Before Lindsay and her gaggle of mean girls, there was Nellie Oleson, Little House on the Prairie‘s golden-haired living terror. Nellie had an upper hand over those other girls, though, because she didn’t need a gaggle to be mean. She could do bitch just fine all by herself.
This week Alison Arngrim, the actress who so convincingly brought Nellie to life, will storm into Philly to perform her world-traveling one-woman show Confessions of a Prairie Bitch at Voyeur. Being a longtime fan of the show, I jumped at a chance to talk to her. We gabbed some back stage secrets (you’ll never believe who was the real bitch on the set), being hit on by Grizzly Adams, and how she came to amass such a gay following (hint: having a bisexual father who worked for Liberace didn’t hurt.)
G Philly: Tell me about Confessions of a Prairie Bitch
Alison Arngrim: It’s sort of an answer to all the questions I’ve been asked. Being an ex-child star, people are fascinated: Are we all crazy? Are we all on drugs? And I’m constantly asked questions about Little House: Why were Michael Landon’s pants so tight? Why didn’t he wear underwear?
GP: You also dish some dirt on some stars of the ’80s? Who do you talk about?
AA: Everybody I know has this great story that they’ve slept with someone famous — Melissa Gilbert got Rob Lowe, etc ... I never slept with anyone famous, because I only got hit on by really horrible celebrities, like Hervé Villechaize. I played a hooker on Fantasy Island, and Hervé Villechaize was like the biggest perv in the world, like a walking sexual harassment lawsuit. Oh, and Dan Haggerty, Grizzly Adams hit on me at a party. The ’80s were not good to me.
GP: Your father was Liberace’s manager, right? Do you have any good stories about him?
AA: He was really sort of awesome, a fabulous person. But it was kind of a trip, because at the time Liberace was absolutely convinced that people didn’t know he was gay. It was hysterical, because my parents would say, “Remember, be on your best behavior. No one must know that Liberace is gay.” I was like, “I’m sorry, but I’m 8 and I know he’s gay.”
GP: Now I have to ask the Little House questions. I read that you wanted to be one of the Ingalls sisters. Was it hard to be cast as nasty Nellie?
AA: I read for the part of Laura and Mary, but I knew I wouldn't get it; I’m so not a country girl. But months later they had auditions again, and that’s when I read for Nellie Oleson. I was reading the pages with my father the night before, and he said, “Oh my God, don’t change a thing. Just go in and read it like that." So I went and read it for them — Michael Landon and the other producers — and they laughed so hard. I was hired on the spot.
GP: So you were made to be Nellie.
AA: Apparently. It’s kind of a terrifying thought, but that’s what happened.
GP: You got to be the brat on screen, but who was the bitch behind the scenes?
AA: Melissa Gilbert and I became really good friends, but the girl who was Mary — the sweet one who goes blind — was so uptight. I think she had crazy stage mother problems. She was so convinced that Melissa and I were beneath her that she lorded over us like she was the head cheerleader.
GP: The guy who played your dad, Richard Bull, passed away in February, right?
AA: He did. He was a wonderful, wonderful person. I always said there’s someone who’s just like his character.
GP: You’ve amassed a pretty big gay following, Why do you think that is?
AA: A couple reasons. One, Nellie was a real ringer to become a gay iconic character: those clothes, that hair, the attitude. I once had someone tell me, “I was too young to be raised on Judy Garland or Bette Davis. When I was a kid it was Nellie Oleson. That was my diva.” Then of course, years later, when [cast mate Steve Tracy] went public with his AIDS diagnosis, I started working with the [Southern California] AIDS Hotline, and doing so much AIDS education and activism for people with HIV. I was able to speak on AIDS and give a lot of information to people who weren’t listening to others, but for some insane reason they’d listen to Nellie Oleson. But other than all that, my father was bisexual. He was married to my mother the whole time, but he was actively gay. To say when did you first encounter the gay community, well, I went to Fire Island as a baby, I was raised in West Hollywood.
GP: I mean, you knew Liberace.
AA: Yea, hi! That’s the thing. My husband once said, “Gay following? Yea, when you learned to walk and your father followed you across the room.” And it’s true. I didn’t know there was some stigma around gay people until I was around 10 or 11 years old, because there had always been gay, and lesbian and, in fact, transgender persons in our household.
GP: Are you still involved in HIV activism?
AA: I am. Now I’m on the board of PROTECT, so I’m doing a lot of legislative stuff for children’s rights, and abuse against kids. But I still do some stuff with some of the smaller AIDS organizations who don’t have the wherewithal to get big names — Lifelong AIDS Alliance in Seattle, and a group in Bakersfield I’m talking to.
GP: Dining Out for Life is the same night as your show. Did you know that?
AA: No, that’s awesome.
GP: Think you'll participate while you're in Philly?
AA: That’s a really good idea. I don’t usually like to drink before a show, but screw it, I’ll get a salad and a drink, whatever. [Laughs]
GP: Any other plans while you’re in Philly?
AA: Honestly, having grown up in the ‘70s, I have to run up those stairs like Rocky. I was a total Rocky freak. I’d probably still bang Sylvester Stallone.