Long-running TV show Little House on the Prairie captured our hearts with its many intriguing characters – from chief protagonist Laura Ingalls to her nemesis Nellie. But what happened to the folks from the prairie after the show? Well, let’s find out. And be prepared for a surprise when you see how Nellie looks today!
20. Melissa Gilbert – Laura Ingalls
Of course, the central character of Little House on the Prairie is Laura Ingalls. And she wrote the autobiographical books that the series was based on. Melissa Gilbert was doubtless delighted to land the plum part of Laura after a fierce contest with no fewer than 500 other juvenile actors, according to Good Housekeeping.
To this day, Gilbert’s name is closely connected with the Ingalls family. So much so that she’d take to the stage as Ma Ingalls when the show went on tour in 2009. It’s not every day that you get to play your own mother! And if you didn’t catch that, you may have seen Gilbert cutting a fine rug in Dancing With The Stars.
19. Michael Landon – Charles Ingalls
Show big cheese Michael Landon captured more than a few hearts as ruggedly handsome Charles Ingalls. But the star did more than act as the family head. He also served as executive producer through more than 200 episodes – directing nearly 90 of them. So the gentle but firm leadership that his character demonstrated wasn’t just acting on Landon’s part.
After Little House on the Prairie, Landon would continue to enthrall viewers as angel Jonathan in Highway to Heaven. In that show, he co-starred with Little House regular Victor French. His successful career was cut short, though, when he died of cancer at the still young age of 54 in 1991.
18. Karen Grassle – Caroline Ingalls
Equally beloved was Charles’s wife Caroline. Though unlike Brandon, Karen Grassle – who took the role – was not well known before Little House on the Prairie. Yet that would all change later. Grassle’s much-admired performance scored her a spot in the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1998.
Grassle never quite hit the heights again and instead enjoyed smaller parts in various shows. But she remains a popular actress in theater, where she’s enjoyed a lot of success. These days she largely keeps busy on stages closer to home in the San Francisco Bay area. And it clearly agrees with her, as you can see.
17. Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush – Carrie Ingalls
Bumptious Carrie Ingalls was played by not one but two actors – twins Lindsay Greenbush and sister Sidney. Famously, the character takes a tumble in the opening credits. Though it turns out that the fall was totally unscripted. Lindsay explained to People Weekly magazine in 2001, “[Sidney] Robyn actually fell because she had her shoes on the wrong feet.”
The twins’ taste of fame proved to be just about enough for them. They appeared together in a few ads, but soon they had quit the acting world for college. Lindsay lives quietly in California while Sidney went down the opposite route – becoming a pro rodeo rider. She’s pretty good at it too; in fact, the latter is a champion at barrel racing. We hear that she avoids tumbles, though.
16. Melissa Sue Anderson – Mary Ingalls
Only 12 when cast as Mary Ingalls, Melissa Sue Anderson was already something of a star. In fact, she’d had roles in The Brady Bunch and Bewitched. And her talent was plain to see. Anderson gained an Emmy nomination in 1978 for her portrayal of the reserved Mary, who loses her sight during the series.
The Emmys knocked at Anderson’s door again a couple of years later, when she took out a Daytime award for her part in an ABC children’s program. This was the highlight of a successful career after Little House for the fresh-faced star. She’s also proved a dab hand at writing, and in 2010 Anderson produced an autobiography focusing on the show that truly made her name.
15. Katherine MacGregor – Harriet Oleson
Little House is, of course, chockfull of heartwarming characters. But the fans among you will know that Harriet Oleson is not one of them. Portrayed by Katherine MacGregor, Harriet is a downright nasty sort – gripped with avarice, full of herself and always willing to share a piece of gossip. But MacGregor avoided making Harriet one-dimensional.
As MacGregor told the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper in 1981, “I look for the humor of Mrs. Oleson. She was originally painted as just black-and-white mean. Anyone that mean has to be a fool. So I began mixing farce into it. I think the audience counts on seeing Mrs. Oleson fall on her fanny and get her comeuppance.” MacGregor passed away in 2018 aged 93 at California’s Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills.
14. Richard Bull – Nels Oleson
Character actor Richard Bull loved his time on Little House on the Prairie, where he played Nels Oleson. He told The Wisconsin State Journal newspaper in 1975, “This series is especially nice. It is about as steady a job as one could get as an actor, and the company is a joy to work with.”
