Melissa Gilbert Goes 'Back to the Prairie'
The 'Little House on the Prairie' star discusses her new memoir and embracing life’s twists and turns in middle age
Melissa Gilbert is most widely known for her work on the enormously popular television series "Little House on the Prairie," which ran from 1974 to 1983. Each week millions of viewers tuned in to NBC to watch her play the role of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the books upon which the TV series was based. However, while the Ingalls family's nineteenth century midwestern lifestyle seemed idyllic, Gilbert's reality was more Hollywood than wholesome.
In the introduction to her new memoir, "Back to the Prairie," Gilbert's husband, actor Timothy Busfield, writes that she "was not raised a country girl — she doesn't have an iota of prairie in her."
"Writing is so personal, especially when it's a memoir. It's sort of like sending your child out into the world and hoping they'll be accepted."
But all that is changing. In the book, Gilbert describes her journey from Los Angeles to upstate New York, where she and Busfield (her second husband, after her divorce from actor Bruce Boxleitner) purchased a dilapidated cottage in dire need of repair. Together, they remodeled the abode from top to bottom, finishing the project just a few months before COVID-19 shut down much of the country.
The book is a funny, heartfelt story about a woman who is learning to embrace all that life throws her way — from divorce, ailments and a pandemic to new love, grandbabies and gray hairs.
"My mom just finished the book," Gilbert tells Next Avenue. "She said, 'I always knew you were this nature girl inside, but to see you now living it, it's like you've been completed.' I think that's the essence of who I am. It's always been there."
Next Avenue recently spoke with Gilbert over the phone about her marriage to Busfield, her home in the Catskills, and the fiscal reality of being an actor.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Next Avenue: Congrats on the new book! How do you feel about it being shared with the world?
Melissa Gilbert: It's very unnerving. Writing is so personal, especially when it's a memoir. It's sort of like sending your child out into the world and hoping they'll be accepted. There is a little bit of that anticipation of, how's it going to go? Is anybody going to read this thing? What are they going to take away from it? We'll see what happens. Now it's out of my hands.
You write in the book about some of the political subjects you're passionate about. How are you feeling about all that's going on in the world right now?
Dismayed and hopeful. I'm angered and incredibly frustrated with the direction things are going, especially with the leak of the of the Supreme Court's potential decision on the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and what that slippery slope could cause. But at the same time, I see how much more engaged this younger generation is and it gives me hope that things will balance in the end.
You know, the pendulum tends to swing. I would prefer it to swing a little slower. Right now, it seems like it's rocking back and forth like crazy, so I have whiplash about who we are and what we're doing. But I do have hope for the future. I would implore people younger than me to not disengage from the process and make sure that the next generation is prepared to take the mantle.
This memoir is an interesting look at the changes one goes through in life. A major change for you was your move to the Catskills and the house that you renovated. Can you describe the state of that house when you bought it and the work you put into it to make it livable?
Tim found this place on Zillow, and it looked cute in the pictures and the price was certainly right. We went to take a look at it. From the outside the house looked like it was carrying a lot of weight. Not literally sagging; it seemed like it was sort of sad. When we walked in the front door — I've smelled musty places, [but] I've never smelled anything like the smell that came from this house. It was overwhelming.
It was full of belongings from the previous owners. There were boxes of cereal in the pantry, shampoo and bars of soap in the shower, and rotting deer heads on the walls. Every corner had something in it. Bottles of holy water everywhere, which I don't know if I want to understand. Then in tearing it down and moving things around, we found porn, we found hidden bottles of booze — of course, to go with the holy water. Gotta have balance! [Laughs]
But through all of that, Tim and I were grinning the whole time because the more we stood in that musty, stinky, crowded place, the more I started to see past all of that stuff, and to see that this place had the potential for being something incredibly special. It was just a seasonal hunting cabin. It didn't even have heat. That's all changed. We have a boiler, we have steam heat, we put in a propane tank, we put in all new plumbing. And unbeknownst to us, [we finished] in the nick of time. We were in the house by Christmas of 2019. Who knew?
I think people assume that because you both starred in popular television series, you're wealthy. It was interesting to read what you shared in the book about the perception versus the reality of the work that you do and how your finances aren't necessarily as strong as people might think.
We live on a budget like [most] people do. We are gig workers. Neither one of us is on a long-running series right now. I was — fifty years ago. I don't know where people think that money's gone. And the concept the outside world has of what residuals are is just so far from the reality. I mean, I just got a check for twenty cents. The stamp costs more! I'm not poo-pooing my experience on "Little House on the Prairie," but that salary is long gone.
