[Note: This was originally published on my blog on the Huffington Post.]
She didn’t wield a smartphone. Or harass her peers on Facebook. But as Nellie Oleson, Alison Arngrim bullied Walnut Grove’s holier-than-thou Ingalls girls with more brutality than one of those Housewives of Beverly Hills. Which is ironic since two of the housewives actually appeared with Alison on the beloved TV series Little House on the Prairie.
In real life, Ms. Arngrim is anything but a bully. She still has Nellie’s big blue eyes, but has traded the curls for a cute blonde bob. She’s funny, she’s smart, and she remembers everything. Which comes in handy when she’s hosting Hollywood tours, writing memoirs, and performing her one-woman show Confessions of a Prairie Bitch.
Arngrim also has two new TV projects in the queue. One is sentimental. One is sinister. But before we get into that, let’s get back to the Beverly Hills Housewives/Little House connection.
Alison Arngrim: Oh one was a regular! Kim Richards. She played little Olga, the poor girl with the bad leg who I tormented in the Town Party, Country Party episode. She was also in Nanny and the Professor, Escape to Witch Mountain, etc. Kyle Richards was darling little Alicia Edwards, one of the three kids adopted by Mr. Edwards when their mother, played by Patricia Neal, dies.
Do you stay in touch with them?
I haven't seen the girls in ages. They were both darling then. But they did have the Uber Stage Mother of Doom. Their older sister was Kathy Richards who married Mr. Hilton and gave the world Paris and Nicky. Paris is sort of the living embodiment of everything grandma ever wanted. It's a shame she didn't live to see the advent of Reality TV. She would have loved it.
Would you consider being on The Real Housewives?
I personally can't even bear the thought of reality television. The yelling, the lack of union contract, the way they treat the kids on these things…argh! Can't do it.
But if you did, whose face would you be all up in?
I would be in ALL of their faces because they are ALL out of their freaking minds on those shows!
Nellie Oleson was a textbook narcissist, don’t you think? How would you psychologically profile her? Do you think she was a sociopath?
I think she was a borderline, sort of budding narcissist. Her mother was the real deal [Harriet Oleson, played by the gifted Katherine MacGregor]. I think that was the main problem. Her mother was flat out nuts. Her father wouldn't stop her, and her brother was an idiot. And she was smart—not brilliant—just smart enough to be dangerous. Just smart enough to have figured out that she was living in a boring, backwater town in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of farmers. And that other people were living in New York, Paris and London with fabulous clothes and culture. And she probably wasn't going to be any time soon.
But then she met Percival.
And unlike her mother, she really did fall in love and really did become nice. But, let's not forget—he was from New York. And when Nellie, Percival and the twins left the show, where did they go? To take care of his mother—in Manhattan! She got what she wanted. Her children would play in Central Park, not the damn creek.
Do you have kids?
I don't myself. But I'm sort of auntie to everybody. Even people my own age. Since my husband Bob's family is enormously fertile, I have a whole tribe of nieces and nephews. They're all grown up and getting married off and having their own little geebers now. Every Christmas we go to Tennessee to hang out with all four generations of the very large, extended Schoonover family. The gift wrapping session alone is downright EPIC. At some point my sister-in-law decided that I should be the one to cook dinner for all of them. This is now a tradition. I have to keep coming up with festive recipes to serve 30.
Everyone in the family and their friends know who I am and keep up on my careers and adventures, but they mercifully don't really care. Once in a very long while they'll ask if I can meet a friend of theirs that's a raving Bonnethead [Little House on the Prairie fan] and get them a signed picture. But mostly I'm just Auntie Alison. Who makes lots of food. And is really good at Trivia Crack.
You’ve been married, in Hollywood years, forever. What’s your secret to marital bliss in a town full of celebrity divorces?
You need to marry a friend. Being madly in love with them certainly doesn't hurt, but it seems to last longer with someone you can actually talk to, who you find to be intelligent, funny, and pleasant to be around.
How did your Hollywood Tour come about? What’s the most popular stop on the tour?
I have a lot of friends who are tour guides. (If you're in New York, check out my buddy Jim Dykes’ tours!). My L.A. friend, actor and tour guide Richard Sebastian, and I were riding around in the car one day, and as usual, he was pointing out stuff. But then I started chiming in, "Oh wait...BUT did you know that's ALSO where...?" He finally said, "You're a tour guide! We need to do a tour!" So "Nasty Nellie's Tour of Hollywood" was born.