Having enjoyed many roles in Hollywood, Bull eventually went back to his native Midwest. And he lived in Chicago for many years with his wife Barbara Collentine – also an actor. Unusually for the world of acting, perhaps, Bull and Collentine had a long-lasting marriage of more than 65 years. Though the former sadly passed away in 2014.
13. Jonathan Gilbert – Willie Oleson
If the name sounds familiar, well, it is! Jonathan Gilbert is the adopted brother of Melissa Sue Anderson and Sara Gilbert – star of Roseanne and The Big Bang Theory. Though we don’t know whether he was as troublesome as a child as his character – Nellie Oleson’s brother Willie.
Gilbert was a regular throughout Little House and became one of only five to star throughout the show’s run. Yet it seems that he had no lasting love of acting. After a single film role, he gave it up and turned to the world of business instead. Armed with an MBA, he went to work as a New York City stockbroker – until he quit that career to go see the world.
12. Kevin Hagen – Dr. Hiram Baker
Although renowned for his friendliness, town doctor Hiram Baker was not particularly lucky in love. When Kate – a relative of Harriet Oleson – joined him as he did his rounds, he thought maybe he could have a shot at romance. Yet despite attempting to woo her some, he had to conclude that she might prefer a younger man.
Actor Kevin Hagen was much more successful with the ladies in real life, though. In fact, he managed to marry four of them! Hagen was also a success in the acting profession. After Little House, he showed up often on TV and then moved base to Grants Pass, Oregon. Even deep in the country, the star couldn’t quit acting – writing his own Doc Baker one-man show. Sadly, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2004 and died a year later.
11. Alison Arngrim – Nellie Oleson
Nellie Oleson is the character we all love to hate. Mean and spoilt, she’d constantly cross swords with Laura. And sometimes there were disastrous consequences. But you wouldn’t think it to look at her: Alison Arngrim’s sweet-as-pie face cloaked the sneaky character within.
Given Nellie’s sharp tongue, it can’t be too much of a surprise that the woman who played her should end up making her corn as a standup comic. On top of that, Arngrim wrote a hilarious memoir of the show called Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. More seriously, she has also made a name for herself as an activist in HIV/AIDS.
10. Matthew Labyorteaux – Albert Quinn Ingalls
Albert Quinn Ingalls is the adopted brother of Laura in the show, and he’s something of a tearaway – going on the run from the Ingalls home five times. Coincidentally, Matthew Labyorteaux was himself adopted and also had some early troubles. According to Biography.com, medical professionals had claimed that the future actor might always struggle with life.
Though acting seemed to have brought out the best in Labyorteaux. Interestingly given that he didn’t say a word before the age of five years old, the star actually specializes as a voice actor. Yes, he’s often heard in animated series, advertisements, and video games.
9. Dabbs Greer – Reverend Robert Alden
Dabbs Greer had one of those faces: you’d see it all over the place. Actually, you really would see it everywhere, since Greer had a very full CV as a jobbing actor. The Missouri native found a home on the Prairie as Reverend Robert Alden. And it was by no means the only time that he featured as a man of religion.
In fact, Greer had the distinction of performing the marriage ceremony for two sets of beloved characters in the 1960s. He said the words for Rob and Laura Petrie when he took the role of a military chaplain in The Dick Van Dyke Show and then wed Mike and Carol Brady of The Brady Bunch. Greer had moved to the Californian city of Pasadena in 1943, and it’s here that he sadly passed away in 2007.
8. Dean Butler – Almanzo James Wilder
When dreamboat Dean Butler wandered into Little House on the Prairie, you just knew Laura’s temperature was going to rise. And it sure did; the two became the show’s central love story. “Manly” and “Beth” would eventually become Mr. and Mrs. Wilder, with Butler capturing the hearts of viewers and Laura alike as the smoldering Almanzo.
As well as Laura, Butler clearly fell deeply in love with the show. He contributed hours of narration and extras for DVDs of the series. In the meantime, he also carved out a successful career on the stage, where he could be seen starring in shows such as West Side Story and Into the Woods.
