“I had spent a year in England, working with a Shakespeare company and teaching, and came back to the States flat broke,” the actress recently told Closer Weekly.
“I was asked to fly to LA to play the lead in an independent movie, but when I got to the airport, there was no ticket!” she continued. “I’d sublet my apartment and my boyfriend was [with me], so I wrote a bad check to get one. But when I got to LA, the movie fell through.”
It was then that the now-78-year-old’s agent to try out for a series starring Michael Landon, or as she called him, “this guy from ‘Bonanza.’”
“I was not a big TV watcher,” she admitted.
The series was “Little House on the Prairie,” a period drama based on the life and adventures of the Ingalls family in the 19th century American Midwest. The show starred Landon, who played Charles Ingalls.
“I was the only one at the interview,” Grassle explained to the outlet. “They’d seen everyone in Hollywood who was right for the part! They were down to the wire because they cast everyone else. After I read my second scene with Mike, he leaped up like a jack-in-the-box and said, ‘Bring her to wardrobe!’ But NBC had to approve me, so he interviewed for executives on closed-circuit TV.”
Grassle shared that she quickly discovered how complex Landon was as a person on set.
“He was constantly trying to make the crew laugh and make everybody happy,” she recalled. “A very hard worker and he could be quite moody — he had a lot on his shoulders that first year. He had a falling-out with a producer very early on, so he was the only captain.”
The star also quickly bonded with the children on set, particularly Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls.
“She arrived cute as a button and sharp as a tack for the pilot,” said Grassle. “Turned out to be a natural, with great instincts for acting. The two Melissas [Gilbert and Sue Anderson] were unbelievably well cast. The kids were all really good. They say they didn’t miss anything in their childhood, but I say they don’t know what they missed because they were on the set.”
When it came to the role of “Ma,” Grassle said she based the role on her own mother.
“If you read [Laura Ingalls Wilder’s] books and see photos, Caroline was very tough and sturdy. My mother rode a horse barefoot to school, and as a young woman, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse! So I took her character, strength and wisdom and infused Caroline with that.”
Still, life on “Little House” wasn’t always smooth sailing. In fact, the outlet noted Grassle has previously spoken out on facing pay inequities on the show.
“[Michael was] prodigiously talented,” she said. “A complicated character from a dysfunctional family who loved his crew. But when the show was in the top 10 and I said, ‘Gee, it is time to renegotiate my contract,’ Michael did not want to pay me. It was very difficult.”
“I didn’t speak up publicly at the time,” claimed Grassle. “Unless the fact that I continued to negotiate meant that Mike might have said things about me that could have been detrimental.”
Still, Grassle insisted that her and Landon’s relationship improved over the years. The actor passed away in 1991 at age 54 from cancer.
“We had a friendly call about the good old days [before he died], said Grassle. “I was glad we had that healing.”
“Little House” aired from 1974 until 1983. Even though Grassle has kept busy since then pursuing acting, she was often typecast.
“A lot of scripts were sent to me with people who wore a bun,” she chuckled. “I did [have trouble getting roles after], but my priorities shifted because I wanted a family, so I was putting less energy into acting than I was into figuring out how to be a stepmom and have a child.”
Today, Grassle said she’s still keeping busy and is looking forward to reconnecting with “Little House” fans.
“The musical that I was going to do this summer, ‘A Little Night Music,’ just got canceled, but it’s not a tragedy,” she said. “In about a year my memoir will come out, and maybe there’ll be some untold stories in there!”