Pop Culture

‘Mary Ingalls’ returns to the prairie

"Little House on the Prairie" — set in the 1870s but very much of the 1970s — comes to life in the pages of an intimate memoir. Melissa Anderson, who played Mary Ingalls on the show, tells her side of the story for the first time in her book, "The Way I See It: A Look Back at My Life on Little House." Here's an excerpt:

INT. MODERN KITCHEN — DAY

A phone hangs on the wall in this typical 1970’s room. It is RINGING. A LITTLE BLONDE GIRL runs to answer it.

GIRL

(calling)

I’ll get it!

She picks up the receiver and sits cross-legged on the floor, the cord hanging in loops up to the cradle.

GIRL

(into phone)

Hello?

EXT. OFFICE BUILDING — DAY

CAMERA CLOSES IN ONTO a 5th floor window.

INT. MARY GRADY’S OFFICE — DAY

MARY GRADY, a successful children’s talent agent, sits at her cluttered desk, phone on her shoulder, Flair pen in her teeth. Smiles as she sing-songs into the phone:

MARY GRADY

Is this Miss Melissa Sue Anderson?

INTERCUT WITH MELISSA IN HER HOUSE

MELISSA

(into phone)

Oh, hi, Mary. How are you? Are you calling to send me out on an audition?

Mary goes through the clutter of photos and pieces of paper on her desk, trying to find out what this pilot is all about.

MARY GRADY

Well, as a matter of fact, I am. I’m looking at the breakdown now, and this is what it says: “Pretty, blonde, blue-eyed 11-year-old girl for principal role in two-hour movie pilot for NBC.” Now, this is a much bigger deal than the episodic television you’ve appeared in, Melissa. What do you think? Do you want to try?

MELISSA

YES! YES! I am sooo excited! When do I go, Mary? What do I wear?

MARY GRADY

The interview with the NBC executives is tomorrow afternoon, and you should

wear something blue — it brings out your eyes.

MELISSA

I will, Mary. And thank you. Wish me luck!

Mary picks up the breakdown, squinting at it.

MARY GRADY

Oh, and I see here, hmmm, I think it’s ... a Western?

Chapter One: Too Well Fed and a Seven-Year Contract I went to my closet to begin picking out my outfit for that first meeting at NBC, deciding on a light-blue-and-white checked shirt and my favorite pair of jeans. Mary, my agent, was right: The blue definitely brought out my eyes. After school the next day (I was in sixth grade), I went home to change my clothes, brush my hair, and use Pearl Drops Tooth Polish for an added zing to my smile.

The drive to NBC Burbank from my home in Woodland Hills should have taken about twenty minutes if there was no traffic, but as is usually the case in Los Angeles, it would take at least twice that much time. We always allowed an hour so as not to be late for these interviews. I remember seeing the big NBC logo in the parking lot and having no idea of what to expect from this meeting.

I signed myself in and sat in the outer waiting room. I don’t remember seeing other girls at this first meeting, but there may well have been as many as two hundred girls who originally auditioned for each of the principal roles: Mary and Laura.

Finally, I was called to go in. The room was large and comfortable, with two sofas, some large upholstered chairs, and a large coffee table. I was led to an armchair where I sat down among a group of executives. A white-haired man with very blue eyes, the vice president of talent, held my composite (a double-sided sheet with photos and vital statistics) and began the conversation.

“Hi, Melissa. My name is Al Trescony. I have a daughter who was born on the same day as you.”

I smiled. “Really? The same day as me? I’ve never met anyone with the same birth date.”

Al laughed and said, “Well, she’s a bit older, ten years, but just as pretty as you are.”

“Thank you,” I said.

I was nothing if not polite.

Some of the other executives in the room made small talk and asked me what I liked to do, my favorite subjects in school, my favorite sports. I said I really liked basketball. I had a hoop over my garage so I played a lot. I told them that reading and English were probably my best subjects and that I really enjoyed reading books and did a lot of it at home.

“So you’ve probably read the books that this movie is based on, then?” Al said.

I told him, “I don’t know what books you mean. My agent said she thought it was a Western.”

“Ah, well, it is, a bit,” Al said. “A pioneer Western you could say: Little House on the Prairie?”

