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Video: Gilbert shares her ‘Prairie Tale’

  1. Transcript of: Gilbert shares her ‘Prairie Tale’

    ERIN BURNETT, co-host: " Little House on the Prairie " ran on TV for nearly 10 seasons, and America fell in love with Laura Ingalls , the red-haired girl with the braids, the cheeky grin, the unforgettable nickname, " Half Pint ." Real life for Melissa Gilbert , though, who played Laura , was not nearly as idyllic, and she's now telling her story in a new book called, " Prairie Tale ." Melissa Gilbert , it's good to have you with us. And you still have the trademark hair and smile and everything, so a lot of people will see all of that.

    Ms. MELISSA GILBERT: Oh, thank you. Oh, well, that's a good thing.

    BURNETT: Yes. And we all -- so many of us watched that show. And as you wrote in your book, everyone said `Oh, they wanted to have the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder , of Half Pint ,' and you said, `Well, you wanted to have that, too, but that's not what it was like.

    Ms. GILBERT: No, it wasn't. My life was different. Not that, you know, I mean, 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. If you read the book, I was the girl in the one-piece bathing suit with cotton pajamas over and zinc and a hat.

    BURNETT: On top of it, right.

    Ms. GILBERT: And, you know, eating a bologna sandwich with mayonnaise dripping down my hand. And I was like 15 years old still at that point. You know, I wore Mary Janes till I was, I don't know, 16. But that, I think, saved me from falling into a lot of traps too early. Not that I didn't make mistakes later on.

    BURNETT: And what about Michael Landon ? I mean, I know that in a sense -- well, your father passed away when you were just 11, right?

    Ms. GILBERT: Yes, he did.

    BURNETT: So was he really the father figure that people kind of think looking at the show, or not?

    Ms. GILBERT: Absolutely. Michael had a very powerful impact on my life. He pretty much molded the person that I am professionally, which also translates to the person that I am privately. He was an amazing man, an amazing talent, an incredible director, actor, writer. A great boss. And a human being with flaws like all of us.

    BURNETT: And let's talk about some of those flaws, because I know that leads into the challenges you had. On his mug on set there wasn't water in it.

    Ms. GILBERT: No. There -- I had found out much later on that he was drinking vodka all day. And he had this signal that he would give the prop man and it was this. So that meant how to pour in the tumbler. It was either this much or this much or this much. But to his credit, I never saw him get drunk. I never saw his personality change. He didn't have that switch. I did later on when I began drinking...

    BURNETT: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. GILBERT: ...and then dealt with my alcoholism. I would reach a point where that switch would flip and my personality would change. But Michael was able to maintain no matter what.

    BURNETT: Mm-hmm. And what about your struggle with alcoholism? I mean, I know that when you first tried, you tried to get through it on your own because you didn't want the publicity. But it didn't work. You have been sober for five years, though, so you finally got through it.

    Ms. GILBERT: Yeah. I had to finally get over myself and actually, you know, I had been working the AA steps but actually had to go to a meeting. And when I went to my first really big public meeting -- I went to private meetings in people's homes -- I went to my first really big public meeting...

    BURNETT: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. GILBERT: ...someone ran up to me and said, `Oh, my God, I love you on the " Little House on the Prairie ." And then they said, `Oh, wait. I'm sorry. Hey, how do you do anonymous?' And I said, `You know what, I don't, and that's just the way it is for me.' And part of the program is to share your courage, strength and hope with others so that those who have less sobriety than you have an example to follow. So I've got nearly five years now, and that's kind of part of it.

    BURNETT: Now, in the book there are so many stories I know I was so curious about. You know, how your current marriage went through a tough time, you got through it. But one thing I know a lot of people are probably curious about is your relationship with Rob Lowe . On and off for a long time. You were engaged. What happened?

    Ms. GILBERT: We broke up. You know, it ran its course. I think we were just too young. The end of the relationship was the ultimate end of a relationship because we did break up and get back together a lot. Was very, very painful as you read in the book. It was a very dark and difficult time for me.

    BURNETT: You were -- well, you were pregnant.

    Ms. GILBERT: Yes, I was. And Rob broke up with me when I told him. But you know, looking back on it and now that I have children that are his age -- my older boys are 28 and 23 -- the age he was when we were together and then I have a 20 year old and a 13 year old, I understand it. At the time it was devastating. But it also catapulted me into living my life. And everything, no matter how painful led me to this place that I'm at now, which is a really amazing place to be. I have a really peaceful, happy life . I've got these great confident kids.

    BURNETT: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. GILBERT: I'm married to a man I'm absolutely crazy about who cherishes me. It's a real gift.

    BURNETT: And we are all going to be reading a lot more about it. Melissa Gilbert , thank you very much.

    Mr. GILBERT: Thank you.

    BURNETT: "A Prairie Tale " is the book. She's going to be back in our next hour, as well. So if you have a question for her, you can send it to us. Go to our Web site , todayshow.com. And still ahead, actress Sandra Bullock on baring all for her new film and she really did look fantastic. That's coming up after your local news.

