Alison Arngrim dishes playing Nellie Oleson, the 'prairie bitch'
Photo by Gor Magaera
Actress Alison Arngrim was 11 years old when she auditioned for the part of Nellie Oleson, the manipulative brat of Little House on the Prairie. She had already read for the roles of Laura and Mary Ingalls, and wasn't surprised that she didn't get either part, telling her father that she "so wasn't the prairie type." What did surprise her was that she kept getting called back to read.
When she was asked to audition for Nellie, she immediately realized that the character was a total bitch. Michael Landon, who played Charles Ingalls, and producer Kent McCray were in hysterics when Arngrim read for the part, and they hired her on the spot. Arngrim spent the next seven years perfecting her bitchiness, and would practice reciting her lines in the meanest way possible.
"I thought, 'How can I say this so that if someone talked this way to me, I would want to punch them in the face? What would be the most annoying, horrible way I could do this?'" Arngrim says. "I would try the line readings different ways until I got to where I would just want to hit someone, and that was it. I had found the correct line reading."
As Nellie Oleson
Fans of the show grew to hate Nellie Oleson, and in turn hated Arngrim. To this day, she says that people confront her in public for the malicious things that the character did, yelling at her and sometimes even throwing things at her.
"It's shocking how people don't really have a separation between fantasy and reality," Arngrim says. "People say, '[Nellie] was horrible!' and they are afraid of me. I'm fascinated by it from a psychological/anthological standpoint. I would be more upset, but it's not me. I know it was a character and I know it isn't me -- even if other people don't."
As crazy as it is to be attacked in public for a character she played as a young girl, Arngrim says that in a strange way it is nice to know that people found her acting to be so believable.
"I have to take it as some type of insane compliment, as bizarre as it is. Actors spend all day trying to get people to believe that what they're doing is real, and here I don't even know that I was thinking about it," Arngrim says.
Fans are also shocked to know that Arngrim and Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls, are good friends in real life. Arngrim says she hit it off immediately with Gilbert on set, and the pair remain close friends to this day.
"I think when you play mortal enemies on TV, it's like when you're married on TV. When you're put into such intense relationships on TV where you're in love or you're enemies, you're not going to have just any old relationship. You're either going to really dislike the person or you're really going to get along with them," Arngrim says. "In our case, it was really an advantage that we got along because we were smacking each other around. Someone could have gotten hurt. It was probably good we were friends."
Photo by Gor Magaera
Arngrim recounts hilarious moments with Gilbert on set and with the Little House cast, as well as memories from her childhood, in her 2010 book, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.
"The book was a long time coming," Arngrim says. "It was to answer questions. My whole life people asked me what it was like to play Nellie Oleson and what it was like to play a bitch. I tried to answer those questions, and now I'm working on my second book because people have even more questions."
Her book and her time on Little House are the basis for her one woman standup show, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, which will return to Camp Bar in St. Paul this week. Arngrim, who was doing standup long before she wrote the book, used to shy away from talking about Little House, but found that audiences wanted to hear about Nellie Oleson.
"When I tried to talk about things other than Little House on the Prairie, people would just stare and then say, 'So weren't you Nellie Oleson?'" Arngrim says. "I realized I had to acknowledge the Nellie thing before I talked about anything else. I would go onstage and say, 'Yes, I was the prairie bitch, thank you very much' and then I would take off on other stuff. Whenever I opened up to questions, they wanted to talk about Little House."
This initially annoyed Arngrim, but she soon came to realize that audiences loved hearing about the show. People can expect to hear crazy stories about Little House and much more at her show at Camp Bar this week.
"It will be fun. It will be nuts. I will answer all their questions. I will tell insane stories," Arngrim says. "There are videos and photos to go with each story. I talk about my interactions with the French, and there is video of me on a talk show that's quite hilarious. I talk about all the other crazy things I've done like being on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. I tell all sorts of bizarre tales. And I will be bringing the wig."
Arngrim is amazed by people's fascination with the show and with Nellie Oleson in the United States and around the world. The program was on air for nine years (seven of which Arngrim was a full-time cast member), and is syndicated in over 140 countries.
"If anyone had told me I'd still be talking about Little House on the Prairie and Nellie Oleson when I was 50 freaking years old I would have said, 'Oh god, what a horrible thought.' But I am, and it just strikes me as funny that this show and character has taken on such a life of its own. People from all different parts of the country and world and from all different walks of life all seem to relate to Little House on the Prairie and Nellie Oleson. Someone should do a psychological paper on this," Arngrim laughs.
When all is said and done, Arngrim says that playing Nellie Oleson had a profound impact on her life, and helped her through a painful period of time during her childhood. She says she is grateful to Nellie and to Little House, and credits the role with saving her life.
"You don't know which experience in your life is going to resonate forever or is going to be the most important thing that happened to you," Arngrim says. "Because of the way the character Nellie was written, and because of who I was, and because of the time it happened -- it was being in the right place at the right time in the right character -- it just had an affect on my life and on other people's lives that no one could have anticipated. I really owe it all to Nellie Oleson."
IF YOU GO:
Confessions of a Prairie Bitch
Thursday, November 8-11
Camp Bar and Cabaret
490 N. Robert St., St. Paul
7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 5 p.m. Sunday
Through November 11
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