By Sandra Ebejer
Melissa Gilbert is most widely known for her work on the enormously popular television series “Little House on the Prairie,” which ran from 1974 to 1983. Each week millions of viewers tuned in to NBC to watch her play the role of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the books upon which the TV series was based. However, while the Ingalls family’s 19th century Midwestern lifestyle seemed idyllic, Gilbert’s reality was more Hollywood than wholesome.
In the introduction to her new memoir, “ Back to the Prairie ,” Gilbert’s husband, actor Timothy Busfield, writes that she “was not raised a country girl — she doesn’t have an iota of prairie in her.”
But all that is changing. In the book, Gilbert describes her journey from Los Angeles to upstate New York, where she and Busfield (her second husband, after her divorce from actor Bruce Boxleitner) purchased a dilapidated cottage in dire need of repair. Together, they remodeled the abode from top to bottom, finishing the project just a few months before COVID-19 shut down much of the country.
The book is a funny, heartfelt story about a woman who is learning to embrace all that life throws her way — from divorce, ailments and a pandemic to new love, grandbabies and gray hairs.
“My mom just finished the book,” Gilbert tells Next Avenue. “She said, ‘I always knew you were this nature girl inside, but to see you now living it, it’s like you’ve been completed.’ I think that’s the essence of who I am. It’s always been there.”
Next Avenue recently spoke with Gilbert over the phone about her marriage to Busfield, her home in the Catskills, and the fiscal reality of being an actor.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Next Avenue: Congrats on the new book! How do you feel about it being shared with the world?
Melissa Gilbert: It’s very unnerving. Writing is so personal, especially when it’s a memoir. It’s sort of like sending your child out into the world and hoping they’ll be accepted. There is a little bit of that anticipation of, how’s it going to go? Is anybody going to read this thing? What are they going to take away from it? We’ll see what happens. Now it’s out of my hands.
You write in the book about some of the political subjects you’re passionate about. How are you feeling about all that’s going on in the world right now?
Dismayed and hopeful. I’m angered and incredibly frustrated with the direction things are going, especially with the leak of the of the Supreme Court’s potential decision on the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and what that slippery slope could cause. But at the same time, I see how much more engaged this younger generation is and it gives me hope that things will balance in the end.
You know, the pendulum tends to swing. I would prefer it to swing a little slower. Right now, it seems like it’s rocking back and forth like crazy, so I have whiplash about who we are and what we’re doing. But I do have hope for the future. I would implore people younger than me to not disengage from the process and make sure that the next generation is prepared to take the mantle.
This memoir is an interesting look at the changes one goes through in life. A major change for you was your move to the Catskills and the house that you renovated. Can you describe the state of that house when you bought it and the work you put into it to make it livable?
Tim found this place on Zillow /zigman2/quotes/204413973/composite Z +2.05% , and it looked cute in the pictures and the price was certainly right. We went to take a look at it. From the outside the house looked like it was carrying a lot of weight. Not literally sagging; it seemed like it was sort of sad. When we walked in the front door — I’ve smelled musty places, [but] I’ve never smelled anything like the smell that came from this house. It was overwhelming.
It was full of belongings from the previous owners. There were boxes of cereal in the pantry, shampoo and bars of soap in the shower, and rotting deer heads on the walls. Every corner had something in it. Bottles of holy water everywhere, which I don’t know if I want to understand. Then in tearing it down and moving things around, we found porn, we found hidden bottles of booze — of course, to go with the holy water. Gotta have balance! [ Laughs ]
But through all of that, Tim and I were grinning the whole time because the more we stood in that musty, stinky, crowded place, the more I started to see past all of that stuff, and to see that this place had the potential for being something incredibly special. It was just a seasonal hunting cabin. It didn’t even have heat. That’s all changed. We have a boiler, we have steam heat, we put in a propane tank, we put in all new plumbing. And unbeknownst to us, [we finished] in the nick of time. We were in the house by Christmas of 2019. Who knew?
I think people assume that because you both starred in popular television series, you’re wealthy. It was interesting to read what you shared in the book about the perception versus the reality of the work that you do and how your finances aren’t necessarily as strong as people might think.
We live on a budget like [most] people do. We are gig workers. Neither one of us is on a long-running series right now. I was —50 years ago. I don’t know where people think that money’s gone. And the concept the outside world has of what residuals are is just so far from the reality. I mean, I just got a check for 20 cents. The stamp costs more! I’m not poo-pooing my experience on “Little House on the Prairie,” but that salary is long gone.