ star Karen Grassle gets candid on sobriety, making peace with Michael Landon

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Karen Grassle, who famously played Caroline “Ma” Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie,” is getting candid about her journey to sobriety.

The actress recently wrote a memoir titled “Bright Lights, Prairie Dust: Reflections on Life, Loss, and Love from Little House’s Ma.” where she detailed her upbringing and struggles with alcoholism as well as the alleged troubled relationship she had on set with her former co-star and boss Michael Landon. He played her on-screen husband, Charles Ingalls.

Former co-stars didn’t immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment regarding the allegations made in Grassle’s book about Landon.

Despite their ups and downs, Grassle insisted she made peace with the actor before he passed away in 1991 at age 54 from pancreatic cancer.

Karen Grassle has written a book titled "Bright Lights, Prairie Dust: Reflections on Life, Loss, and Love from Little House’s Ma."
(Courtesy of Karen Grassle)

Grassle, 79, spoke to Fox News about writing her book now, and what it was like bringing the beloved series to life, as well as the moment she realized it was time to get sober.

Fox News: What inspired you to write this memoir now?
Karen Grassle: This book has taken years and years. I started after I moved here to the Bay Area. I was semiretired and I didn’t have as many friends as I did in Los Angeles. All of these memories began to surface. So I started writing them down. I thought that maybe one day, my son would be interested to read them.

And I just kept writing. And the truth is, I had to let my guard down. I’m quite a private person. So I had to be willing to share a lot of my vulnerabilities about my family, my alcoholism, the trials that I went through doing “Little House.” A lot of things that I’ve never really discussed publicly. But it felt freeing. And I’m glad that I did it.

Karen Grassle (left) with her mom backstage during a theatrical performance.
(Courtesy of Karen Grassle)

Fox News: It’s been said that you got the role of Caroline Ingalls at a very crucial point in your life. Is that true?
Grassle: Very. I was so broke and so discouraged about my career. I was thinking, “I better go back to school and learn to do something else.” And I couldn’t figure out how in the world I was going to pay to go back to school. I had friends in Los Angeles who were doing television. I saw what they were getting paid. So I thought, “I’ll try to get some TV work.” I thought it could help me pay my way to go back to school. So my agency started sending me on auditions. And I think it was two or three months later when I got the call about this new series called “Little House on the Prairie.”

Fox News: But you initially weren’t a fan of your character?
Grassle: Oh sure. When I first read the script, I thought, “Oh, she’s kind of a downer. She’s prudish.” I hadn’t read the books, so I had a lot of catching up to do. And there wasn’t the same kind of research about the Ingalls that we have today. So I got the work. But as I started doing the role and interacting with the children, I gained a new perspective for my character. She’s a woman who’s so brave and loyal heading into the wilderness with her little girls. She wanted to create a better life for them. I began to experience the nobility of the character and what she truly represented.

Fox News: Michael Landon, to this day, is still viewed as a beloved father figure. 
Grassle: And he earned that image. He was one of the favorites on television and had one of the longest careers. He created this show and we’re still talking about it today, nearly 50 years later. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for that.

Karen Grassle said she initially wasn’t impressed by the role of Ma.
(Courtesy of Karen Grassle)

Fox News: But you also witnessed a completely different side to him.
Grassle: We all worked really hard. I didn’t think it was all that tough because we were all worker bees. There was nobody on that set who was slacking around. Where it really got tough for me was when it was time for the second season. If you were on a hit series, it was common to renegotiate your contract based on its popularity. Michael did not want to give me a raise. He began to diminish my part, my value.

I was a professional. I had just done a year of Shakespeare in England. I had been on Broadway. I really liked the children and I built a good relationship with them. You don’t get that with everybody. So I felt that I had some value. And I stuck to my guns. This went on for months and months. I think it went on over a year where I didn’t say, “I’m sick and I can’t come in to work.” I made the decision that I would show up to work and do my job every day. But it was tough because people knew he was annoyed with me. And he showed it in many ways. So I had to go through that. But I also didn’t want to give up on myself. I worked hard to become the actress I was. 

Fox News: Why do you think Michael Landon was so hesitant to give you a raise?
Grassle: I don’t know. And to my dying day, I will never really understand why he dug his heels and refused as he did. After a year and a half or so, I did get an excellent contract that was appropriate for the time. It meant a lot to me, but I paid a heavy price for it. I just wanted a fair wage.

Karen Grassle alleged that Michael Landon didn’t want to give her a raise despite the show’s success.
(Courtesy of Karen Grassle)

Fox News: How did that impact your relationship with him on set?
Grassle: It was so hard to go to work and know he was annoyed with you. You could cut the tension with a knife. And you felt he was probably saying things about you behind your back. He had a sense of humor and if he wanted to make fun of you, boy, you were skewered. He was very clever. I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I kept going to work.

