Alison Arngrim: Original Prairie Bitch

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Alison Arngrim Little House Prairie

If you had a television at all in the 1970s and 1980s, you can't help but be intimately familiar with Little House on the Prairie -- and thus, you probably grew up hating one of the original "mean girls" of media, Nellie Oleson.

"Nellie" -- Alison Arngrim to citizens of the real world -- is all grown up now, and while she's still true to her Little House fans, she's moved on to other facets of entertainment... and some extremely important work as well, turning personal tragedy into an impetus for rescuing children in trouble. Despite working in some disturbing corners of the world, Alison remains full of energy, spirit, and good humor. I hope that comes through in this transcription as much as it was evident in our actual conversation.

We've met up on Twitter, where you're very active.

I tweet. I twat. I'm all over it.

I am on everything. I have three Facebook pages -- two pages that are me and a fan page. I have a Twitter account. I am on LinkedIn, Plaxo, Tumblr, and I have my own website.

A full-blown 21st century cyber-personality.

I am hooked up! (laughs) I have a Droid, a little smart phone with a little keyboard, so I also tweet and face from my phone as well as on screen.

You're one of the few people on Twitter whom I've actually heard speak in interviews and such, so when I read your posts I actually can hear how you're saying it, so I get it much better.

Thank you! Yeah, I'm 51, so I don't normally tweet in tweetspeak. I don't say "C U 4 A..." I actually type words. I don't abbreviate stuff too much. I'll use a "w/" for "with," and the & for "and," but I generally use whole words, because I was brought up in the previous generation that uses whole words. So when I read texts and things from teenagers, I go, "Whaaat?"

I've been skimming through your book, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, in preparation, and there are a lot of things in there that I really didn't know, that's making me have to rewatch our Little House on the Prairie DVDs. I was probably most taken back by the notion that you were able to say that one of the other actresses was the real bitch of the show, as opposed to your character, Nellie Oleson, and... Can we just say "Melissa Sue Anderson," since you already put the name out in the book?

At the end of the book, I talk about that I'm willing to bury the hatchet. I will buy the first pitcher of margaritas if she wants to make up. (She hasn't called.) I actually even went to her book signing, and bought her book and got it autographed.

I've always been amazed that, as child actors, the three of us didn't kill each other. The pressure that is put on child actors, especially young girls on a series like Little House, with the crazy stage mothers and the managers and the agents... it's like a dog fight. It's terrible. It's like, "Throw those children into the ring!" The fact that we got along as well as we did is nothing short of a miracle, and the fact that Melissa Gilbert and I bonded and actually became friends is extremely unusual. I mean, as badly as Melissa Sue and I got along during the show is probably more the norm.

Was there any fallout post-publication with coming out and saying something like that, naming names and all?

Oddly, not that much, because it wasn't like she liked me a lot. (Laughs) In fact, prior to it coming out, TV Guide interviewed her and interviewed me, and they did a sort of side-by-side thing about our books. And she hadn't even read it yet, and yet managed to have a multitude of snide comments for me. She would also, prior to my book coming out, when we would have reunions -- and we still do, we have cast reunion events and things -- she has consistently managed to avoid those. Nearly everyone in the cast has been to at least one or two, but certain cast members come to all of them. But she has stayed out of that. She has chosen not to do that, and has said that it's not her thing, and has even made remarks that people who go to these reunions don't have anything better to do. Well, no, hey, wait, that means your fans, so not including them. It's really, really not her things. She just doesn't do that.

So it wasn't like we were hanging out together and she was shocked. And then I read her book, and it's interesting in what it didn't say. In her book, she really barely talks about Melissa Gilbert at all. She doesn't talk about me much at all. We get a few paragraphs.

Our three books -- because Melissa Gilbert has a book, Prairie Tale, which I have teased her mercilessly about that it should have been spelled T-A-I-L, because she does discuss her sexual exploits rather extensively. The three books -- it's sort of like the three bears and the porridge: this porridge is too hot, this porridge is too cold, this porridge is just right. Prairie fans found that Melissa Gilbert did not talk that much about having been on the show. She talks about being on the show for a couple of chapters, and then she talks a lot about her personal life. And then Melissa Sue's book, she actually did sort of like an episode guide, and discussed various episodes and some parts of her life. So it was like, "not enough Prairie / too much Prairie." And the same fans have written to me and said I had "just enough" Prairie and "just enough" personal life, that it was a middle ground apparently.

