Melissa Gilbert knows that for anything and everything else she may do, her identity as “Half-Pint” always will be with her.
As “Little House on the Prairie” repeats continue as weekday Hallmark Channel staples, the former child actress who played Laura Ingalls Wilder — and grew up to become a president of the Screen Actors Guild — gets constant reinforcement of the effect her work on the Michael Landon-guided series, which NBC originally aired from 1974 to 1982, has had on several generations.
“It’s extraordinary,” Gilbert tells Zap2it. “I am still very aware of the impact the show has. I was on tour with the musical version for a year, and being on the ground, I got a feel for what both the book and the TV show ‘Little House on the Prairie’ meant to people.
“It’s still one of the only shows available that an entire family can watch without parents getting bored silly, or having to cover their children’s ears. Grandparents can watch with their grandkids, and they know they’re going to come away from it feeling pretty good at the end of an hour or two.”
In the stage version of “Little House on the Prairie,” Gilbert took the role of Ingalls-family matriarch Caroline, played in the series by Karen Grassle. “I had been a part of the musical for four years total by the time the tour ended,” Gilbert recalls. “I started it in a workshop in New York … with Patrick Swayze as ‘Pa,’ which was interesting. I’d known him for a really long time, and he ultimately got sick with the same thing Michael Landon died from (pancreatic cancer) when they were right around the same age.
“Then we did it for a summer at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, which is an amazing place to do a show, then it got reworked and we went out on tour. It was challenging in so many ways for me, especially because I’d never sung before. Rising to that, and overcoming what I knew would be snarky reviews, also was interesting. I found that the smaller the city, the better the review.”
After doing little television work for several years — during which she underwent surgery to replace a disc and repair a broken back, and filed for divorce from actor husband Bruce Boxleitner — TV-movie veteran Gilbert returns to the home screen as a driven Broadway director relegated to overseeing a small town’s holiday play in the new Hallmark Channel tale “The Christmas Pageant” Sunday, Dec. 11.
Though her autobiography “Prairie Tale: A Memoir” was published in 2009, Gilbert muses it might be time for her to start writing again. “After the last three years,” she concludes, “I’ve got a whole new book in me now.”