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Video: ‘Little House’ brat: Playing villain ‘fantastic’

  1. Transcript of: ‘Little House’ brat: Playing villain ‘fantastic’

    ANN CURRY, co-host: Back now at 8:36 with the woman who -- the girl actually you loved to hate on " Little House on the Prairie ." As the nasty Nellie Oleson , Alison Arngrim wreaked havoc on little Laura Ringall -- Ingalls .

    CURRY: Alison Arngrim has now written a new memoir appropriately titled " Confessions of a Prairie " rhymes with witch, "How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated ." Alison , good morning.

    Ms. ALISON ARNGRIM (Confessions of a Prairie B****"): Good morning.

    CURRY: What a title!

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Thanks. I love seeing myself with blood coming out of my nose on television.

    CURRY: Oh, no.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: That's just -- I love that -- yes.

    CURRY: I know. But you know what I'm wondering, though, because when you were young -- I mean, you were just 11 years old...

    Ms. ARNGRIM: I -- yes.

    CURRY: ...and here you were in a role in which everyone just hated you.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: A lot.

    CURRY: How did this -- how did this impact you?

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Well, it was very weird because, you know, playing a villain is fantastic, I've always loved the villain roles, but it's true, to be 11 or 12 and have everyone call you a bitch to your face every day for life, it is very strange, and to realize that it's a compliment, and that's why I say, you know, learn to love being hated. I...

    CURRY: Mm. How old when you finally were able to do that?

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Well, right away, really.

    CURRY: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: I realized, you know, when I went to school the next day and people -- one girl actually screamed this at me, and I was pelted with garbage in the Christmas parade and I was beaten up at a personal appearance. I thought, you know, I'm going to have to really embrace this and go with this or I'm not going to survive the show.

    CURRY: That's a lot to ask of an 11-year-old child.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: It is. But it was quite the part. And now I realize that Nellie has done nothing but bring me fantastic things and has really improved my life and I'm actually weirdly grateful to have played the bitch all this time.

    CURRY: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. But there's -- and there's a reason for that, and we'll get to that.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Exactly.

    CURRY: But I think what people may not realize, and maybe what helped you to some degree...

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Mm-hmm.

    CURRY: ...was that your parents were both in the profession.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Right.

    CURRY: In fact, your mother, people don't realize...

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Yes.

    CURRY: ...was the voice of Casper .

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Casper the Friendly Ghost .

    CURRY: And Gumby?

    Ms. ARNGRIM: And Gumby and Sweet Polly Purebred , Underdog 's girlfriend, as well as Davy of " Davy and Goliath ."

    CURRY: Amazing. And -- oh, that's amazing. Another thing people may not realize is that you and Melissa Gilbert are fantastic friends, and you were on the set?

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Right. This seems to blow people away that the two girls who were the mortal enemies were constantly punching each other, rolling in the mud, we were best friends , we were at each other's house every weekend having slumber parties.

    CURRY: Mm. And also, another fact is that you adored Michael Landon .

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Yes.

    CURRY: However, you think that you adored him because he wasn't a saint, as you write in this book.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: He was not.

    CURRY: What do you mean by that?

    Ms. ARNGRIM: He was such an interesting contradiction. Or -- as I say -- he was very like Charles Ingalls except when he wasn't.

    CURRY: Hm.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: He was very Hollywood , you know, he liked the fast cars, the Ferrari , he was married several times. He was a real Hollywood producer/director type, he smoked, he drank, he told dirty jokes. And at the same time, he watched over his children like a hawk. He absolutely had values of hard work, it was `yes, sir, no, sir, yes, ma'am, no ma'am.' And...

    CURRY: And when you say his children, you also mean you.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Well, exactly, all of us.

    CURRY: And all of you on the set.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: And we were treated with a level of respect and accountability that a lot of child actors really don't get, and I think that's really why so many people from the show turned out so well.

    CURRY: Well -- and that's terrific to say. But, you know, you always write in this book about something very personal.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: I do.

    CURRY: And, you know, you -- it's confessions, as you put in this book.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Yep , it is.

    CURRY: And you write about having been abused by a family member.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: That's correct. Yes.

    CURRY: And in some ways, playing Nellie helped you through this.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: It's true. I mean, this is something obviously that is happening to millions of people. And a lot of people...

    CURRY: You were sexually abused , you're saying.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Sexually abused and physically abused . And I get mail all the time from people who say, `I did not have a perfect childhood like " Little House on the Prairie "'...

    CURRY: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: ...`and that's why I watched the show because I loved it and it was the childhood I didn't have.' And I thought, `Well, maybe I should tell them this is the same for me.' I also got things from the show that I wasn't getting in my life. And in my case, when you live with abuse, you have a lot of rage and anger, and I had a place to actually take it and vent it as Nellie , which was just a bizarre circumstance. And I -- it just -- it's done me so much good I can't even describe it.

    CURRY: Wow. And also at a -- you know, in the role of Nellie , you know, at some point your character gets married.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Yes.

    CURRY: And she gets married to Percy , who was played by a man named Steve ...

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Percival , played by the wonderful, wonderful Steve Tracy .

    CURRY: ... Tracy , who's a very good friend of yours.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Yes. When you're married on TV you 're either mortal enemies or best friends .

    CURRY: Yes.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: And Steve Tracy and I became best friends .

