Saturday, November 3, 2018

Interview -- Alison Arngrim (Actress, Author, Comedian)

“Who's going
to do the
~ Nellie Oleson ~

I grew up on “Little House On The Prairie.”  "Little House" was my safe place.  My calm against storms.  I've watched every episode multiple, multiple times.  And still, if I accidentally stumble upon the show when surfing the numbers, I'm quite content to just set my remote down and watch.  I loved all the characters from that show.  All of them.  Yeah, even the snotty and snooty Nellie Oleson.  She was wickedly mean and spoiled to the curd, and I loved her.  Oh, not right away.  Growing up, I despised her like everyone else.  "But just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." (me doing Van Zandt doing Pacino, but whatever.)  Nellie Oleson, as played by Alison Arngrim was just a whole lot of fun to watch.

And think about this a minute.  While the other kids from the show were getting fan letters and gifts, Alison was actually receiving hate mail.  She was only fifteen years old for crying out loud!  Alison Arngrim was really, really good at her job.  And since I never tire from revisiting the many seasons of "Little House" with two nieces sharing a beanbag in front of the tv now, I find myself laughing and nodding in appreciation as they both groan and mildly curse at that mean Nellie Oleson.  It's the cycle of life.

And the connection betwixt the two isn't breaking any time soon.  Not only has Alison totally accepted and embraced those Nellie days, but she's turned them into a best-selling autobiography and a successful one-woman show.  And that kicks some major prairie ass.  Good for her!

Fans of “Little House” will no doubt recognize the familiar Nellie conundrum, “Who'”...(a phrase me and my extended family have long-since adopted and shout whenever opportunity knocks!).  And now, nearly 40 years removed from the show that has become TV chicken soup for so many of us, we're finding that the wonderful Alison Arngrim has been cooking everything up just fine.  Go get you some.

Alison Arngrim Interview -- November 2018

Alison Arngrim

Casey Chambers:  You're always gonna be remembered as that wonderfully mean and spoiled Nellie Oleson from the family TV series, "Little House On The Prairie."  But rather than distance yourself from that character, you've totally embraced her.  Better still, you have created a successful one-woman show based on those TV days.  And it seems to have hit the sweet spot with the fans.  How did this all get started?

Alison Arngrim:  Yes. Yes, it has.  Well, I started doing standup when I was 15 years old and had been doing that for years. But then about 2002, I started doing a one-woman show called "Confessions Of A Prairie Bitch."  All true stories. And along with the added video and photos I share, it just turned into this multimedia extravaganza.

I began doing my show in New York and L.A. and then all around the U.S.  And I had become very popular in France. (laughs)  "Little House On The Prairie" is very big in France.  It's showing in over 140 countries, but it's just huge in France.

I was invited to come do a talk show over there and I met this guy and he said, 'Ya know, we could do your one-woman show in French.  We could do a thing where I introduce you and we'd have to change some of the things.  And then, of course, you would have to speak in French...'  I said, 'But, I don't speak French!' (laughs)

But he writes this whole show, this whole French extravaganza based on my American show, so I had to go back to school and learn French.  And it turned into a hit.  I have performed the show all across the US....and now in Canada and France, Belgium and Switzerland. So it's just bananas.

Casey Chambers:  That's crazy-good.  It's like all the fans who enjoyed despising your conniving ways and cheering for your comeuppance on the tv show...are now wanting to welcome you back from "the dark side." (laughs)

Alison Arngrim:  (laughs) Yeah, yeah, yeah. People really like it.  And the fans of "Little House" and Nellie Oleson are constantly asking me questions.  I talk about all the goings-on while doing "Little House" of course, but I also have a question and answer segment in the show.  Y'know, an "Ask Alison Anything" segment.  And people can fill out little cards and get all their questions answered.  That's one of my favorite parts of the show.

Casey Chambers:  How did you get the part of Nellie Oleson on "Little House On The Prairie?" What do you remember about the audition?