I recognized some of the names, but I never did the math and put them together, but you grew up in a Hollywood family.

Isn't that nuts? My mother was Gumby! She was Casper the Friendly Ghost and Sweet Polly Purebread (Underdog's girlfriend) and Davey of Davey and Goliath. And for those of you who are a teensy bit older, my mother was also Caroline and John-John on the infamous First Family album [Cadence Records, 1962], the first comedy album to mock a seated president.

So was there an expectation on you from a young age that this was what you were going to do?

I thought everyone was on TV until I was seven years old. [My parents] had been actors in Canada; my father had then gone into management but he had been on Broadway, and then my mother did all these voice overs (she later did on-camera stuff). All of their friends were actors. My brother was an actor [Stefan Arngrim, Land of the Giants]. My aunt was a concert soprano, and my uncle played the violin with the California Youth Orchestra with Jascha Heifetz. So I didn't know anybody who wasn't either singing or playing a violin or acting or performing in some manner on stage or on camera. I literally thought that everybody was on TV until I was seven years old, because we would turn on the TV and there would be people we knew.

Now, of course, with reality TV, everybody is on the television! This is actually true.

A few years ago, my wife and I got to see the Broadway tour musical version of Little House on the Prairie.

With Melissa Gilbert playing Ma, no less! I saw it three times!

I was wondering, if it goes around another time, is there room in there for Alison Anrgrim to strut her stuff?

Well, you know, the problem is there was no Mrs. Oleson. I flew to Minnesota to be, like, psychological support for Melissa on the opening. She was, "You've got to get out here, I'm going crazy." I went to the dress rehearsal before it opened in Minnesota, and saw one other show. And then I went with a whole bunch of the people from the cast -- a whole gaggle: Baby Carrie, Miss Beadle, a whole busload, with some French people and some English people, and we all went to Sacramento and saw it again there.

Melissa was playing Ma, the girl playing Nellie was fabulous -- they had a great Nellie and a great Laura. But because they were doing kind of the South Dakota episode -- the little town on the prairie, Dakotas part of their lives, they did not focus on Mrs. Oleson, so there was no Mrs. Oleson in the musical. Because logically, at my age, if Melissa Gilbert was playing Ma, I would of course be playing Harriet. Which would be fun -- and I've kind of explored that. I did an independent film a couple of years ago called "Make the Yuletide Gay" -- a gay Christmas comedy; get it on Netflix for Christmas, it's lovely! -- where I play kind of the modern Mrs. Oleson nosy neighbor. Sort of Mrs. Oleson goes cougar.

Of course, I can't sing -- that's the other slight technicality. I really suck, I can't sing.

You also do stand-up comedy, which leads me toward the most serious aspect of your history, which was the childhood sexual abuse you endured. The first thing I think of when I put that kind of history together with stand-up comedy is people like Christopher Titus and the way he channels tragedy into comedy. What kind of therapy is it -- how do you make it possible to go from such a low point and turning around to becoming someone who makes people laugh about it?

I'm not sure I know very many stand-up comics who had a happy childhood. There was usually something going on. Among stand-up comics, there's always some kind of drama. You don't meet a lot of Buddhist stand-up comics. Everybody always has like a Catholic Italian mama or a Jewish mama, or they have a really horrible childhood.

Also, a large number of stand-up comics are fascinated with serial killers and some really macabre things -- true crime stories. What dark, weird horrible thing is going on here?

The traditional equation is "pain plus time equals comedy." And I think that is true, because most comics I know have some kind of suffering, even if it was simply just extreme poverty. Look at people like Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Gleason. Chaplin was a homeless child -- his father was an aloholic in jail, his mother was in a mental institution. He was performing in the streets. The first character that got him any acclaim was "The Drunkard," and it was based on his father.

I remember reading that in The Honeymooners that single lightbulb hanging over the dismal little table was based on his parents' apartment. So you'll hear stories of extreme poverty and hardship from very famous comedians, and you'll also hear stories of terrible abuse, or some kind of really unpleasant thing that they had to overcome. I think that kind of stress... you have to do something. Laughter is a defense mechanism -- or, as one of my many psychiatrists said, "Whoever said you're not allowed to defend yourself?" So, yes, laughter is a defense mechanism, and I have a right to defend myself.

You mentioned earlier how it was a miracle you three girls on the show didn't explode. You've also mentioned how playing the role of Nellie was a release mechanism for your pent up hostility. But were there times when, carrying all that inside you, you just wanted to haul off and pop somebody and let it out?

