‘Little House on the Prairie’ Star Karen Grassle Opens Up About Her Father’s Struggle With Alcoholism

by Clayton Edwards

Karen Grassle played the role of Caroline “Ma” Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie. For nine seasons, Grassle stepped into the role of a pioneer matriarch. However, things were much different for Grassle behind the scenes. For one, her relationship with Michael Landon was much less loving than fans would have believed at the time. Early in the show’s run, Landon was cold to her. He made crass jokes at her and other women’s expense and even blocked her from getting a well-deserved raise. Grassle called this an “excuse to drink.”

Before long, Karen Grassle made the transition from social drinker to alcoholic. But, she could have been genetically predisposed to make that jump. Her father was a chronic alcoholic.

She drank on and off the set of Little House. However, her biggest alcohol-fueled blunder came at a feminist conference at which she was speaking. She had “a little too much wine” before taking the stage. In the end, she spent over half an hour trying to get to her point. Her allotted time was only fifteen minutes. Not long after that, a friend confronted her about her drinking problem. Then, the bottle killed her father. For Grassle, that was the last straw.

Recently, Karen Grassle appeared on the podcast Real Life with John Cowan. She was there to talk about her recently-released memoir Bright Lights and Prairie Dust: Reflections on Life, Loss, and Love from Little House’s Ma. During their chat, Grassle opened up about her father’s struggles with alcoholism.

Karen Grassle’s Father Passed His Problem to Her

John Cowan started this portion of the conversation by noting that Karen Grassle speaks fondly of her father in her memoir. Then, he added, “…but he did have a problem and that problem sort of shook down into your life as well.”

Karen Grassle said, “Yes, we were a family that was plagued by alcoholism. My dad was a chronic alcoholic.” However, he didn’t just sit around all day and drink Grassle’s father was a functional alcoholic. He got up every day, worked hard, and took care of his family. But, Grassle recalled, “We never knew when the other shoe was going to drop. That’s very hard on kids, ya know?” That uncertainty also took its toll on her mother.

Karen Grassle noted that her father dealt with more than alcoholism. He also battled depression. He passed both of those battles on to Karen. Then, they talked about the darker side of her father’s issues.

Cowan noted that the combination of depression and alcoholism caused “…fights, and the sadness, and the suicide attempts. He ultimately died with a bottle of vodka and sleeping pills in his hands.”

“That’s right,” Karen Grassle confirmed. “He eventually took his own life. That’s so sad.”

Today, Grassle is sober and in active recovery.