It's one of the tours available at "Dearly Departed Tours" in Hollywood, (I highly recommend ALL of their tours!) It's very exclusive. A twelve-person limit, in a nice air-conditioned luxury van with tinted windows. Richard drives and provides much historical detail, while I jabber on about my life, tell scandalous stories and point out various Hollywood landmarks with which I have a personal connection. I lived there, I worked there, I partied there, I slept with someone there, I know someone who slept with someone there, etc.
It's three hours long and everyone LOVES it! We go by Michael Landon's house, Liberace's house, the Hollywood sign, the Chateau Marmont, and we stop at the Farmer's Market on Fairfax for milkshakes. There's a Q&A portion. Everybody gets a free autographed picture, and some sort of holiday-themed gift or candy. We are the only tour in town that stops for milkshakes. It's magical.
After writing the memoir, doing the one-woman shows, the reunions and special appearances…do you ever overdose on Little House nostalgia?
You'd think by now, wouldn't you? LOL. I do take days off from it, so I don't wake up screaming with visions of petticoats in my head, but generally I kind of like it. I'm sort of a history geek myself, so playing what's turned into an endless game of "1800s trivial pursuit" is much less boring for me than it might be for others.
I find the international obsession with an American children's author writing about the Westward expansion and what everybody was eating during it, to be absolutely fascinating. How on earth did THIS get to be a thing? But it is. The books, the TV show, the real history behind it—people CANNOT get enough. All ages, all nationalities, people from every walk of life, people you'd never suspect even heard of the thing, running up to me to ask about wigs and wheelchairs and who set fire to the blind school. And if that keeps causing people to fly me all over the country and the world and give me money - well, who I am to say it's wrong? LOL.
Let’s talk acting. How does your adult acting style contrast with your childhood acting technique?
After actually going out and studying everything from improvisation technique to Uta Hagen, I find I'm actually doing a lot of the same stuff, but now I at least know WHY I'm doing it. I was always a bit method, really. I wanted to make Nellie "real", not just put on. Some people have trouble playing villains and objectionable people because they haven't adopted the advice "Don't judge - justify!" I didn't know it was called that until later, but even as I kid I knew, "sure, I know that tormenting stuttering girls and stealing ponies is terrible, but SHE doesn't think she's wrong!", LOL!
Do you consider yourself a comic actress? Have you been offered any meaty dramatic roles? Any LIFETIME women-in-jeopardy flicks?
Ha! Well, yes. I am definitely what they used to call a "character actress". Even when I was a little girl. I enjoy comedy, but I've definitely gotten to do some really fun dramatic work on stage. I have NOT done a Lifetime movie. Probably because Melissa Gilbert did ALL of them and there just wasn't any room!
Charlotte Stewart, the actress who played Miss Beadle on Little House, was in David Lynch’s Eraserhead. What other Little House alumni had colorful credits on their resumes?
One of our most popular directors, Bill Claxton, directed "Night of the Lepus": A horror movie about "members of a small Arizona town who battle thousands of mutated, carnivorous killer rabbits". It was actually based on a book called, "The Year of the Angry Rabbit." Katherine MacGregor's first film role was in "On the Waterfront" with Marlon Brando. Richard Bull did a Thanksgiving themed episode of "Bewitched" where he played famous pilgrim John Alden. As well as a role in the 1965 germ warfare horror thriller, "The Satan Bug". Dabbs Greer, (Reverend Alden) was in the original 1956 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". What with that and Michael Landon getting his start in "I Was a Teenage Werewolf", I think we Little House folk RULE the horror genre!
Your parents were also show biz folks.
My father was a Personal Manager. In the 1960s and 70s, prior to starting his own company, he worked for Seymour Heller, (who was played with great accuracy by Dan Akroyd in "Behind the Candelabra"). It was "Seymour Heller and Associates, ("Attarack/Heller" at one point) - my father was an Associate! He was actually "Vice President of Television and Motion Picture Development" or some such fancy pants title. He had a big office in the 9000 building on Sunset and his own secretary. They all wore suits with huge lapels and had three martini lunches at Scandia and The Cock and Bull. It was all very "Mad Men". And yes, Liberace was one of their clients.
Who else did they manage?
They also managed Debbie Reynolds. (So yes, when she played Liberace's mother in "Behind the Candelabra" she had "inside information" as it were. She knew Liberace, his mom and Seymour very, very well.)
