Alison Arngrim is best known for her role as Nellie Oleson, Laura Ingalls’ bratty nemesis on the ’70s family pioneer drama Little House on the Prairie. Arngrim’s new book, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, is a poignant—and often hilarious—look back on her teenage years, which she spent portraying one of the most hated characters in television history while also enduring a difficult life at home. (She’s a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and an advocate for victims of childhood incest and sexual assault with PROTECT, now based in Knoxville.) The book also serves as the basis for her stand-up act, which she’s bringing to Knoxville this week.
So many actors who make their names in Hollywood as youngsters, as you did, have tried to distance themselves from the roles that made them famous, but you’ve really embraced it. What does Nellie mean to you?
So many of these young actors are told to be themselves, and it’s very difficult to make that separation, so when people talk about the character, the actress may be so connected to it they think they’re talking about her. I think that’s the problem for some of the Brady folk. First of all, when I had arrived to play Nellie, I had such a costume it was like getting into drag. I had the wig and the petticoats, and I was playing someone who lived 100 years ago. I was playing a bitch, and that’s just not me. And when people make fun of Nellie and talk about her, I just get into hysterics because they believed me. Oh my God, they bought it?! I don’t take it as a personal insult. When people say, “Oh my God, I hate you, I hate you!” it’s the greatest compliment.
What can we expect from your show? How does it coincide with your book?
The funny thing is I had the show before the book. I was doing stand-up for years. It was really in 2002; I was doing my new stand-up show where it became a one-woman show. I have a question-and-answer period where people want to ask about [Little House], they want to ask about me, they want to ask about crazy stuff. So I thought, “What the hell, I’ll let ’em.” They’re hysterical; people ask about the most outrageous things. I must get about 20 cards that ask, “Did you ever have sex with Michael Landon?”
I answer the most popular questions: Were you really a bitch? Was that really your hair? What was Michael Landon really like? Are you and Melissa Gilbert really friends? Where did you film the show? What’s your favorite episode? How much did you get paid? Do you still get residuals? Is Albert gay? And what the f--k was wrong with Baby Carrie? I talk about the amazing things that happened during the show and my life, and I thought, “I should write the longer version.”
Sounds like Melissa Sue Anderson, who played Mary Ingalls, was a bitch. But you also portray her pretty sympathetically. Do you think you two will ever be friends?
It’s really weird because I couldn’t stand her when I was 14, but now I’m so weirdly sympathetic and feel bad. Because it’s hard to be an ex-child star. It was bad enough being Nellie, but if I had to be Mary? Oh, man! I’d probably be miserable, too. When you play someone sickeningly good on TV, how do you live up to that? Nobody’s that nice. When people meet you and compare you—Melissa Gilbert’s gone through it. If people meet her and she’s not Laura Ingalls and she’s not baking them a pie or something, they think she’s being horrible. I, on the other hand, have nowhere to go but up. People meet me and they say, “You’re so nice!” But it’s just by comparison.
Tell me more about your involvement with PROTECT [National Association to Protect Children].
I got involved very early on. They’d changed the law in three states out of the trunk of a car with a couple of people and cell phones. I call them the MacGyvers of child protection. They didn’t sit around and wait until they had an office, they just did it. Now we’ve got nice offices. And David Keith is our biggest fund-raiser and got us those offices, so I go home for Christmas with the family and hang out with the gang from PROTECT. So we conveniently booked my two shows there for Christmas.
We’ve got this new computer donated to the Knoxville Police Department’s own ICAC [Internet Crimes Against Children] team, based on a research project from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. One of the biggest problems is they arrest someone for child porn—they’re pretty sure they’ve been making the stuff— but they have to go through their hard drives, and it takes forever. The monstrous computer basically [makes] something that would take 48 hours [into] just a few minutes. So Knoxville will probably be the most efficient police department for tracking child exploitation in the country.
You have a Knoxville connection!
Yes! That’s the fun part. I’m in Knoxville because my husband Rob Schoonover’s family live in Knoxville, and we go there for Christmas. We love Knoxville. It’s great. When I first went to Knoxville, I thought, “Knoxville, Tennessee?” You know, Hollywood, New York people: “Ugh!” But Knoxville is fun! We found a little wine-and-cheese bar and gourmet shops. And Knoxville is a real, actual city. The nightlife! Clubs and restaurants! Once I’m done with the show on Thursday I’m going to be baking cookies and wrapping presents for the rest of the weekend.