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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.