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Curtain Call

Melissa Gilbert returns to the tales that made her famous – NJ.com
Sep 11th, 2009

Caroline Ingalls -- or simply "Ma" to millions of "Little House on the Prairie" fans -- was a demure former schoolteacher, a calming counterbalance to her wanderlusting husband, a firm but loving mother of four and a possessor of a tiny waist, a china shepherdess and a killer recipe for blackbird pie.

A virtuous woman, to be sure. But as a literary character, well, she makes the sweet-tempered Marmee of "Little Women" look like Mama Rose from "Gypsy."

So when the creators of a musical version of "Little House" approached Melissa Gilbert -- the original Laura herself -- to play Ma, they knew the role couldn't be milquetoast.

"Laura really takes her mother for granted a lot in the early books," says Rachel Sheinkin, who wrote the book for "Little House on the Prairie: The Musical." "You really feel she's so infatuated with her father, the dreamer, and that the mother is more the stabilizing force in the family that's allowing the others to dream. You don't realize until much later in the series what that meant for Ma's own dreaming."

To many of us, Gilbert will forever be that braided, buck-toothed little girl romping through the prairie. Dressed in a long blue sundress, her long red hair twisted casually into buns, Gilbert, now 45, hardly looks her age. When she decided to take on the role of Ma, Gilbert wanted to play her with a bit more fire, she says, "with a little bit of Laura in her, too."

The musical premiered last year at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis to good reviews and outstanding ticket sales -- never underestimate the allure of sprigged calico and a lively jig. A national tour kicks off Thursday at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.

Gilbert's association with the role of the adventurous Laura adds nuances to her portrayal of Ma, Sheinkin says. "From the very beginning, we already associated her with that. Now we're seeing her as the stabilizing force who is arguing for domesticity in a way. But because it's Melissa, we understand the layers to that."

As Gilbert sits down for an interview, the cast has just finished rehearsing "Go Like the Wind," a propulsive ditty guaranteed to rattle around in your brain for hours ("Thunder on, thunder on, go go go, go go go"). Her son Michael, 13, who is playing Willie Oleson for the nine-month tour -- "It's my dream," he says -- settles in a chair nearby.
Dean Butler and Melissa Gilbert circa 1980 during Gilbert's "Little House on the Prairie" days on NBC.

Gilbert says that when "Little House" producers approached her with the concept of a musical based on the iconic books, she immediately worried it would come across as "Prairie Guffman,"a reference to the Christopher Guest mockumentary about an amateur theater company. But when she read the original script (later retooled by Sheinkin, the Tony-winning writer of "The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee"), she loved it.

Though Gilbert had some misgivings about the singing -- until gearing up for the musical, she was completely untrained -- she discovered she had a good voice and signed on as Ma.

The TV series took a number of liberties from the books, starting with the setting, bucolic Walnut Grove, Minn., where "On the Banks of Plum Creek" is set and where Nellie Oleson, the original Mean Girl, makes her debut. In the books, the Ingalls family moves west to the harsher Dakota territory when Laura is 12, and that's where the musical takes place, with scenes from "By the Shores of Silver Lake," "The Long Winter," "Little Town on the Prairie" and "These Happy Golden Years" neatly transplanted.

Nellie is set up as Laura's rival for the affections of Almanzo Wilder, though the real central story, Sheinkin notes, is about the changing land and the girl changing along with it.

"It raises questions about taming and civilizing forces," she says, "and what it is to be wild and free, and what it is to be building structures out of love for families and community."

But in this age of "Gossip Girl" and pole dances by 16-year-old pop stars, can poplin make a comeback?

"These are people who are struggling in a changing country," Sheinkin says. "It's not all sweetness and homemade cheese. I think it's still a story of relationships. You get to meet them as people again, as characters again."

Gilbert draws her own parallel from the bleakest days of the Dakota winter to today's global financial crisis. "They're watching a show about people who had little and were able to build not just a home, but a town," she says. "We can certainly make it through this."

Child star on the prairie

Gilbert makes a strong case for nurture over nature. At a day old, she was adopted by a Los Angeles couple with show business in its blood. Paul Gilbert's father was the son of an Irish vaudvillian and a French aeralist. He acted in a number of movies and in early television, and eventually took his nightclub act on the road. Her mother, Barbara, was the daughter of "The Honeymooners" creator Harry Crane, and had gotten roles in a couple of Roger Corman movies (and was engaged to Don Rickles) when she met and married the dashing Gilbert.