Alison Arngrim:  Well, it was so crazy, because I had not read any of the books. I didn't even know there was a Nellie Oleson.  I was totally clueless.  But after I went on the first audition, they kept calling me back.  I'd actually read for the part of Laura.  And then I read for the part of Mary...which was like the search for the Scarlet O'Hara of eight-year-olds. (laughs)  I kept coming back to these auditions and they finally called me back to read for Nellie Oleson.  I had no idea what they were talking about.  I was sitting there with my dad and I turned to him and said, 'This is not a normal part.'  He said, 'What do you mean?'  I said, 'Well, this girl's a total bitch.'  And my dad was just cracking up.  He told me, 'Don't change a thing.  You go in and you read it like that.  Don't rehearse it anymore.  Don't read it again.'  So I went in...and it was Michael Landon and Kent McCray...and I read it for them.  They went nuts. They started laughing hysterically.

It was a scene from the first episode I did, "Country Girls." And what got them, I believe...there was a school essay I had to read about my house and my home, except that all Nellie talks about is how much everything costs.  'My home is the best home in all of Walnut Grove.'  And it's hilarious. It was that part. And that's what was killing them and they said to do it again. And I asked, 'What part do you want me to change?' And they said, 'Nothing.  Just read the thing about the house again.' (laughs)  And that was it. I was hired on the spot.

And I think it was because...I don't know that all the other 11-year-old kids necessarily got the joke.  Yes, Nellie was bragging and mean, but she was also not as fabulous as she thought she was and was making a fool of herself.  I'm not sure everybody got that and I kind of did.

Nellie's Essay - LHotP / "Country Girls" (1974)

Casey Chambers:  Little things becoming big things.  That's pretty cool.  Who were some of the directors you worked with on the series?

Alison Arngrim:  Well, Michael Landon directed most of the episodes and he was my favorite.  We also had Bill Claxton and he directed some of my favorite episodes.  And I also really liked Victor French.  But I mean Michael...Michael was the best. Michael would let you try stuff.  Whatever you'd want to do.  He'd say, "Try it once."  And then he'd go, 'Yeah, do that.'  But Victor French was marvelous, too.  He played Mr. Edwards on the show.  One of the episodes he directed was..."The Talking Machine"...which was a particularly good episode for me.

Casey Chambers:  Sure, that was the one where Nellie and Laura both go after the science nerd in their class and you stab Laura in the back.

Alison Arngrim:  Yes! Yes!  And I managed to get my hands on an 1800s gramophone and of course, I use it to record Laura and embarrass her.  Typically. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  I'd like to cherrypick a couple of my favorite episodes...the first being, "The Camp Out."  The Ingalls and Olesons go camping together and Nellie, among other things, falls into the river.

Alison Arngrim:  Oh, that's a great one!  Well, that was the Stanislaus River up in northern California, up near Sacramento and we actually went there. We shot everything mostly in L.A. and everything was indoors.  Unless it was in Simi Valley, which is just outside of L.A.  But once in a while, we'd go on location. Like once a year, we'd go up north.  They had a train up near Sonora.  And they had a river.  So we went up there.

They had stunt girls doing some of it, but they wanted close-ups of me and Melissa (Gilbert) in the actual river.  Initially, they were going to have us on a log, and they built a fake log...but it didn't work.  When they tested it out, it rolled over on the two stuntmen and almost killed them.  They almost drowned.  So they said, 'Well, we won't be using that!'  So they started doing this and doing that and said, 'Okay, we're going to do this, We're gonna have a hunk of leaves on like an inflatable...raft thing.'  It was like a life preserver with bushes and stuff all over it.

And Melissa and I still had to go out into the river.  The water is so cold up there, even experienced swimmers will have their chest seize up and won't be able to swim.  So they had to fit us in wetsuits under our 1800s clothes. We were in that river all day and it was actually dangerous.  They had stuntmen there and the crew told us, 'If you lose your footing and lose grip on this thing while you're in the river, we have guys in the bushes to catch you and if you miss them, there's another group of guys.  If you miss them...grab the rope.'  We asked, 'What happens if we miss the rope? They said, 'We pick up your bodies in the next town!'  So it really was physically dangerous.  For the water hitting us in the face, they used a fire hose. (laughs)  They actually had a fire hose spraying water in my face.  They did give us both stuntman patches.

