Happy Birthday Shannen Doherty: A Look Back at Jenny Wilder on ‘Little House on the Prairie’

by Suzanne Halliburton

Shannen Doherty, aka Jenny Wilder, is so grown up. The Little House on the Prairie star celebrates another decade Monday. She’s 50 and fabulous.

Some fans know Doherty as Brenda Walsh from Beverly Hills 90210. Others are fans of her work on Heathers. She was Prue on Charmed. And she was Kris on Our House.

Doherty definitely is TV royalty. But the TV world first became acquainted with her as Jenny Wilder, a recurring character on Little House on the Prairie. Michael Landon, who played Charles Ingalls and produced the show, first cast Doherty in Father Murphy, one of his other projects. Then, Doherty found a spot in the Little House cast for the show’s final seasons.

Doherty was 11 when she first started filming the show.

So who did Shannen Doherty play? Who was Jenny Wilder? She was Laura’s niece by marriage. By this time in Little House lore, Laura was grown up and married to Almanzo Wilder. Royal Wilder was Jenny’s dad. He also was Almanzo’s older brother. When he found out he was dying, Royal wanted Almanzo and Laura to raise Jenny, his only daughter.

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE — “The Wild Boy: Part 1” Episode 6 — Aired 11/1/82 — Pictured: (l-r) Dean Butler as Almanzo James Wilder, Jonathan Hall Kovacs as Matthew, Shannen Doherty as Jenny Wilder (Photo by NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Little House Star Laura Gilbert Called Shannen Doherty Her ‘Shadow’

Melissa Gilbert, in her book Praire Tale, wrote:

“Shannen, then 12, was an adorable little girl and very sweet,” she wrote. “In her pigtails and dress, she would literally walk in my footsteps, following me closer than my shadow.

“She wanted to know what makeup I wore, what jewelry I liked, and did I prefer my Jordache jeans or my Calvins?” Gilbert wrote. “She looked up to me even though I was in many ways, still a kid myself. In fact, she used to say she wanted to be just like me when she grew up.” 

Shannen Doherty needed some acting heft to play this young girl on the show. Jenny was so heartbroken over her father’s death that she wanted to die, too. She tries suicide by drowning, thinking that when she dies, she can be in heaven with her dad. But her friend Jeb rescues her. And Jeb didn’t know how to swim.

Also On Show: Crazed Farmer Kidnapped Gilbert, Doherty

There was another consequential episode with Jenny. This time it involved Aunt Laura, who also is her new adopted mother. The two were kidnapped by Thomas Stark, a farmer who’d just been denied a loan. Stark shot his own wife and daughter. As he tried to avoid the police, he found Laura and Jenny. And then he snapped, thinking the two really were his family. Laura and Jenny played along until help arrived. Stark was shot dead.

There was another consequential episode for Jenny/Shannen Doherty. She lost her locket at the bottom of the lake. And as she tried to retrieve it, she got stuck on something. By the time of her rescue, Jenny was unconscious. The doctor told Laura and Almanzo she probably suffered some brain damage because she’d been under the water so long. A retired doctor helps Jenny heal so she can return to a normal life. Shannon Doherty needed to stutter, limp and act as if she really did have brain damage.

After the show ended, Shannen Doherty found real fame in 1990 when she joined the cast of Beverly Hills 90210. But maybe if not for Jenny Wilder she never would have perfected Brenda Walsh.