Alison Arngrim is frozen in the minds of TV viewers everywhere as spoiled, mean girl Nellie Olsen on Little House on the Prairie, even decades after the beloved show wrapped up a whopping nine seasons on March 21, 1983. Part of it is that it continues to air in reruns, with fans gathering regularly to celebrate it and coming up to Arngrim. The other reason?
“The why everyone still loves Little House, this is a question that’s kind of baffled all of us,” she jokes to Yahoo Entertainment. “We’re like, ‘Yeah, it was good, but it was 50 years ago!'”
Arngrim notes that VCRs weren’t even widely available when the show debuted in 1974, but, somehow, the family drama has “exploded again and again,” with parents showing it to their kids, passing it on from generation to generation. She suspects viewers are attracted to the emotional side of the series, based on the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. After all, they’re essentially telling the story of a family struggling to survive; it just happens to be set in the late 1800s. Arngrim plays the daughter of the rich family in town, the Olesons, and, of course, her character learned to be as awful as she is from her mother, Mrs. Oleson, played by the late Katherine MacGregor.
Fans all over the world, Arngrim says, have told her that what they love is Little House‘s very relatable premise: “It’s a family and they’re poor, and they have a lot of children, and they live in two rooms, and they’re constantly wondering if they’re gonna make it through the year. And there’s a family in town who are kinda rich and snotty and they’re horrible, and everyone has a Mrs. Oleson at their job and everyone has a Nellie at their school. Most of the world’s not living like Dynasty and Dallas, they’re living like Little House on the Prairie. And this seemed to strike a nerve emotionally with people all over the world, and that seems to hold up.”
Another thing that has held up over the years are the friendships between cast members, who also include late writer/director/executive producer Michael Landon (Pa), Melissa Gilbert (Laura), Karen Grassle (Ma) and Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary). Sadly, some of them have died, but the ones who are still around meet up or chat by phone or email regularly.
Arngrim hasn’t watched the show in a while, she says, although she owns all the DVDs, but there are still ones that stand out to her. The first is her hands-down favorite episode, which, she explains without hesitation, is “Bunny,” a Season 3 episode in which Nellie falls off Laura’s horse named Bunny — because why not? — and, being her awful self, takes advantage of the situation. After Laura finds out that Nellie is exaggerating her injury, she goes about getting her revenge, sending Nellie and her wheelchair into a creek.
“We get to finally see her get it good,” Arngrim says, “so people like that one!”
Not that it was easy to film. As Arngrim explains in her 2010 memoir, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, it was captured by Gilbert pushing the back of her chair, which was attached to a a steel cable. “The cable jerked [taut], and the chair stayed put. But I almost didn’t,” she wrote. “You see, there was nothing holding me in the chair. I was just sitting there sliding around in my nightgown with no seat belt, nothing.”
To make matters worse, Arngrim was nursing a broken arm, which she’d injured skateboarding.
While a stunt girl took the actual plunge, Arngrim did have to take a ride down a less steep hill, albeit with rocks, so cameras could capture her “screaming my head off.”
Even so, Arngrim told Yahoo Entertainment in May 2021 that, for child actors, being on Little House was like winning the “child safety lottery.”
The worst thing Nellie ever did
As for her least favorite of the show’s 204 episodes, it’s gotta be another Season 3 installment. This one is officially called “The Music Box,” although Arngrim knows it as “The One Episode Where Even I Hate Me.”
“It’s the one with the girl who stutters. Oof!,” Arngrim says. “So Nellie has a club, and I’m the president, and I rule everyone. Why Laura would want to be in Nellie’s club is not quite explained. I don’t know. But she has this friend [Anna] who stutters and stammers. And so I treat her horribly and make fun of her.”
Arngrim quotes Nellie almost perfectly from memory: “A horse can walk, and a butterfly can flutter, but Anna can’t talk. All she can do is st, st, st, stutter.'”
“Really bad!” she says.