Oh, pretty much all the time! But that's the thing with people who have suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse, one of the problems that they have, where you see the problems of self-harm and alcoholism and drug abuse and harming others and all the stuff that comes out -- is it's somewhere for all this anger, all this rage, to go. Where does it go? Do they turn toward others and become very violent and spread it out that way? Do they turn it on themselves, do a lot of self harm and become terribly depressed? It has to go somewhere. And I had this outlet, because, I was a teenager and you don't like being told what to do all day -- and on a television series, all you get is being told what to do all day, by multiple people. So it was really hard.

With Nellie, indeed, in almost every episode at some point I was allowed to scream and yell and hit people and throw things -- and over and over again, with multiple takes and angles. It was a fabulous release playing someone who was angry most of the time. People joke about how I was in a really good mood on the set. People asked my mother, "My God, what is she like when she gets home?" And my mother said, "Well, actually, she's got it all out of her system, and she comes home and takes a nap." I was practically zen by the end of the day, because I absolutly used Nellie to let it out of my system, and it was a great relief.

Was your abuse already known at the time you were playing the role?

Not to anybody but me. I didn't tell anybody. I didn't tell anyone what had happened to me until... I told one or two friends, but I didn't really tell anyone until I was twenty-one, in therapy, and then I started telling people, and told my parents. I didn't go public until 2004 when I went on Larry King Live.

That had to be extraordinarily difficult to bring up to your parents, especially given that it was from another family member.

At least they believed me. They didn't say, "You're crazy, you're making it up." I know people who were horribly, horribly sexually abused by a relative, and they go to their parents and they're either told You're lying or people will tell an eight year old girl that she asked for it, that she's a tramp. People are really awful. The things that people have said to their own children when they've come to them to ask for help for being abused, it just defies imagination, the cruelty with which people respond. It's apalling.

So, given all of that, given all the possibilities of how badly it could have gone, I have to say I am greatly relieved that I at least got the response that I did.

And then some time after that you got involved with PROTECT.

Yes -- ten years now, in 2003. They called me and said, "We're starting this group and we're going to actually do political action, legal stuff, change laws to better protect kids!" I thought that was an interesting angle. And it was formed because a lot of people, from attorneys general to psychiatrists to lawyers to police who had been dealing with child abuse -- very much at the front lines -- had been doing their job but seeing all their effort being blocked by loopholes in the law. The police would go out and catch the guy, the prosecutors would build a case and convict him, and the psychiatrist would work with the kids -- and they'd get all the way through the system where the kid had testified and they'd helped the child and they've got the guy and got him into court, and they'd all go "Hooray, we convicted him!"

And then he'd be out two minutes later.

Or, he'd be in court and plead to the "Incest Exception." He'd be in one of the states where instead of being charged and going to trial for rape, he'd say "I'd like to plead guilty to 'incest,'" which would often be a misdemeanor -- because the incest law was for, say, someone who had had a sexual relationship with their thirty year old cousin, not someone who had raped their four year old daughter. So they would rape a four year old and plead... It would be as if someone broke into a house, raped a woman, and then said, "I would like to plead guilty to adultery, because we're not married." It's a crime against the marital state. They actually did this -- and they're still doing this. It's still in about twenty-nine states.

They would do this in the states that used the old law, like in North Carolina which is the first place we changed it. But in other states, they had put it in later, where they had a law that had increased the penalty for sexual abuse of children -- but what they did was, they said, "Well, we should make an exception for fathers for incest. Because guys who molest their own kids aren't really child molesters, they're just under a lot of stress, and besides, they..." They actually referred to them as "Captains of Industry, Leaders in the Community, etc." and that they didn't belong in jail, they were the Father Offender, and different.

Somebody managed to sell this ridiculous package, and so in several states they've put in a law that allowed an incest offender -- as opposed to a non-incest offender -- to receive a special sentence: no jail time, and they could have their record expunged. They wouldn't be a registered sex offender. Nada. Zip. Because they were pleading guilty to the special circumstances of it being incest.

You would think the "special circumstance" would get you more time! And in some places, they do. In British Columbia they have a thing called "Breach of Trust," that if, in fact, it is someone in the circle of trust in an incest case, it's worse -- it's extra points. And there are places where if it's a breach of trust and it's a teacher or priest or parent, it's much much worse. Which is really totally what it should be. But that's not the case in every state, and in many states if you are in fact a relative, you get a free ride. It's really bad.

What are some of PROTECT's most recent victories?

