Little House on the Prairie was a series which marked an important period of Hollywood history. A huge number of people were in anticipation to see each new episode which portrayed the life of the Ingalls family. The series was an adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s best-selling series of Little House books and explored many different themes including frequently portrayed ones of adoption, alcoholism, faith, poverty, blindness, and prejudice.
Michael Landon, who directed the plot and a large number of the episodes, played the role of Charles Ingalls. He was the heart and soul of Little House, and together with the rest of the actors, they made the perfect crew. Honestly, we can never imagine other actors portraying the roles of Laura Ingalls, Caroline Ingalls, and Mary Ingalls, among the rest, other than Melissa Gilbert, Karen Grassle, and Melissa Sue Anderson.
Karen Grassle played Caroline Ingalls, who is until this day remembered as one of the best mother roles there are.
How Grassle got the role is story of serendipity. She was about to travel to LA and act in an independent movie, but there were no airplane tickets available when she went to the airport. “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,” Grassle recalled. Her agent then called her with a proposition to audition for another project, Little House on the Prairie, along Michael Landon. As she wasn’t a huge TV watcher, she knew Landon as “that guy from Bonanza.“
“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,” the actress said.
Filming the series, which became a huge hit, was fun and fulfilling for Grassle. She formed a strong bond with the rest of the crew, especially the actors who played her children. She got along with Landon as well until a point when the two had an argument over Grassle’s request to receive bigger paycheck. The two stopped talking to each other, but later in life, shortly before Landon’s passing, the two started talking and became close again.
“I didn’t speak up publicly at the time,” she said. “Unless the fact that I continued to negotiate meant that Mike might have said things about me that could have been detrimental,” she explained in the past.
Once the series was over, Grassle moved on to other significant projects. She became the co-founder and artistic director of Santa Fe’s Resource Theater Company. “Being in TV in Los Angeles made it hard to have a family life, while Santa Fe allowed time to study, live, work and play,” she told The Santa Fe Reporter.
“It’s very tough here professionally,” she said about running her theater company in 1992. “Part of what I’ve been dedicated to is to raise the standard of theatrical experiences for the local actor, to put them on a more professional basis. A lot of them were working for zero dollars.”
Grassle was married three times and is a mother of two adopted children, as well as a stepmother of her second husband’s three children. She married her first husband Leon Russom in 1966 but the two divorced three years later.
In 1982, she tied the knot with James Radford with whom she adopted two children, daughter Lily and son Zach. She also had a great relationship with Radford’s biological children from his previous marriage.
Speaking of the decision not to have biological children, Grassle said it had to do with the tragedies her mother suffered before having her. “I finally decided that maybe a baby is never going to happen to me,” Grassle said. “My mother lost five before she had me. She had about given up when I was born. When I married Allen, I kept thinking, pretty soon, we’d have a baby together. We couldn’t get on a list for adoption because we’re too old.”
Luckily, they were able to adopt Lily when she was born. Grassle was present during Lily’s birth and she even got to cut the umbilical cord.
“We wanted to have a child, and we’d been having some difficulties. We were on the verge of beginning fertility treatment and started contacting people we knew about adoption,” she said about how Zach came into their family.
“A friend said, ‘You have to call this woman.’ She referred me to her [adoption] attorney [who knew of] a young woman looking for a couple to adopt her child. It really felt like destiny.”
Grassle married her third husband, Dr. Scott Stutherland in 1991 and divorced him six years later. Today, the 80-year-old actress is single and she loves it.