Melissa Gilbert is perhaps best known for playing freckle-faced, buck-toothed Laura Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie. But while her character’s rural life was generally idyllic, the same can’t be said when it comes to Gilbert herself. And the former child star finally chose to reveal her struggles in her 2009 autobiography Prairie Tale: A Memoir – which contains revelations that may shock fans of the the classic TV series.
Yes, famously Gilbert bagged the role of Laura on Little House on the Prairie, nabbing the role ahead of more than 500 other wannabes. And when the show’s pilot episode proved popular among television viewers, a full series was scheduled to begin in 1974. All in all, in fact, the nostalgic drama would run for a total of eight years.
And, of course, Little House on the Prairie was based on the Little House series of books. The best-selling stories were penned by the real-life Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had drawn upon her experiences of growing up in the American Midwest in the late 19th century.
So, in accordance with the novels, the Little House on the Prairie TV series was also set in the American Midwest – in this case, Minnesota. As fans know, the show also centered around the Ingalls family, who resided on a farm located close to the village of Walnut Grove. And for the most part, storylines revolved around Gilbert’s character, Laura.
Indeed, much of the narrative of Little House on the Prairie focuses on Laura as she grows up. But while the little Ingalls girl may have been the picture of innocence, in reality Gilbert had to struggle with a whole host of personal tragedies and issues. Her life stood in stark contrast, then, to the wholesome world of Walnut Grove.
But Gilbert wasn’t the only star of Little House on the Prairie. Other storylines on the show featured members of the wider Ingalls clan, for instance, as well as individuals from the nearby community. And by taking this all-enveloping approach, the series gave 20th-century viewers a taste of how life may have been for rural American families during the late 1800s.
During filming, Gilbert found herself a buddy, too, in the form of former Bonanza actor Michael Landon. Yes, over the course of making the series, the young star developed a close off-screen relationship with Landon, who played her on-screen father Charles.
But Gilbert may have needed a guiding influence back then, as she had been just nine when she had started out on the show. And in those early years, the actress claimed that she had been just as wide-eyed as the pig-tailed Ingalls girl. During a 2009 interview with Today, the star recalled her early childhood.
Gilbert explained, “By child actor standards, mine was probably the best experience that you could have… I had a fairly grounded home life. In fact, I was the opposite of what you would expect a child star to be: I was a total dork. I was the girl in the one-piece bathing suit with cotton pajamas over it and a hat, eating a baloney sandwich with mayonnaise dripping down my hand.”
But Gilbert’s world was shattered at the age of 11, when her father, Paul Gilbert, died suddenly. Paul and his wife Barbara Crane had adopted the future actress just one day after her birth in 1964 before going on to introduce son Jonathan into the fold. And although Paul and Barbara had divorced when the child star was just eight, her father’s death naturally hit her hard.
Yet despite her grief, Gilbert would carry on in the role that made her famous for the remainder of her childhood. She starred as Laura until 1982, in fact, and then appeared in Little House on the Prairie’s subsequent spin-offs – meaning she was in her 20s by the time she finally said goodbye to the character for good.
But while Little House on the Prairie had undoubtedly formed a huge part of Gilbert’s life up until this point, the show wasn’t the young star’s only job. Alongside playing Laura on the series, she had also appeared in successful television films such as The Miracle Worker and The Diary of Anne Frank.
And by the time Little House on the Prairie wrapped up, it seemed that Gilbert had been eager to shed the squeaky-clean image she’d acquired during her time on the show. In any case, the actress had experimented with booze and drugs in her later teenage years.
What’s more, during this period Gilbert realized just how superficial the world of showbiz could really be. In 2018 the actress told Today how she’d been “encouraged just to be [herself], crazy buck teeth and all” during her time on Little House on the Prairie. In subsequent roles, though, the young star was made to feel as though her body wasn’t quite right.
Unfortunately, Gilbert found that she was expected to manipulate her shape with the help of corsets, girdles and push-up bras. She later told Today, “I wasn’t curvy enough, and I think that really messed with my head.” Perhaps as a result of her body issues, then, the actress underwent cosmetic surgery procedures, including a nose job and breast implants.
Whatever others may have felt about her physique, though, Gilbert continued to work. In 1983 she appeared in the gritty television film Choices of the Heart, for example. And since her Little House days, Gilbert has also enjoyed further roles on television, showing up on screen in Babylon 5 and voicing Batgirl in Batman: The Animated Series.
Gilbert’s career in television was recognized, too, when in 1985 she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The actress also had the honor of serving as the President of the Screen Actors Guild between 2001 and 2005. And in 2009 she returned to her roots, starring as Caroline Ingalls in a stage musical adaptation of Little House on the Prairie.
In more recent years, however, Gilbert was a contestant on TV show Dancing with the Stars in 2012. She also ran for U.S. Congress in 2016, hoping to represent Michigan’s 8th congressional district. But despite winning the Democratic primary, she later quit the race, citing injuries that she had sustained in 2012 as the reason for her decision.
Off-screen, Gilbert has been busy as well – not least in her love life. The star has been married three times, including to actor Bo Brinkman – a union that began just seven weeks after the end of her high-profile relationship with teen idol Rob Lowe. Gilbert and Brinkman were wed for four years before divorcing in 1992; they also have one child together, son Dakota, who entered the world in 1989.
Then, following her split from Brinkman, Gilbert embarked upon an on-off relationship with actor Bruce Boxleitner. The couple got engaged twice, in fact, but Boxleitner ended things on both occasions. Yet it appears that the third time was indeed the charm for Gilbert and her indecisive boyfriend, as they finally tied the knot in 1995 before going on to welcome son Michael. Upon the marriage, Gilbert also became a stepmother to her husband’s sons Sam and Lee.
