‘Little House On the Prairie’: How Playing Series’ Biggest Villain Nearly Ended One Star’s Career

by Taylor Cunningham

One actor’s choice to star as the final villain in Little House on the Prairie nearly cost him his career. And it was all because he played the part so remarkably well.

The iconic villain starred in the franchise’s third and final movie, The Last Farewell. His name was Nathan Lassiter, played by James Karen. The story saw Lassiter buy all of the land in Walnut Grove, and when the citizens tried to fight his purchase, they lost. Unwilling to let the conniving businessman destroy their wholesome town, they decided to destroy it themselves. In the end, they blew up Walnut Grove, and all hopes of another Little House on the Prairie revival were lost.

The conclusion of the long-running classic TV series hit fans hard. And apparently, they directed all of their anger at James Karen. But he didn’t realize that until it began to affect his ongoing dream job with Pathmark Supermarkets.

While Karen had roles in hundreds of series and movies throughout his career, his gig with Pathmark was by far his favorite. Karen became the chain’s spokesperson around 1970 and stuck with the company for decades.

‘Little House on the Prairie’ Fans Wanted Justice

In most of his projects, Karen played nefarious foes. But for the supermarket, he stood as Mr. Pathmark, a kind man who was always looking to help his fellow shoppers find a deal. But once his Little House on the Prairie film debuted, people couldn’t forgive him. So they began flooding his bosses with letters demanding that they fire him.

“I always liked the man you have in your commercials,” one person wrote. “But after what he did to the little town of Walnut Grove, I couldn’t believe it. I don’t see how I can continue to shop at Pathmark after what your spokesman did to those innocent people. I guess I’ll have to go back to Shoprite, even though I like your stores better.”

In an archived interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Karen admitted that the letters made him panic. He considered his Pathmark gig to be “the best job an actor” could have. But his place in the series was affecting his entire life. And he didn’t know if his bosses could stand to keep him.

“We’ve never used my name on the air but my recognition factor in those states is incredible,” he said. “…The day after they blew up Walnut Grove I was in New York. Truck drivers yelled at me. A cop said, ‘Don’t expect me to stop traffic for you,’ and a cab driver said he wouldn’t pick me up.”

Luckily, Karen was able to salvage his good name. Instead of ignoring the issues, he began personally responding to the writers. And the people were so impressed that they forgave him for his onscreen sins.

James Karen managed to keep his job for another few years. But he learned a solid lesson from the experience.

“I guess I can’t go around destroying towns like Walnut Grove,” he said. “It’s a bad idea.”