We changed the incest exception in North Carolina, Arkansas, Illinois, California and New York, among others -- it was really big in California and New York. That's why I was on Larry King, because we had to fight to change the law in California.

We have a thing called "Alicia's Law", which has to do with getting funding and resources for the ICAC team -- with the FBI you have the Internet Crimes Against Children task force, and those are the teams that are on the Internet looking for the transfer of child pornography. They find these people trading the child porn online, and what they find a great deal with this is that these are people who are making this child porn with either children they're babysitting, or their own kids when they raid someone's house. They often find that the photos are of kids in that house, that they're living with children. So it's not just an apprehension for production and distribution of child pornography, it is a "child rescue," because they've actually taken children that are being trafficked out of that house.

So we've gotten a lot of money from the state and federal government -- they fund these people anyway, because it's the FBI, and they're supposed to get a certain amount of money, but like everything else in the world it's really hard. There've been budget cuts, and it's very hard to get funding for law enforcement in general. But considering how badly this problem has exploded, and the fact that we're talking about people doing live pay-per-view streaming videos of people raping small children, you'd think maybe that this should be a bit of a priority. So we've gone into the State House and to the federal government and said, "Yeah, maybe if you have any spare money at all, a little bit more should go to these ICAC teams. They should have at least enough money to be able to apprehend these people. And we've been very successful in getting them funding and resources that they need.

We have a bunch of other stuff going on. There's a whole thing involving getting people -- because they're short-handed, there's not enough people to do this. But there's a whole program, our H.E.R.O. program with returning war veterans involved with the ICAC team. It's a win-win situation for everybody, employment-wise and ICAC's boots-on-the-ground-wise. If you go to the website, we've got like seventeen different things going on right now. We're in every state, and we're in Washington, DC, and stuff happens constantly. We get another "Alicia's Law" passed in a state, we knock out an incest exception somewhere.

Let's take things out on a less darker note...

Yes, because I have all these horrible things that I talk about. I mean, I spend half my life either working to help people with HIV and AIDS, or I'm helping people with abused children -- it's all kind of dark and murky! But the upside is, it's good stuff -- because if I had to lie awake at night knowing this stuff was going on, and I wasn't doing anything... it's nicer this way.

You mentioned earlier going to reunion events. Has there been any support for, or any talk about, getting everyone together to do a Little House reunion film?

The entire cast has all expressed that, absolutely, if there was a reunion show, we're all on board. Years ago, there were a couple of attempts by NBC to put together a reunion show, and everyone said, "I'll do it, I'll do it!"

The problem is the entity of Little House on the Prairie -- it's waiting for all the lawyers to die. It's one of those things where it's owned by so many entities. There's the Estate of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Harper-Collins publishing company. You have Family Friendly Enterprise, the Ed Friendly Estate, the Michael Landon Estate -- it goes on and on and on. There are so many parties involved that the actual rights to the show, it's not where one person with a stroke of a pen can go, "Okay, I'm going to make this show." They have to get on the phone with all the different parties and they all have to sign off -- and no one has been able to make that happen yet. The various parties will not sign off and say, "Okay, let's make the show." Hence, it has not happened.

If you're ever concerned, there are none of the actors that are holding it up.

So it's nothing where fans could fire up a Kickstarter campaign to help things along.

The only thing Kickstarter could fund would be cab fare for everone to go this one guy's house and make him sign off. (laughs) That would be what we would need. But it's not for lack of money, it's not for the actors... but literally it is a whole rights, who owns what, legal kerfuffle with people who just want to strangle each other and will not agree and sign off.

But we do have get-togethers of the cast. Keep checking my Twitter, Facebook and Web page, because... for instance, my very next thing is I'm going to be in Washington, DC [June 10th] doing a thing for the Inspiration TV Network (INSP TV), because they run Little House all the time. I'm going to be at Nellie's Sports Bar on June 11th, signing my book. On June 14th and 15th I'm at the Laurie Beechmen Theatre in New York City on 42nd Street, doing my show "Confessions of a Prairie Bitch." In July, I'm going to be in Green Bay, Wisconsin -- and Dean Butler, Almanzo Wilder, will be there as well. And then in August, I'm going to Genessee Country Village. So I'm everywhere! And other Prairie people do appear together at things, so that's fun.

And you don't get attacked in costume any more.

I don't, because I am now smart enough not to try to wear that costume! (Laughs) Never again! I have security now, and I don't wear the costume, because someone will beat me senseless!