“People are utterly convinced that I must be the biggest bitch in the world to have played that part.”– Alison Arngrim on her character Nellie Oleson
Like the diseased sheep herd that brought anthrax to Little House on the Prairie‘s Walnut Grove, ‘70s child stars can be an unpredictable lot. The late Dana Plato, for instance – sweet Kimberly Drummond on Diff’rent Strokes – grew up to commit armed robbery.
But Alison Arngrim only takes shots at herself.
Arngrim, who from 1974-83 played Little House‘s stiff-ringleted, luminously wicked Nellie Oleson, went on to endlessly heckle her own genius character from club stages. She titled her standup act “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch.”
That’s right – nasty Nellie became a comedian.
It’s not such a stretch. Whether you loved Little House or despised it, you had to laugh at the absurd black cloud hovering over Walnut Grove: Residents were forever prone to pre-harvest hailstorms, freak blindness and, as mentioned, even the random, hour-long anthrax outbreak.
Nellie, the spoiled daughter of wealthy shopkeepers, largely escaped the turmoil. Some of her own victims, though, weren’t so lucky.
Delectably, acidly mean – at high points cinematically mean – Nellie aimed her toxic smirks and sudden-death taunts mostly at Little House lead character Laura Ingalls. Played by Melissa Gilbert, wholesome Laura – Nellie’s main onscreen rival from schooldays through courting days – usually (predictably) emerged the victor in their duels. In one show, for example, Nellie fakes being paralyzed, the better to receive candy and attention from family and friends. But Laura douses her appalling plot when she pushes a wheelchair-bound Nellie down a long hill into a cold creek.
Lesser characters, however, sink easily under Nellie’s bullying. In another episode, our sinister lass tosses a twig at orphan-boy Albert, giggling, “This is about all the family tree you’ve got.” His eyes agree he’s a nobody.
But for pure, hell-brewed malice, nothing beats the show where Nellie forces stuttering immigrant girl Anna to recite the “Peter Piper” tongue twister before a group of gawking school chums.
That scene, admitted Arngrim in a recent interview, “even gave me the creeps.”
Mean for a reason
She calls from an airport in Iowa, where, she reports, she’s just discovered her picture in the dark reaches of Star magazine.
“The lead article is about the country’s top-25-richest, hottest women – but at least I made the back page!”
Arngrim, who also works in theater and independent films, is as charmingly self-deprecating as her long-ago character was bloodthirsty. Luckily for fans, though, at least Nellie’s quick tongue still lives. In a longer interview with Xpress via e-mail, Arngrim wittily dishes on classic episodes and fellow Little House veterans.
About the wheelchair-in-the-creek scene, she reveals that “the fabulous back flip out of the chair [was done by a] stuntwoman, but I still had to be shoved down a hill to get the shots of me screaming. And no seat belts. No crash helmet. No safety equipment of any kind.”
Katherine MacGregor, who played Nellie’s mother, the ferociously bitchy Harriet Oleson, “was, and still is, a sweet woman who takes in stray people and animals and would give you the shirt off her back,” writes Arngrim.
“Of course,” the once-and-former Nellie concedes, “she might yell at you the entire time!”
As a child, Arngrim says she and her peers had a harder time dealing with adults off the set. “Melissa and I had become friends right off, so she and the other kids knew we were acting. But some parents didn’t.
“I had a heck of a time, and still do, with grown people who are utterly convinced that I must be the biggest bitch in the world to have played that part.”“
Instead, she says her dramatic pedigree is to “blame.”
“I grew up in a show-business family,” Arngrim explains, “and had kind of a fixation on villains in movies to boot – I was mad for horror films, and I loved Vincent Price!”
But a much darker motivation behind her memorable portrayal of Nellie was uncovered during Arngrim’s recent appearance on Larry King Live. In an interview that shocked even some of her lifelong friends, the actress revealed that, from ages 6 to 9, she was sexually molested by a close male relative (to date she has not identified him).