We live job-to-job like a lot of gig workers do. Tim was on a series for two seasons, but again, compared to when he was on "thirtysomething" and "The West Wing," the salaries are different and the orders are different. It used to be we knew we were going to get twenty-two episodes. Now we do ten or six in a limited series for cable. Networks are not even doing twenty-two episodes for a lot of shows anymore. We also have overhead. We have college loans to pay off and an ex-wife on his side and taxes. We have to be realistic, like everybody else does.
"And the concept the outside world has of what residuals are is just so far from the reality. I mean, I just got a check for twenty cents. The stamp cost more!"
It's different from what I was accustomed to for a good chunk of my life, where I was reckless in my spending habits, because the assumption was that it would never go away, and then it started to go away. I have learned to be very mindful of my expenses and to prioritize what really matters. I thought I was doing that and then the pandemic hit, and then I realized what really matters. And it isn't shoes.
Tim says in the book's introduction that once you left Hollywood, your Botoxed forehead "was free from captivity" and your face "moved again." All kidding aside, you write about the challenges of being an older woman in the entertainment industry. What has this experience of living a life somewhat off the grid taught you about aging and vanity?
All that stuff never really sat right with me, but I did it because it was just what we do. And as much as that pressure came from our industry and Hollywood, it is pervasive everywhere. You have Kim Kardashian showing up at the Met Gala in Marilyn Monroe's dress, but then announcing she'd lost sixteen pounds in three weeks to wear it. It really sends the wrong message to young women and girls that this is an accomplishment. [Kim Kardashian] does so many other things, [like] helping wrongfully convicted people get out of jail — let's just talk about that.
Fighting a natural process is exhausting. The appointments and the working out and the skincare takes up too much time. I've got too much to do to worry about this line here and rubbing this lotion there. Now, that doesn't mean I don't take care of myself or my skin. I do. But not with a goal of stopping time, just with the goal of nourishing and embracing what I have.
This is the first time since the early nineties that I've lived my life completely pain-free. It takes me four or five steps in the morning to get the juices flowing in my feet and my legs, but so what? Compared to a life of chronic pain, that's nothing. I'm at this gleeful aging place. Yeah, I have bad days where I look in the mirror and go, 'Blech! What happened?' But I wouldn't change any of it. I love being a Nana. I love that my children are competent, compassionate, loving, funny, talented people. I'm married to a man who loves me no matter what. So, I'm good. I don't need any other validation from anywhere else.
During the first nine years of your marriage, you've run for Congress, dealt with chronic health issues, had surgeries, moved cross-country, bought and renovated a house and hunkered down in a cabin in the woods during the pandemic. What has all of this taught you about sustaining a healthy relationship?
I think the key for us is that from the moment we met, we felt that we had a real partnership, professionally and personally. I am continually amazed by how compatible we really are. I think all of those things that we've been through, some which created conflict for us, has only shown us our resilience.
I read a great quote from Jamie Lee Curtis, who was asked about the secret to her long marriage to Christopher Guest. She said, 'You don't leave.' That seems very applicable for us. What's amazing for me is that I can actually have someone in my life I argue with who won't leave. There's safety in that. We feel safe with each other, we trust each other, and we have so much respect for one another that all of this stuff we've been through just solidifies that and grounds us more and more.
What do you want readers to take away from this book?
There's nothing anyone's been through that someone else hasn't also been through. We have to remember that we're not alone. I would hope that as we continue to emerge from the last two years of isolation, where we siloed even further into our ideas and opinions, we can remember how to be human again, and how to be loving, compassionate, generous people.
Here we are approaching a million people dead from this virus in our country, which is remarkable to me. My heart breaks for everyone who's lost a loved one. We have to remember that compassion for one another will enable us not only to get control of this virus once and for all, but to move forward and hopefully begin to heal some of the damage we've done to one another in a myriad of ways.
How do you feel about where you are in your life right now?
I feel really good about where I am in my life right now. I think I've found a balance because my work life is part of my joy now. It doesn't have the ambition and the desire attached to it and the need to continue working to remain valid. I've really found a way to love what I do when I'm acting. And at the same time, I've found this incredible stillness and peace in my life, in my home upstate, and in myself. And balancing that with the activist part of me that will never go away, that wants to reach out and help make the world a better place, especially now that I have grandchildren. I really see the future and I want to secure it for them to the best of my ability.