I bounced up and down in my chair. “I’ve read all of those books. I loved them. That’s what this is? Neat!”

The executives laughed at that and asked me if I knew which role I was being considered for.

“Oh, I’m sure it must be Mary, right?”

“You got it, Melissa,” Al said. “You certainly have the blue eyes for it.”

Again I said, “Thank you.”

As the meeting came to an end, Al said, “So, Melissa, do you think you’ll be able to read for the role of Mary?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “I’m so excited. It will be fun.”

“All right, then. We’ll be in touch with your agent about that.”

We shook hands all around, and I practically skipped my way out of that room back to the reception area where my mother was waiting for me.

“Mom! It’s Little House on the Prairie! That’s the Western!”

When I got home, I pulled out my copy of Little House on the Prairie from my bookshelf and began to reread it, trying to envision myself in the “Mary” role, but also trying not to get my hopes up. As I turned the pages, I began to realize something — Mary doesn’t do a lot. As a matter of fact, nobody really does very much except Laura and Pa. Mary and Ma were there, to be sure, but everything seems to revolve around Pa and Half-Pint. This was not something I, as an actress, would ever have brought up if I was lucky enough to land the role.

The following week I did, in fact, have my appointment at Paramount Studios to read for the part of Mary. I wore the same outfit that I’d worn to my NBC meeting. We actors are a superstitious bunch. If it works, we stick with it. My mother and I arrived at the studio and walked to the building that housed the production offices. It was a smallish, two-story building with narrow hallways and a narrow flight of stairs to the second level, and it was located right across the street from a courtyard that served as the exterior for the high school in Happy Days, which was also to be shot at Paramount.

Once again I signed in, but this time received my “sides” (pages of script to be performed or “read” in the audition) and went to a quiet place to read them over. I went in when I was called, and because it was the end of the day they got right down to business, said hello, and had me do the scene. I thought I did a good job. They seemed to like my acting, but, really, you never can tell. Again, handshakes all around and the usual “thank you”s and “we’ll let you know”s. So, I

was finished and we left the office.

INT. HALLWAY — DAY

Melissa and her mother exit the outer office into the hallway. A VOICE booms from behind them.

MALE VOICE

You’re going the wrong way.

Melissa’s mother turns around and practically faints.

MOTHER

(under her breath)

You didn’t tell me he was in your meeting!

MELISSA

Oh. You didn’t ask me.

CONTINUED:

REVERSE ANGLE

MICHAEL LANDON

(with devilish charm)

You two do want to leave, don’t you?

He walks toward them from the room where Melissa has just auditioned. He is even more handsome in person, and Melissa’s mother, starstruck, is stammering.

MOTHER

Uh. Yes. Bad sense of direction.

Michael Landon looks at Melissa.

MICHAEL LANDON

You did a nice job in there, kiddo.

MELISSA

Thank you.

They walk down the hallway to the front entrance to the building.

MOTHER

(trying to fill the awkward silence) I must tell you, I’ve always been a fan of yours. We loved Bonanza.

They reach the front entrance door.

MELISSA

(a premonition of things to come?)

I loved the one where you went blind. But she . . . (pointing at her mother) put me to bed in the middle of it.

EXT. BUILDING — DAY

They emerge and Landon whirls on Melissa’s mother.

CONTINUED:

MICHAEL LANDON

(yelling)

What?! You did what?! How could you?!

MOTHER

Well, school and, uh, I ...

MICHAEL LANDON

You know I’m just kidding. I liked that show too. You should try to see the other half, though, where I get my sight back.

Melissa is looking at a pristine Jaguar E-type 12-cylinder car parked along the side of the building.

MELISSA

Wow! Is this your car?

MICHAEL LANDON

Yep. You like it?

MELISSA

I love it. Well, thank you for walking us out, Mike.

MICHAEL LANDON

Any time. Take care.

He smiles and walks to his car.

It could have all come to an end right there and then and my mother and I could have died happy. Michael Landon was positively dreamy.

Excerpted from “"The Way I See It A Look Back At My Life On Little House,” by Melissa Anderson, with permission from Globe Pequot Press. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

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