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.
“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.
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.
TODAY Arngrim played the role of Nellie for seven years.
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.
Arngrim played the role of Nellie for seven years.
“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.”
Arngrim said she knew immediately that she had to embrace her character to survive.
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.
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.”