Fox News: You worked on stages and sets before the #MeToo era. What was your experience like with sexism in the workplace?
Grassle: I was very lucky in a way because by the time I got to New York, I had already trained in England. I was already a professional. A lot of young women arrived in New York or Los Angeles with very little experience. They became very, very vulnerable. But I did not have a problem with anyone ever assaulting me or anything like that. If somebody made an inappropriate pass, I learned long before how to pretend that I didn’t notice that they were doing it or to laugh it off.

What happened at the “Little House” set was… Mike decided to humiliate me while we were doing the scenes in the bed. This was so awful for me. This was so unbearable and I just tried to get through it. You know, he made these terrible jokes about the female anatomy, made a woman’s body parts sound so disgusting. I just sat there with all these men standing around laughing at his jokes and I couldn’t do anything. We didn’t even have a word for sexual harassment.

Karen Grassle was candid about her battle with alcoholism.
(Courtesy of Karen Grassle)

Fox News: You were also very candid about your struggles with alcoholism. When did you first realize that you needed to get help?
Grassle: I resisted help for a long time. I tried to keep everything under control for a long time. I did not realize the extent to which my alcohol problem was playing a negative part in my life, but this is very common… The one thing [alcoholics] don’t want to do is not drink. We think of many rationalizations for why things are going bad in our lives. But we don’t want to look at the key item. That seems to be how the disease works.

My friend Toni, who I’ve known since we were 7 years old, confronted me and told me I needed help. There was no way for me to wriggle out of it. She knew me… I couldn’t fight the truth of what she was saying. After our conversation, it just took one more bad night where I fought with a friend – a very dear friend of mine.

Karen Grassle said her friend Toni helped her realize that she needed to get clean.
(Courtesy of Karen Grassle)

I went home sobbing full of self-pity. I felt everything in my life was wrong and everyone was turning against me. The next morning, I woke up and said, “I must never take another drink, no matter what happens.” I did think that my life would fall apart. I thought I might lose my job. I definitely might lose my boyfriend. I thought I was never going to go to a nice restaurant again. How can you go to a nice restaurant and not drink? How can you go get Mexican food and not have a beer? I thought my life was over. But it was such a blessing.

Fox News: It seems like you were a high-functioning alcoholic. 
Grassle: Oh yes. I’m glad you brought that up. My dad was the same too. He went to work every day. He worked hard. He paid his bills. And alcoholism killed him.

For me, I got up every day with a terrible hangover. I went to work, I pulled myself together, I worked hard and I concentrated all day long. And when they said, “That’s a wrap,” I either took a drink from the prop table or had one when I got home and started again. I thought I was under control because I was working. I hadn’t lost my job. It gave me even more rationale for continuing the way I was.

Karen Grassle said she got sober in 1977.
(Courtesy of Karen Grassle)

Fox News: When did you get sober?
Grassle: It was 1977 in June. It’s so meaningful because everything changes from that day. I looked at life in an entirely new way. I was able to truly discover who I was and what I wanted in life. And boy, it was a lot of work. And it was all worth it.

Fox News: Do you remember the last time you spoke to Michael Landon?
Grassle: Oh yes, very well. I wrote him a letter just to say hello and catch him up with what was going on in my life. He wrote me back the nicest note. I remember he said, “Give me a call so we can discuss the old times before we forget them.”

So I did give him a call. He told me about his family. We had a nice chat about some of the people we worked with. But we mended fences. And I just felt there was a lot of forgiveness from both sides. We were remembering the better parts of our relationship. And I was so grateful for that because it was a very short time after that Mike was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Karen Grassle said she made peace with Michael Landon before his death.
(Courtesy of Karen Grassle)

Fox News: It’s good to hear that the both of you made peace before he passed away.
Grassle: You know, we established a very nice working relationship in the first year. And after the contract got settled, we had a lot of good days, too. Lots of laughs. Lots of scenes where we played together and enjoyed each other’s talents… He was perhaps more human. He was very complicated and came from a difficult childhood. So I think for a person who comes to the table with a lot of issues and somehow be able to turn that into a creation that serves other people deserves a lot of credit.

Fox News: Today you’re recognized as one of TV’s most beloved moms. How do you feel about that title?
Grassle: I feel honored. I based the character mostly on my mother. And I didn’t realize until later how much people truly love this character. I initially didn’t understand the depths of people’s affections for her. But people still reach out to me and express how much they love her. It’s been very gratifying. And I’m awfully lucky.

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