“You are in this horrendous situation where you really can’t get out. … You are told whatever you do, don’t tell anyone this or I will beat you senseless,” Arngrim disclosed to King.
“Playing someone so nasty gave me a place to vent all my pain and hostilities,” the actress writes in our interview. “I was calmer than ever by the end of the day.”
And so acting on Little House became Arngrim’s therapy. She confessed on King: “The episodes where I would break everything in the place and scream that I’m going to kill someone – do you have any idea how good that felt?”
Planting laughing seeds for change
In the show’s waning years, the character of Nellie was softened considerably by Little House creator/producer Michael Landon (lead character “Pa” Ingalls). Nellie even caught herself a husband, restaurateur Percival Cohen, played by Steve Tracy.
The two actors became close friends, and when Tracy died of AIDS in 1986, Arngrim began a long stint doing standup comedy to raise money for AIDS Project Los Angeles, going on to support the cause in venues across the country.
Her current “Prairie Bitch” routine has inspired, among more commonplace acts of devotion, a name switch by a New York gay-and-lesbian comedy troupe – from Planet Q to The Nellie Olesons.
More recently, though, Arngrim’s shows have raised money for the Asheville-based PROTECT, which demands longer sentences for child molesters (see accompanying box); her local show this Friday will also assist the nonprofit.
The actress, a member of PROTECT’s advisory board, has helped reintroduce a bill in Sacramento trying to change a law under California Penal Code 1203 – similar laws exist in more than half of the 50 states – that administers lesser sentences to child molesters who are related to their victims.
“People who sexually molest their own relatives and family members do exactly the same things as people who molest strangers do. There is not some better deal you’re getting by being molested by a father or an uncle or a stepbrother,” Arngrim said dryly on Larry King.
To Xpress, she voiced words of hope: “We think that this coming year, with the huge turnover in Sacramento, we have a very good chance of getting [the bill] through.
“Three of the four people who gave us a problem on the Public Safety Committee will be out of office,” explains Arngrim, a California resident. “We’re also starting to hear from Democrats – like, finally! Where were you guys? Huh?
“When we first went in,” she continues, “a big problem for us, support-wise, was that a lot of people had no idea this insane law even existed. Of course, thanks to Larry King, that’s no longer a problem.”
Like a harvest moon after a hailstorm, Arngrim ends our interview on a bright note, capping her rant with a fond swipe at her home state’s current governor.
“Being California, if they won’t play that way, we can always go to the voters with the ballot referendum! It worked for Ah-nold!”
Will the real Prairie Bitch please stand up?
OK, true story: When I was 15, Rob Lowe came to my town to film a dreadful movie called Illegally Yours (it went straight to video).
It was 1986, the peak of his first wave of popularity, and he was still in a long-term relationship with Melissa Gilbert – best known, then as now, for her decade-long portrayal of Little House on the Prairie‘s Laura Ingalls, referred to in some circles as “America’s Sweetheart.” Gilbert had accompanied Lowe to the shoot and, between takes, she tended to stick close to his side.
After school, my friends and I would creep about the set with a horde of other teenage girls, jockeying for glimpses of the fey, cackling Lowe, who obviously reveled in the attention. Despite his turning out to be troublingly short and acne-speckled, he’d secured our diehard devotion.
For the most part, bodyguards held us back. But one day, out of nowhere, a very young fan – where had she come from? – stepped out of the shadows and boldly transgressed the barrier, timidly approaching Lowe to ask for his autograph.
All she got for her pains were barks of protest from the guards and an irked eye-roll from Gilbert, who turned on the girl like a badger on a bunny and hissed, “Can you not see he’s busy?”
Nellie, eat your heart out.
What was your favorite Nellie Oleson episode?
The frequent onscreen tearfulness of Michael Landon’s “Pa” character helped cement Little House on the Prairie‘s reputation as a warm-hearted family classic.