    CURRY: And so -- and he -- and yet not too long after that, he passed away.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: Steve Tracy died of AIDS in 1986 . He was only 32. And he went public with his diagnosis at a time when absolutely no one did that. And there really -- they're just -- and now we have cocktail, we have drugs, we have all these wonderful things, but in 1986 , no, there was nothing, and it was just -- it was awful, absolutely awful.

    CURRY: So you had to go through that as well, the loss of this good friend at a very, very young age.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: I was only 23 when my friend was dying. And that's how I really got involved with, like, AIDS Project Los Angeles and began doing a lot of activism to try to help people with HIV and AIDS and improve their lives.

    CURRY: You have an organization also for abused children called Protect , which is very important.

    Ms. ARNGRIM: I'm so happy about this. National Association to Protect Children , or protect.org, and we are changing laws all over the country and in DC , and we have a petition right now, we're trying to help law enforcement receive more funds to track Internet predators. And I just invite you to go to the Web site .

TODAY contributor
updated 6/16/2010 11:23:58 AM ET 2010-06-16T15:23:58

Getting to play one of the nastiest little girls to ever make people want to hurl things at their televisions wasn’t just fun, it was therapy for Alison Arngrim, who channeled the anger and hurt she felt at being physically and sexually abused into playing Nellie Oleson, the villainous rival to Laura Ingalls in the classic series “Little House on the Prairie.”

“When you live with abuse, you have a lot of rage and anger, and I had a place to actually take it and vent it as Nellie,” Arngrim told TODAY’s Ann Curry Wednesday in New York. “It’s done me so much good, I can’t even describe it.”

Arngrim, now 48, kept the abuse at the hands of a family member secret and is only now telling it to a wider audience through her new book, “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.”

Show was ‘childhood I didn’t have’
She said the abuse started when she was 6 and ended before she took on the role of Nellie, but the effects of the abuse stayed with her a long time.

Arngrim was friends with her on-screen rival Laura, played by Melissa Gilbert.
The experience has inspired her to get involved with the National Association to Protect Children, which lobbies for laws to protect children.

“This is something that’s happening to millions of people — sexually abused and physically abused,” Arngrim told Curry. “I get mail all the time from people who say, ‘I did not have a perfect childhood like “Little House on the Prairie,” and that’s why I watched the show because I loved it; it was the childhood that I didn’t have.’ ”

The irony is not lost on Arngrim. “I thought maybe I should tell them, ‘Well, it’s the same for me. I also got things from the show that I wasn’t getting in my life,’” she said.

Role taught her life lessons
An actress and stand-up comic now, Arngrim was 11 when she took on the role of bitchy blonde Nellie in 1974. She continued in the role as her character grew up and got married in 1981.

Nellie 'taught me to fight back, to be bold, daring and determined,' says the actress, now 48.
Nellie, she writes in her book, “was a girl I grew to love. She got me out of my house when I thought there was no escape. She aided and protected me like no other creature, real or imagined. She transformed me from a shy, abused little girl afraid of her own shadow to the in-your-face, outspoken, world-traveling, politically active, big-mouthed bitch I am today. She taught me to fight back, to be bold, daring, and determined, and, yes, to be downright sneaky when I needed to be.”

She said that people are surprised to learn that offscreen, Arngrim and Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura, were best friends. “We’re Twittering and Facebooking and texting each other,” she said. On screen, they were at each other’s throats.

“This seems to blow people away, that the two girls who were mortal enemies, were constantly punching each other, were rolling in the mud, we were best friends. We were at each other’s house every weekend having slumber parties,” Arngrim told Curry.

Arngrim played the role of Nellie for seven years.

Playing a villain ‘fantastic’
People who loved the show still blame Arngrim for Nellie’s actions. “I am repeatedly held to account for the actions of a fictitious character as if they were my own. And not just any character. A bitch. A horrible, wretched, scheming, evil, lying, manipulative, selfish brat, whose narcissism and hostility toward others knew no bounds. A girl who millions of people all over the world had grown to hate,” she writes.

“Playing a villain is fantastic. I’ve always loved the villain roles,” she added to Curry. “To be 11 or 12 and have everyone call you a bitch to your face every day of your life is very strange, and to realize that it’s a compliment. That’s why I say, learn to love being hated.”

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Arngrim said she knew immediately that she had to embrace her character to survive.

Video: ‘Prairie’ brat: I was spat upon “When I went to school the next day, one girl actually screamed at me. I’ve been spat upon, beaten and pelted with garbage at a Christmas parade. I was beaten up at a personal appearance.” She said she told herself, “I’m going to have to really embrace this and go with this, or I’m not going to survive the show.”

Landon not ‘perfect’ dad
Arngrim still thinks the world of Michael Landon, who directed and played Charles Ingalls, but, she says, he was not the perfect man he played on screen.

“He was very Hollywood. He liked the fast cars, the Ferrari; he was married several times. He was a really Hollywood producer-director type. He smoked, he drank, he told dirty jokes.”

But Landon was also very protective of the children in the cast and insisted that they behave on set and treat adults with respect. Arngrim and other cast members credit Landon for helping make sure that none of the child actors suffered adult meltdowns, as is so common in Hollywood.

15 shocking book confessionsArngrim also spoke with affection of cast member Steve Tracy, who was her husband on the show. Tracy was gay and became Arngrim’s close friend.

He contracted AIDS and before dying of the disease in 1986, came out publically about the disease and his sexuality.

“He was only 32,” Arngrim said. “He went public with his diagnosis at a time when absolutely no one did that.”

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