Nellie & Laura and the River - LHotP / "The Camp-Out" (1975)

The hardest part for us though...we were in wetsuits all day and when we said we needed to go to the bathroom, they were like, 'It's too far.'  Because we would have to go all the way back to the dressing room.  That would mean they would have to put us in a car and drive us all the way back to the dressing rooms, get us out of our wet clothes, get us out of our wetsuits, we'd go to the bathroom (laughs) put our wetsuits back on, put our clothes back on and then they'd have to drive us back.  So they said, 'Yeah, you're going to have to wait till lunch.'  And we're like, "Ooo-kay, how long is that?!'   Eventually I'm standing there thinking, 'God, I really need to go.' and I turn around and Melissa Gilbert is looking at me with this grin on her face. And I said, 'Tell me you did not just do what I think you did!' And she said, 'Do it. It'll keep you warm.'  And we peed in our wetsuits! (laughs)  The wardrobe people were not happy with us.  But then you do what you gotta do. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Do they have a special patch for doing that? (laughs)

Alison Arngrim:  Right?! (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Now your parents on the show were played by Richard Bull and Katherine MacGregor. What were they like to work with?

Alison Arngrim:  Incredible people.  Richard Bull just passed away a few years ago.  Richard was voted most like his character.  He really was very much like Mr. Oleson. Very calm and sensible. The voice of reason on the set. Such a kind man. And a brilliant actor. I mean, he had played heavies and villains and things. He was a graduate of the Goodman School in Chicago. A brilliant stage actor and he continued to work very late in life.  Really incredible stuff.

And then Katherine... Katherine MacGregor's in the motion picture home...the retirement home out here in L.A.  And you know, she's very, very, very old, but she's still kicking.  And I mean, she's brilliant.  She's not mean like Mrs. Oleson, but she's crazy like Mrs. Oleson. (laughs)  Very eccentric woman. Unbelievably huge personality.  The two of them together had such chemistry.   They were...they were like another set of parents.  They felt very parental toward me and were always...well, Katherine would boss ya around and give ya advice and Richard was very protective.  And it was fascinating to watch them because clearly, they were highly trained actors and the two of them were also very close friends.  Sometimes when you'd hear them arguing off camera, you'd think it was Nels and Harriet the way they went on.  I mean it was really like having an additional set of parents. It was incredible.

Nels Oleson (Richard Bull) and Harriet Oleson (Katherine MacGregor)

Casey Chambers:  Let's jump to your classic "Bunny" episode.  Your crazy character fakes an injury to get waited on hand and foot, then dances a jig when everyone leaves her room!  You're the devil!  You also get shoved down the hill in a wheelchair.  This is absolute "Nellie" gold.

Alison Arngrim:  Everyone's favorite.  My favorite.  And everywhere I go in the world, people tell me they love that episode.

Casey Chambers:  Did you do some of your own stunts in that one, too?

Alison Arngrim:  I think for part of it.  It was very clever.  I mean nowadays, God, they probably would have CGI'd the whole thing. (laughs)  But back then, with primitive methods...trying to make it look real...they had me in a chair that literally had a steel cable so I could start to go down the hill and it could be stopped.  And then they had a well-trained stunt woman, go down the hill and do that somersault in mid-air.  I do a lot of things, but I don't do major somersaults. (laughs)  She did the somersault into the water and they had me coming up spitting out the water.

But they still needed another shot. They said, 'We want to see you in the chair going down the hill, but it's too dangerous to push you down this hill.'  So they took me, the chair and the whole setup to this other hill that was not quite as steep, but it was loooonger. (laughs)  It was a longer, slower climb. And they put me in the chair and set up the camera on a dolly and said, 'Okay, go!'

Nellie Takes A Ride - LHotP / "Bunny" (1976)

Now, although, yes, it wasn't as steep as that other hill, remember, there is still no safety equipment. There are no brakes on the wheelchair. There is no seat belt. I'm in my nightgown, underwear, and bedroom slippers. There's no safety equipment of any kind.  No padding.  And...I had a real broken arm!