What are your memories of Liberace?
We rented a house around the corner from Liberace in order for my gather to be "on call" if he needed anything. As a child, I went trick-or-treating at his house. And I did go to his shows and met him. He was everything you would hope for and more. Gregarious, charming, smiling and showing off the piano-shaped wristwatch with the diamond encrusted lid that popped open. He was fantastic to all his employees. If you talk to anyone who ever worked for him, they all still rave.
Your mother was a legendary voice artist for animated shows. Have you ever been approached to do character voices for cartoons?
No! But I've been talking to some people in that line of work and they're really fascinated with the fact that my mother was Gumby and Casper and Sweet Polly Purebred and Davey [from Davey & Goliath], etc. And yes, since I sound like my mother, and she really used her own voice for those characters, yes, I can pretty much do all of them. "Where oh where has my Underdog gone?”
I’m impressed that you not only got to be on The Merv Griffin Show, but that you were actually on another show he produced…the disco-rific Dance Fever.
Oh, I was on Dance Fever three times—including the Christmas special. And my left boob almost fell out of my top on TV the first time!
When I did The Merv Griffin Show I was about nineteen. I did like six minutes of stand-up, and then he asked me to sit down. Which is HUGE. I wore a bizarre sort of ‘80s sailor suit micro mini with tights. He was very nice. Even though everything was massively set up and pre-interviewed, he was very good at seeming spontaneous and relaxed.
Let’s talk about the age-inappropriate Little House episode Sylvia. I don’t know what was more shocking…the masked rapist, or Ma slapping Albert. (It did give Matthew Labyorteaux one of his best featured episodes.) What do you think possessed Michael Landon to write it? Was he trying to keep up with Melissa Sue’s slasher flick Happy Birthday To Me?
Michael was very proud and protective of the show. He would go practically berserk when the critics dissed it, which unfortunately was frequently. It's hard to believe when you look at what a huge ratings hit it was then, and how revered it is now, that it was NOT a hit with critics or the industry back then.
Michael was considered an outsider and a rebel for making Little House - I know, like WHAT? - but it was against what everyone else was doing then - "Mary Tyler Moore Show", "Rhoda", "Phyllis", "The Odd Couple", "One Day at A Time" - sophisticated three camera sit coms were the rage. Or it was cops shows or things like "M.A.S.H". People in New York and Hollywood simply did not watch Little House on the Prairie. But EVERYONE ELSE DID. This drove the critics crazy. They kept trying to explain to people why they were wrong and this was a dumb show. One of the worst things they could say was that it was "soft", "harmless" or - get ready to duck - "a children's show".
So all of us in the show knew, every time one of these horrible reviews came out, somebody was going to die. Horribly. Clown/mime predators raping, impregnating and murdering fourteen-year-old girls. People going blind. Anthrax, typhus, plague. Blind schools burning to the ground and babies being used as battering rams. We all knew it was coming. There was nowhere to hide. "SOFT???!! HARMLESS?? CHILDREN'S SHOW??? I'LL SHOW YOU BASTARDS!"
How did you and your Little House co-stars survive stardom, the tabloids, and the increasingly intense plots?
Melissa Gilbert is now happily married to Timothy Busfield. But she has a long well known chain of ex-boyfriend. Every single one of which I specifically advised her against! LOL! I think everyone in the world told her not to date Rob Lowe. She's a classic stubborn, hot headed Irish girl. When it comes to love, there's no reasoning with her.
Didn’t Melissa Sue Anderson date Frank Sinatra, Jr.? And Jay Bernstein became her manager? Didn’t you think Miss Anderson was going to become the next Suzanne Somers? The next Farrah?
Absolutely. That's totally what the whole Jay Bernstein thing was about. My father knew him. Jay was very up front about his methods. He would explain that if you were in it for the long haul, he probably wasn't your guy. But if you wanted to be very, very famous very fast and didn't care that there was a risk of burning out in three years, he could make that happen. He'd even say, “Give me one year, two tops, I will make you a star. It will probably all be over in three, but for those three years, you will be the hottest thing on the planet.” He didn't lie.
You know, Melissa really played down the whole Frank Jr. thing in her book like they only went out once or twice, but they were actually quite serious and came close to getting married. They were a MAJOR ITEM in Hollywood, and they went absolutely everywhere together. I really thought they were going to go through with it and make a go of it. It sounds strange to say now, but at the time, I thought they were rather well-matched, and I had high hopes for them.