TODAY contributor
updated 6/9/2009 9:44:14 AM ET 2009-06-09T13:44:14

For nine years, the world knew Melissa Gilbert as her “Little House on the Prairie” character — pious 19th-century farmer’s daughter Laura Ingalls. But behind the bonnet and braids she wore on the small screen, Gilbert was living the Hollywood fast life.

In her tell-all memoir, “Prairie Tale,” Gilbert recounts her real-life drama. She had three nose jobs by the time she was 20 years old; she had steamy trysts with Hollywood playboys and rock stars; she struggled with drugs and alcoholism. Gilbert also writes about an unplanned pregnancy with Brat Packer Rob Lowe, and the painful consequences she faced.

Now at 45 and a mother, Gilbert told TODAY’s Erin Burnett Tuesday in New York that she is comfortable with who she is and can look back at her life experience without shame.

“Everything, no matter how painful, led me to this place I am right now, which is really an amazing place to be,” Gilbert said. “I have a really peaceful, happy life. I have these great, confident kids. I’m married to a man I’m absolutely crazy about, who cherishes me. It’s a real gift.”

Innocence lost
Gilbert starred alongside Michael Landon in the hit TV show from 1974 to 1983, beginning as a fresh-faced, buck-toothed, 9-year-old redhead in pigtails.

Her real age corresponded to her screen age, and Gilbert told Burnett that she really was the same innocent child she portrayed.

“By child-actor standards, mine was probably the best experience that you could have,” she said. “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, and I was like 15 years old at that point.”

And still, it all descended into a whirl of drugs, alcohol and sex. As she put it to Natalie Morales in a second TODAY appearance Tuesday, “I don’t know if [I] rebelled so much as tested the waters — swam against the waters. Drank the waters.”

Gilbert said that Michael Landon drank on the “Little House” set, but never lost control.
In her book, Gilbert writes that Landon, who played her father on the show, was known for his quick temper. “I was working with Michael Landon, who would write us out of an episode if we got a grade lower than C,” she recalled to Morales.

Two years later, after her father died of a stroke, Landon would continue to loom large in Gilbert’s life. “I’ve realized his influence on me extended beyond the set,” she wrote. “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.”

But, Gilbert told Burnett, Landon never let the alcohol take over. “To his credit, I never saw him get drunk, I never saw his personality change,” she said. “He didn’t have that switch. I did later on when I began drinking. I would reach a point where that switch would flip and my personality would change — but Michael was able to maintain no matter what.”

Gilbert still has enormous respect for Landon as a person and a professional. “He was an amazing man, an amazing talent, an incredible director, actor, writer, a great boss, an incredible human being,” she said.

Young love
Gilbert dated Landon's son, Michael Landon Jr. But when she was 17, she began dating actor Rob Lowe.

“I fell instantly, hopelessly and stupidly in love,” she wrote. “We went from first date to instant couple. I felt like I was starving for Rob.”

At 19, while she was dating Lowe, the one-time anti-drug poster child began living the party lifestyle — snorting cocaine and drinking to keep herself calm.

When Melissa Gilbert told Rob Lowe she was pregant with his child, he broke up with her. “We were just too young,” Gilbert said.

Lowe proposed in 1986, despite infidelity on both sides. Among those with whom Lowe reportedly cheated were Princess Stephanie and Nastassja Kinski; among Gilbert’s alleged indiscretions were Tom Cruise and Scott Baio. Soon after, Gilbert found out she was pregnant with Lowe’s child. When she told Lowe the news, he told her he wasn't ready to be a father — or a husband.

“We broke up. It ran its course. I think we were just too young,” she told Burnett.

Soon after, Gilbert suffered a miscarriage.

“I had lost my baby and my relationship with Rob … and it hurt like hell,” she wrote.

To Burnett, she added, “It was very, very painful. It was a very dark and difficult time for me … Now that I have children that are his age — my older boys are 28 and 23, the age he was when we were together — I understand it. But at the time it was devastating.”

Gilbert went on to have an alcohol-fueled marriage to actor Bo Brinkman, who became the father of her son, Dakota, now 20. After he had numerous affairs, the couple divorced.

Gilbert continued her own struggle with alcoholism, and says that at one point, she was drinking two bottles of wine a night, by herself. She married her current husband, “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” star Bruce Boxleitner, in 1995, and she was still drinking heavily as a means to relieve stress.

Through it all, she continued to work, almost exclusively in television. She made so many miniseries and movies for the small screen, she became known as “The Queen of made-for-TV movies.” From 2001-05, she served two terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

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Embracing sobriety
She realized she had a problem after passing out drunk in the dog bed while a friend was over for dinner. She later sought help from a therapist and attended AA meetings to get sober.

Gilbert says she's been sober for nearly five years now, and in the summer of 2008, her career came full circle when she played Ma in a musical version of “Little House on the Prairie” in Minneapolis.

In her book, she writes: “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.’ They wished they had Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life the way I played her.

“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.”

Vidya Rao contributed reporting to this story.

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