‘Little House on the Prairie’: Karen Grassle Was in Desperate Financial Need When She Took Role

by Matthew Wilson
Photo credit: NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Actor Karen Grassle had fallen on hard times before she joined the cast of the classic sitcom “Little House on the Prairie” in 1974. In fact, the actor had been completely broke and struggling in the finances department.

A year of living abroad will do that to you. Grassle had traveled to England where she spent a year traveling, acting, and teaching. But by the time she came back to America, the actor didn’t have hardly a penny to show for her efforts.

“I had spent a year in England, working with a Shakespeare company and teaching, and came back to the States flat broke,” Grassle told Closer Weekly.

Fortunately, Grassle landed a part in an independent movie. Production wanted her to fly to Los Angeles, but they didn’t provide her a ticket. To get to the city, Grassle had to write a check that she knew would bounce and hope to pay it back later.

“I was asked to fly to LA to play the lead in an independent movie. But when I got to the airport, there was no ticket!” she continued. “I’d sublet my apartment and my boyfriend was [with me], so I wrote a bad check to get one. But when I got to LA, the movie fell through.”

In dire straits, Grassle really needed a win to stay financially afloat. Fortunately, her agent contacted her about a role on “Little House on the Prairie.”

Karen Grassle Lands the Role

Grassle auditioned for the part of Caroline Ingalls or Ma. The role was opposite Michael Landon, who was also leading the TV series. Casting directors had gotten anxious because production would start soon. And they still hadn’t cast the role on the show.

Grassle managed to land the role after only one audition. She immediately earned Landon’s seal of approval for the job. The actor said she modeled the character after her own mother. Grassle’s mother had been a teacher and a tough source of character. She used to ride a horse to school barefooted every day.

“I was the only one at the interview — they’d seen everyone in Hollywood who was right for the part!” Grassle said. “They were down to the wire because they cast everyone else. After I read my second scene with Mike, he leapt up like a jack-in-the-box and said, ‘Bring her to wardrobe!’ But NBC had to approve me, so he interviewed me for executives on closed-circuit TV.”

Fortunately, Grassle ended up landing the role, which proved successful for the actor.