But it was Alison Arngrim’s genius, her dry-eyed malevolence as spoiled rich girl Nellie Oleson – not to mention the wholesale nastiness of her even meaner mama, Harriet Oleson, played by Katherine MacGregor – that stuck most with the show’s many fans. Whether they saw it when it originally aired in prime time (1974-1983) or else became addicted to reruns, Little House watchers comprise a delightfully varied demographic, as this recent informal poll of several of my family members and friends reveals.
“For sheer nastiness, I love the Nellie episode where Laura and Mary get invited to her birthday party. She has a doll, and Laura is absolutely smitten with it. Nellie tells her not to touch it, but somehow Laura accidentally breaks it, and is absolutely disgraced. Mrs. Oleson makes some comment about ‘country girls’ not knowing how to behave. It’s so painful to watch. … But Laura gets her back by having her own party and luring Nellie into a part of the stream where there is a big crawfish, which bites her.”
– Cecilie Sugden, 33, mother of five
Dunellen, N.J.“It would have to be the episode where she fakes paralysis. To me, that is choice Nellie Oleson. Pure evil.”
– Jade Coffman, 29, aviation structural mechanic, U.S. Navy
Virginia Beach, Va.“The one where Laura got Nellie good by pushing her in the creek on the way home from school. I think I would have done it a lot sooner.”
– Pat LaPoint, 65, educator
Pavilion, N.Y.“I was always sympathetic towards Mr. Oleson because he had to put up with those two bitches. He was a hard worker, always stocking those shelves with things people needed and candy for the children. He did not deserve such abuse.”
– Travis Medford, 30, Xpress graphic designer
Asheville“The one where Laura and a friend of hers were in the creek and found gold specks in it. They even … stole the screen door from the Olesons’ house to sift the gold. Laura dreams that her entire family is rich and wears fine clothes and is able to look at [Nellie and her family] with disdain. But [in real life], it turns out it to be ‘fools’ gold.’”
– Lee Ann Patton, 43, self-employed housecleaner
Charlotte“The time she either fell or was pushed (which a “Prairie Bitch” undoubtedly deserved) into either a muddy pond or a pig pen. She, of course, soiled her lovely, out-of-place frock and straightened her time-honored ringlets. As a woman muttered while she rumbled along on the ‘L’ in Chicago last week: ‘dirty-dirty-dirty.’”
– The Brooks family (upstate New York and Kansas):
Jay Brooks, 38, art teacher
Tessie Brooks Dunn, 33, mom, student, nurse tech
Missy Brooks Valento, 40, mom, homemaker, ski instructor
Mary Ann Brooks, 62, semi-retired
The National Association to Protect Children – PROTECT for short – is a broad-based organization, headquartered in Asheville, that distinguishes itself from traditional charitable nonprofits by stressing its role as a “political lobby, with a legal structure similar to the AARP or NRA.” PROTECT further describes itself as a “nonpartisan, pro-child, anti-crime lobby [whose] members believe in both making child abuse [prevention] our top priority for government spending and getting serious about tougher responses to crimes against children. … We will support public officials who will fight with us.”
According to PROTECT’s membership brochure, the nonprofit has successfully raised the sentence for incest in Arkansas from a fine to up to 40 years in prison and, in Illinois, has increased punishment for convicted child molesters who are related to their victims (the previous sentence for such offenders was probation). For more information, visit www.protect.org or call 350-9350.
Whoa Nellie!: An Evening of Stand-Up Comedy, Music and Dancing to Benefit PROTECT happens Friday, July 9, at Haywood Park Atrium (46 Haywood St.), beginning at 8 p.m. The $30 ticket price includes heavy hors d’oeuvres, comedy by Alison Arngrim, a performance by local dance troupe Go-Go Girlie Action, and music by Dangerous Smiles. (A cash bar will be on site.) Call 350-9350 or go to www.protect.org to order tickets, which will also be sold at various downtown locations (see the Web site for details).