When we shot that episode, it was already in the script that I pretend to be paralyzed...but they wrote in the part about Nellie having a broken arm.  I, like the idiot that I am, went skateboarding shortly before this and managed to fracture my wrist.  So I'm bouncing, around, totally unstrapped in this chair.  It's going down a hill, hitting rocks...and me with a real broken arm.  So it was actually quite terrifying.

Casey Chambers:  You're Batman! (laughs)

Alison Arngrim:  I mean (laughs), yes, it was a slightly less detail, but I was like...guys this actually isn't... this isn't that safe! (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  No shiat!  One more episode, and again my whole family was practically raised on "Little House"...your character who hates to cook and doesn't want to learn how to cook...gets her very own restaurant. And then wedding bells...

Alison Arngrim:  That was the craziest thing.  When we were hanging out in makeup, Michael liked running in and out giving us plotlines.  He would always do this.  He'd be in the middle of writing next week's show sometimes and just come in and start announcing things.

Anyway, he was doing that when he ran into makeup and says, 'You're getting married.'   And then runs out of the room.  And I'm like...what?  Then a little while later he comes back and goes, 'Okay! This is hysterical! Okay, there's this guy, this little short guy, and he's Jewish. He's Jewish and he won't take any crap off anyone and he's great. And he tells Mrs. Oleson where she can stick it! And it's incredible!'  And he keeps running in and out telling us scenes.  Just laughing hysterically and running away.  And I'm like, 'What in the hell is going on?'

Finally, I followed him and he's sitting there in his dressing room with a pencil and a yellow legal pad writing.  And I said, 'You're writing these right now, aren't you?  Don't we film this in like two weeks?'  And he said, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, don't worry, it'll be done.' (laughs)  A typical Michael Landon moment.  He just thought it was the funniest thing.  He talked about it later on "The Tonight Show" how he based it kind of on his parents.

Michael Landon's mother was not very nice to him.  His mom was very tall and blonde and rather imposing and was just kind of mean.  And his dad was short and Jewish and was always being henpecked and harassed by his crazy mother.  And so he came up with this idea.  What if...he'd always wanted his father to finally stand up to her and he never did.  So he wrote this character named Percival.  A short Jewish man who tells Nellie to just stop it.  It was sort of his own personal therapy... creating this whole character.  And it was brilliant.  It was totally he worked out his personal issues.

Casey Chambers:  I never thought of it that way.  And not only does Percival tell Nellie to quit her shit, he also pours a bowl of raws eggs on her head. (laughs)

Alison Arngrim:  Yeah, on "Little House," my character got to do things you just don't normally do on other shows.  Eggs over the head. Falling in rivers. Going down a hill in a little wheelchair.  Just, y'know...who does this? (laughs)  But that was just so Michael.  Let's pour a whole bucket of raw eggs over her head.  And it was hilarious!

Nellie Gets The Eggs scene - LHotP / "He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not" (1980)

When we shot it, it was over two days because we shot the first scene where he pours the eggs over my head at MGM Studios and then the next day we're outside in Simi...where I go running to the Oleson's screaming at Nels and Harriet that Percival poured eggs all over my head.  And I am just covered in egg.

And since we shot that part on a different day, they kept the wig with all the drying egg on it. When it was time to shoot again, they put the dirty wig on my head and put fresh eggshells on it and sat there whipping up egg yolk to recreate the egg running down my face. I mean, it was disgusting.

Casey Chambers:  You came out with a book about your life and times spent on "Little House On The Prairie."  It's a really good read with plenty of funny stories and surprises.  But at the same time, you share some sad and tragic moments, as well.  Fans of the show will fall in love with you.  And the book's become quite a successful page-flip.