Gilbert's mother had her in TV commercials by the time she was 2. Her first television gig was singing in a Dean Martin Christmas special (her grandfather was the head writer for Martin's television show), and she landed roles on "Gunsmoke" and "Emergency."
Soon after, she attended a cattle call for the casting of Laura in a "Little House on the Prairie" TV movie. She immediately hit it off with Michael Landon; later, as she wrote in her recent memoir, "Prairie Tale," she would discover that Landon showed only one screen test to the network: hers.

Landon became a father figure to Gilbert, though she did get a taste of his notorious temper when she couldn't remember her lines for one particularly emotional scene. As she recounts in "Prairie Tale," when he asked her if she had studied the scene, she broke down in tears. Landon calmed her down and rehearsed with her, but just before they were to start shooting again, Landon "grabbed my arm, spun me around and stared daggers into my eyes. 'That's never happening again, is it?' he asked."

Gilbert credits that interlude for developing an early sense of professionalism, and though she never broke out on the big screen, she has been a working actress for nearly four decades -- a nifty feat considering the track record of other child actors. She also served two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild.
When asked what Landon, who died in 1991, would think of the "Little House" musical, she says, "I think he'd be pretty darned proud of it. He'd step in and try to direct."

Life after Laura

Though Gilbert presented a happy facade to interviewers in her "Prairie" days, her home life was complicated at best. Her father died when she was 11; her mother remarried, but the young Gilbert never developed a relationship with her stepfather. Her mother was, and still is, "beautiful, delicate and deluded," she writes in her memoir. She saw Gilbert "as the pillar of perfection -- and told me that I was the world's best actor, the best wife, the best . . . at everything. I knew I wasn't, but I lived my life as though I had to be the best, lest I disappoint her."

She was also controlling, and Gilbert says she never questioned her, never talked back. "I grew up in a dysfunctional family," she now says matter-of-factly. "We were never allowed to have feelings" -- here Gilbert's son, Michael, lets out a snort -- "or get a cold, or cry."
Her mother didn't let her go to her father's funeral. When Gilbert was 12, shooting on location on ice, she fell and broke her wrist. According to Gilbert, when her mother found out, "the first thing she said was, 'Oh no, can she work?' "

The "Little House" series ended abruptly in 1983, although a series of TV movies provided closure. (And how. In one, the townspeople level Walnut Grove with explosives to prevent a land grab). Gilbert began to specialize in "women-in-peril" roles -- a rape victim, an incest survivor, the wife of an abusive husband (played by then-boyfriend, now husband Bruce Boxleitner), a mother falsely accused of abusing her children; you name it, she's suffered through it on television.

In her private life, Gilbert started dating an unknown Rob Lowe when she was 17. He soon hit it big with "The Outsiders," and the two got heavily involved in the young Hollywood party scene. Gillbert, a former youth spokesperson for Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign, ingested her first line of cocaine before she turned 20.

She and Lowe dated for six years, even though she knew he was unfaithful. In one memorable instance, she discovered from a hotel clerk that Lowe had been sharing a room with Nastassja Kinski, his co-star in "The Hotel New Hampshire." Lowe was shocked when Gilbert told him the clerk had sold him out.
"You don't (mess) with America's sweetheart," she told him.

Finding a family

Gilbert and Lowe eventually got engaged -- "Rob will make a wonderful first husband," her mother told her -- but they split up when she became pregnant. She later miscarried. Not long after, she met actor Bo Brinkman, whom she married eight weeks later. That tumultuous union produced one son, Dakota, and ended in divorce in 1992.

She soon met Boxleitner ("The Scarecrow and Mrs. King," the future commander of the space station Babylon 5) through Boxleitner's ex-wife. Though they too had a turbulent relationship, they married in 1995, and she gave birth to their son, Michael, named for Landon, later that year.

Through all this, Gilbert turned to alcohol to quell her raging anxieties, but in the late 1990s, she started to have blackouts and realized she needed help. She entered therapy, but problems with her marriage, the stress of being SAG president and health problems took their toll, and she started drinking heavily again.

She says it wasn't until Michael, then 8, saw her topping off her wine glass and asked her, "Momma, you're not going to drink more wine, are you?" that she quit.

It reminds her of a line from "On the Banks of Plum Creek," spoken, naturally enough, by Ma.
"Once you begin being naughty," Ma tells a misbehaving Laura, "it is easier to go on and on, and sooner or later something dreadful happens."
"There's a lot of me in Laura," Gilbert says. "But a lot of girls like to think there is a lot of Laura in them."

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