7. Ruth Foster – Melinda Foster
Ohio native Ruth Foster had caught the eye as a dancer long before starring as Walnut Grove’s postwoman Melinda Foster. She’d won a contest at the age of 12 and had found her calling. Soon couthe performer could be seen dancing across stages all over, as Foster featured in traveling troupes as well as the Latin Quarter Show.
It turns out that Foster still loved to dance years after her stint at the post office in Little House. Yes, she wowed audiences with the Palm Springs and Branson Follies even when most of us would have handed in our dancing shoes. She kept it up until hitting 85 years old, when she finally retired. Foster passed away in 2012 in Del Mar, California.
6. Brenda and Wendi Turnbaugh – Grace Ingalls
Grace Ingalls was actually played by a set of twins. Brenda and Wendi Turnbaugh had a lot of fun with the role as the latter told The Turnbaugh Twins Fansite in 2004. She said that they enjoyed “jumping over cow pies, playing in our dressing room, and being very quiet when we were told.”
Mind you, the experience wasn’t enough to lure them into the world of Hollywood. The two would only be seen in one ad after the show. So keen on anonymity were they that they went by their stepdad’s name Schlecht for some time, according to the Zunshine website. Still, they are good friends – living close to one another – so who needs fame?
5. Victor French – Isaiah Edwards
Now if you were to look at Victor French, you’d reckon him a bruiser. And that’s what he made his name playing: villains. Though despite his large frame and scowl, Isaiah Edwards was not quite the bad guy. Sure, he seemed rough, but the tough exterior shielded a heart of gold, and he was always there for the Ingalls family.
French was not just a stereotypical tough guy either. Multitalented, he actually directed 18 of the 50 episodes of Little House on the Prairie, and he starred in sitcom Carter Country after leaving. Yet French was a heavy smoker and sadly passed away as a result in 1989. But he never lost his comedic streak and left friends with a plane that trailed a humorous message at his funeral.
4. Merlin Olsen – Jonathan Garvey
You might know the name Merlin Olsen from another world entirely. Yes, he was actually a world-leading football star. He spent more than a decade in the defensive line for the Los Angeles Rams before appearing as farmer Jonathan Garvey on Little House.
But Olsen’s time in the world of TV had an outcome that he could never have foreseen – or so he would claim. In 2009 Olsen was diagnosed with a form of cancer known as mesothelioma. And he took the TV studios to court claiming that it was through them that he had been exposed to asbestos, which is a leading cause of the condition.
3. Charlotte Stewart – Eva Beadle
When Charlotte Stewart – school teacher Eva Beadle-Simms in the show – found herself widowed in 2012, she likely didn’t expect to remarry any time soon. After all, she was in her 70s. But that’s exactly what she did! She’d known new husband Michael for 30 years without romance ever quite sparking. How? Well, her sister is his brother’s wife.
Stewart had been quite the loveable character in Little House, so it’s no surprise that she remained a good catch. After the end of the beloved Western show, she found further fame working with David Lynch on acclaimed movie Eraserhead and creepy classic Twin Peaks before retiring to Napa, California.
2. Patrick Labyorteaux – Andrew ‘Andy’ Garvey
Like brother Matthew, Patrick Labyorteaux is an adoptee, and he’s undoubtedly glad for it. When first adopted, the latter had not been well nourished, which had left him with a host of mental issues. His social workers considered him “unadoptable,” but the Labyorteaux weren’t put off. Amazingly, his mom later explained that the future star’s symptoms disappeared after a couple of years living with his loving family.
After Patrick’s appearance as Andy Garvey, he’d go on to a mass of varying TV and film roles. Perhaps his highest point came when he starred in naval lawyer drama JAG for a decade. And he showed his gratitude for his being rescued by adoption by giving back to his community. Yes, the charity that he founded has raised millions to help runaway youths.
1. Karl Swenson – Lars Hanson
Karl Swenson played ill-fated Walnut Grove elder Lars Hanson. In his final episode, Hanson is taken ill, and the viewer learns from Laura that he has in fact perished. But this was not the original plan for the episode at all.
Swenson had apparently pulled Michael Landon to one side and asked to be written out, according to the website Do You Remember? He’d reportedly had enough of acting. But a bit more than a week before the episode appeared on TV, Swenson passed away in real life.