Alison Arngrim:  Indeed, thank you. Thank you. Yeah, I wrote this book... "Confessions Of A Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson And Learned To Love Being Hated." It came out in 2010 and later it was released in paperback.  Then I made a deal to have it published in French.  So now it's available in Kindle, hardcover, paperback and in French.  Just this year, I did the audio version, so now people can listen to me reading the book to them in their car if they want.  And it's been quite the hit.  Y'know, with celebrity memoirs, usually, it's like a three-month thing.  The book comes out, for three months it's the hot thing and then they move on to someone else's book.  But I go on Amazon and people are still leaving reviews saying they got this book as a gift last week.  People are reading it now and are just getting so much out of it.  So I'm really pleased.

Casey Chambers:  Making the New York Times Bestseller list ain't too shab either.

Alison Arngrim:  Oh, yes it did for three weeks.  Three weeks!

Casey Chambers:  Well a big congrats on that!  Before we sign off, would you mind sharing a little bit of the music you particularly dig?

Alison Arngrim:  I'm definitely a classic rock type person. I'm 56 years old.  So I grew up on David Bowie and Rod Stewart. The Rolling Stones and all that. And the glam rock era.  And then as a teenager, I very much liked punk.  I was into the Sex Pistols and The Clash.  I went to see The Clash and The Jam and Sham 69 and Wreckless Eric and all the Stiff Records people and all the British bands.

"Sonic Reducer" - Dead Boys / Live at CBGBs

And I was also very much into Elvis Costello and all of the new wave and punk stuff.  I really enjoyed that stuff. And, oh God, The Dead Boys and The Zippers and The Plugs and all the L.A. punk bands of the seventies.

Casey Chambers:  I think I just heard a bunch of new fans drop their pizza slice and start lining up to learn a bit more about our Alison.

Alison Arngrim:  I did all that stuff, but I'm very much a kid of the classic rock era.  My husband, Bob Schoonover, plays guitar in a band called Catahoula.  I always thought if Fleetwood Mac and Heart went to Mardi Gras together, this is what they would sound like.  But yes, I actually married a guy who's a guitar player in a band and it's kind of amazing.  They're playing clubs in L.A.  All original songs.  Plus they have a monthly gig at the Viva Cantina in Burbank where lots of blues and rock is played.

Casey Chambers:  All right!  I'll be sure to add a link for readers to check out.

Alison Arngrim:   Oh, well thank you.  Now here's a quick story.  My husband actually grew up in the same the same time as the guys from Devo.  He was dating a girl who was hanging out in Mark Mothersbaugh's basement, so he saw them when they were playing and working on the early stuff.  But the funniest part was...his mom was friends with Mark Mothersbaugh's mom.  This is when they were teenagers. And Bob's mother used to nag him and say, 'Why don't you play your guitar in church like that nice Mothersbaugh boy?'  Because Mrs. Mothersbaugh was always bragging about how her son would play for the church.  And so years later when Devo had their album out, Bob brought an album to his mother, said, 'This is the nice boy from church you were going on about.' (laughs) So hilarious.  But yeah, I'm very much a kid of the rock.

Casey Chambers:  That's very cool.  Small world, big place.  Alison, thanks for hanging with me this morning.  "Little House" has always been 'cinnamon chicken' for my whole family and it's been a pleasure.  Much appreciated.

Alison Arngrim:  Alright. Thank you. Thank you very much.

"Alison" - Elvis Costello / Woodstock '99

Official Alison Arngrim Website
Official Catahoula Website

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers


Anonymous said...

What an enlightening interview! How interesting to hear from Alison as she gives a little behind the scene info. Enjoyed reading about her life after her Little House days. Nice!

Anonymous said...

"Little House On The Prairie" is one of my favorite shows. And the use of "Alison" by Elvis Costello at the end is real sweet. Enjoyed it!

Anonymous said...

Little House On the Prairie is one of my go to shows. Seen every episode more times than I have fingers and toes and still watch it with my family. I so enjoyed your interview with Alison Arngrim. Behind the scenes stories are so fun and since I am so familiar with all of these episodes, I knew exactly what she's talking about. Getting to read things like this make me glad that I have internet. Thank you for the interview and thank you Alison for all of the entertainment. God bless.