Who are some of your Hollywood pals? Any who would surprise us?
Carol Channing. Tippi Hedren. Judy Tenuta. Jason Stuart. I love that he's now going to be a huge star, so this now qualifies as a "name drop." Rose Marie. I think ALL of those are surprising! I have a very interesting publicist. I've met some amazing people through him.
Does life begin at 50? How has your attitude changed, about life and career, at this age?
God I hope so! LOL! I know everyone complains about it, but there are many advantages to being an older actress in Hollywood. You are very unlikely to be asked to do a nude scene. Same goes for nude photo shoots, magazine bikini layouts, etc. For those of us who were cute twenty-something blondes back in the bimbo-fied ‘80s, this is a welcome relief.
And nobody really gives a rat's ass who you're sleeping with anymore. When I was young, it was constant. If you stood next to me too long at a party, you were in the National Enquirer as my boyfriend. After a certain age, if you do something noteworthy, like stay married for more than five minutes, you'll get a few questions about that, but unless you do something like write a book of sex tips for seniors, nobody bothers you with this stuff.
I actually had an actress friend over 40, tell me she was worried about getting on TMZ with her new lover. I said, “Are you kidding me? They don't even report on people over THIRTY on TMZ. You're over 40. No one cares. At this point they'll just be happy to hear that grandma is getting some.”
People take you a bit more seriously. Even if you were saying the exact same things when you were twenty-five, it is assumed that at forty or fifty you were struck by the wisdom fairy and now you magically know what you're talking about. Even if it's the same blather you've been spouting for years.
You can focus more on what you really want to do. Because hopefully by now, you've "made your point" - you've already done something you'll be remembered for. So there's less hoopla about your "image".
On the down side, you do have to be more careful about your health, your exercise plan, your stamina, taking your vitamins, getting enough sleep. No more all-nighters. No more doing a play all night and jumping up to be on set at 5:00 am. Even jet lag is harder. I was once told, "never book a woman over forty on the red eye."
I look to my husband for inspiration on this one, though. He's in his freaking 60s, still works full time and plays guitar in a rock band. Never did cut his hair. There's hope for us all.
You were recently in a project that brought you together with other TV icons from the ‘70s.
Will it ever be released?
It is still being shopped around. But marvelous news—much like your idea to turn your movie into a web series, Kelly…there may soon be "webisodes" of Life Interrupted coming to the small screen near you!
How did Life Interrupted come about?
My friend Mason Reese—yes, the tiny, top hat wearing child star of the ‘70's (Underwood Deviled Ham, "It's a borgasmord!")—who's been living happily ever after in New York as a successful restaurateur and bar owner, decided he couldn't stay away and wanted to try the Hollywood thing again. It so happens a mutual friend, Mr. Steven Wishnoff, (from the TV series “Oz” and formerly of TV Land and other networks), offered to write something. When Steve called and started describing the role—Mason’s ex-wife, now married to another woman—I was intrigued. When he told me that Erin Murphy (“Tabitha” of “Bewitched”) was going to play my wife, and Dawn Wells (“Mary Ann” from “Gilligan’s Island”!) was slated to be my MOM, and Michael Learned of "The Waltons" was to be my mother-in-law…well, what else could I say but “OMG when do we start?”
What is the common theme of all the actors on the show? Did you all bond? What did you all talk about when you went out for drinks after shooting?
It was interesting because everyone pretty much knew everybody else from somewhere. In addition to the people I mentioned, we also had guest appearances from Robbie Rist, ("The Brady Bunch"), Brandon Cruz, ("Courtship of Eddie's Father") and Jeanne Russell, ("Dennis the Menace")! Everyone, from the cast to the crew, had either been on a show together or done some kind of autograph convention or a TV Land "Where Are they now?" thing together or dated or something. It was a big family reunion atmosphere.
Everyone seemed very dedicated to the work - as with most independent films, we only had a limited amount of time on our locations, so everyone was positively hell-bent for leather to get it done and done right. It turned out to be a surprisingly efficient shoot, we finished on schedule with no nervous breakdowns or injuries! That's what you get when you have a convention of old pros on your set!
Arngrim stars in Season 2 of my supernatural soap opera Suffer a Witch. To get in the mood before its release, check out highlights from Season 1...
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