And while Gilbert and Boxleitner were married for over 16 years, their relationship sadly didn’t stay the course. In 2011, you see, it emerged that the pair had separated, after which they later filed for divorce due to “irreconcilable differences.” Prior to the split, a 2011 ABC News interview had seen Gilbert say of her husband, “We have loved each other for a very long time, and we share four incredible sons together.”
In January 2013, meanwhile, Gilbert’s representative confirmed that the star would marry for a third time – on this occasion to actor Timothy Busfield. The couple’s nuptials took place in April of that year, with the newlyweds going on to live in Howell, Michigan. Gilbert and Busfield later set up home in New York City towards the end of 2018.
Nevertheless, while Gilbert has spent much of her life in the public eye, there were many experiences that she seems to have tried to keep a lid on. Then the time came for the actress to speak about some of her demons in her 2009 memoir Prairie Tale. And it seems that despite Gilbert’s sweet child-star persona, she had suffered considerably behind the scenes.
In the book, Gilbert naturally opened up about her time on the hit show, including touching on her relationship with co-star Landon. There, it was revealed that she had grown close to the actor following the death of her own father. And the friendship would prove to have a considerable effect on Gilbert – although not always in a positive way.
Gilbert wrote of Landon, “I’ve realized his influence on me extended beyond the set.” Referring to the actor’s heavy drinking habit, she continued, “As a kid, I didn’t know he sipped vodka from his coffee mug… but I’m sure he’s one reason why, as a young adult, I almost always picked men who smelled like alcohol.”
Yet Gilbert’s rapport with Landon weakened after it emerged that he had been having an affair with Little House on the Prairie makeup artist Cindy Clerico. Prior to the revelation, the former child star had been close with the wider Landon family; she had even dated Landon’s son, Michael Landon Jr., for a time.
However, at the age of 17, Gilbert embarked on a brand-new liaison with Lowe. And it seems that the Brat Pack member had given the Little House actress her first taste of true romance. In her memoir, Gilbert confessed of this period, “I fell instantly, hopelessly and stupidly in love… We went from first date to instant couple. I felt like I was starving for Rob.”
But despite Gilbert’s infatuation with Lowe, their relationship was far from perfect. Both of them were allegedly unfaithful, for one. Lowe reportedly had relations with actress Nastassja Kinski and Princess Stéphanie of Monaco as he was dating Gilbert, while Gilbert herself was rumored to have hooked up with actors Scott Baio and Tom Cruise.
Nevertheless, in 1986 Lowe asked Gilbert to marry him – a request to which she agreed. Then, shortly after Gilbert had accepted the proposal, she discovered that she was expecting her fiancé’s child. Yet after the actress shared the news with Lowe, he told her that he was not yet ready to become a dad or even marry her. Gilbert later told Today, “We broke up. It ran its course. I think we were just too young.”
Soon after Gilbert’s split from Lowe, however, she suffered a miscarriage. The star would later write in her memoir, “I had lost my baby and my relationship with Rob… and it hurt like hell.” In her interview with Today, she added, “It was very, very painful. It was a very dark and difficult time for me.”
Then, shortly after Gilbert’s relationship with Lowe ended, she married Brinkman. This union proved ill-fated, too, being dogged with alcohol-related issues and unfaithfulness on Brinkman’s part. And as a result, the couple divorced after having one son together – but Gilbert still struggled to find happiness even after that.
Instead, the former Little House on the Prairie star turned to alcohol to drown out her pain. And in a 2012 interview with Entertainment Tonight, the actress explained that her struggles with addiction had begun later in her life. She said, “When I hit my late 30s and my grandfather passed away, something in me just triggered.”
Gilbert continued, “I started having a hard time falling asleep.” Consequently, she hit the bottle in an attempt to ease her woes. And as her alcohol issues escalated, she would typically finish two bottles of wine each night. Despite her problems, though, Gilbert continued to maintain her on-screen career.
And according to Today, Gilbert finally realized that her drinking had taken over after she had passed out in a dog bed following dinner with a friend. As a result, she began seeing a therapist and went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in a bid to break her addiction. The star subsequently got sober in around 2004.
Meanwhile, when revealing why she had chosen to open up about her life, Gilbert explained in Prairie Tale that she had been inspired by fans of Little House on the Prairie itself. Over the years, the actress claimed, many people have apparently wished that their lives were as perfect as Laura’s. Those fans didn’t realize, however, that the person playing the young Ingalls girl had troubles of her own.
With that in mind, Gilbert believed that she owed it to her fans to tell them the truth. In Prairie Tale, she explained, “I still get letters from women whose lives were and often still are truly horrible – victims of physical and sexual abuse. These women say the one escape they had growing up was Little House on the Prairie.”
Gilbert went on to reveal how some of her admirers had told her that “they wished they had Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life the way [Gilbert] played her.” However, in her autobiography, the actress pointed out, “What I don’t ever tell them is that I’m also among those who wish I had Laura’s life the way I played her.”
Now, though, it seems that Gilbert’s dark days are largely behind her, meaning her book could yet provide hope to her fans who are struggling. She explained to Today, “Everything, no matter how painful, led me to this place I am right now, which is really an amazing place to be… I have a really peaceful, happy life.”
And in order to help more people, in 2010 Gilbert became a representative for The Partnership at Drugfree.org. The actress explained, moreover, that she’d chosen to support the organization following her own battles against substance abuse and as a parent interested in drug prevention. In 2014 she said to the Associated Press, “I come at the issue of addiction from so many angles.”
Yet while Gilbert has shared her own experiences with drugs and alcohol freely, she has admitted that she finds it problematic to address the subject with her own children. What’s more, she believes that other parents of her generation have the same issue. The star explained, “We can’t actually say to our children [that] you shouldn’t do [drugs] because I never did… It’s a whole different conversation.”