At a club meeting, Nellie then requires a tongue twister of a password. When it’s Anna’s turn, Nellie turns up the heat, urging her to say it even faster as the distressed little girl cries.
“It’s pretty bad,” Arngrim says. “I was in speech class after school back when I was in like kindergarten, first grade. I couldn’t quite say the letter ‘s.’ So I was in the afterschool speech class with the children who had stammers and stutters and couldn’t say other letters. The idea of standing there and torturing a girl who stuttered until she cries… no, that was not a thing that was ever going to happen. I was extremely uncomfortable with that. Luckily, Katy [Kurtzman, the actress who played Anna] has forgiven me and we’re still friends.”
Since Nellie was such a big presence on the family show — even more than those shots of Landon sans shirt, in order to excite his female fans, which Arngrim wrote about in her book — it was surprising when she left after the seventh season.
She tells us that it had to do with her contract, and the fact that she was itching to try something else.
Why Nellie leaves (and briefly returns) to Walnut Grove
“When I started the show in 1974, I, like a bunch of people then, signed a 7-year contract. Do they even have 7-year contracts now? I feel like Mary Pickford talking about the studio,” she says, for a moment breaking into in a high voice, as if she were a prim star of Old Hollywood. “And each year there was negotiations about raises and rules and they might drop you, but if they dropped you midseason, they had to pay you for the rest of those episodes for that year. And generally they kept you around. I made it through the seven years. Now, once the seven years are up, now it’s kinda sports, when you become a free agent, you’ve just gotta renegotiate. So they come and go, ‘Do you wanna sign again?'”
She declined to accept the deal she was being offered, which was for another four or five years as Nellie. It was unknown to her, at least, that the show was transitioning into Little House: A New Beginning, which focused on a grown-up Laura and her husband Almanzo, in its final season, or that the show would end altogether when it did.
“I was 19 years old, and I’d been there since I was 12,” Arngrim says. “So I said, wow, I kinda was hoping to have a life, go do other things. Go do theater. Go do stand-up, cause you’re kinda locked in. And the schedule was so weird, there weren’t a lot of big breaks, where we could go off and like do a TV movie or something on the side.”
She says her agent was turned down when he asked for more money or time off to do a movie, so she left after the seventh season. (A married, somehow strangely kinder Nellie returned once, though, in the final season, for the infamous episode in which she met the Olesons’s newly adopted daughter, Nancy, who was even worse than her.)
The show’s ‘funerial’ big finish
So Arngrim actually wasn’t part of the show’s finale, but she remembers that it had her laughing when she watched it for the first time. That’s because it was so shocking. Her Little House friends told her later that the vibe on the set was “funereal.”
What happened is that the entire set, including the mill, blind school, the store and others, were blown to bits, because cast and crew were told by the ranch where they filmed in Simi Valley, Calif., to take their sets with them. So Landon and co. faced a dilemma: pay to have their longtime home torn down or trashed or maybe even see it pop up on other shows.
“And of course, Michael being Michael went, ‘We blow it up,'” Arngrim says. “Cause that would be a totally logical thing for Michael to think, like, ‘An explosion!’ Any excuse to blow something up. He was kind of like a kid.”
So that’s what we see in the final episode, with the people of Walnut Grove having banded together one last time in order to keep the good thing they built together away from some greedy developers.
“Blow everything up, except the little house, which they dismantled,” Arngrim says. “And they also did not blow up the church. Michael said, ‘No, no, we are not blowing up a church. I’m not gonna be the guy to blow up a church.'”
Arngrim says that not much acting was required from the cast members.
“Everyone in that scene is really crying,” she says. “And everyone who did it said that it was brutal.”
Gilbert echoed that point in a 2011 interview with the Television Academy Foundation.
Fast-forward to 2023, and Arngrim says her and her former co-stars are already planning big things for next year, the 50th anniversary of the show’s debut. Besides that, she’s working on a cookbook (she already has a YouTube cooking show), a newsletter on all things Nellie and a podcast, The Alison Arngrim Show, on which she has hosted Prairie friend Gilbert.