‘Little House on the Prairie’: Mary Ingalls Went Blind Due to Melissa Sue Anderson’s Off-Set Behavior

by Suzanne Halliburton
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“Little House on the Prairie” books always had Mary Ingalls going blind. But was the TV show willing to change family history?

The oldest Ingalls daughter got scarlet fever and lost her sight. In the book “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” Caroline Ingalls, the mother, along with daughters Mary, Carrie and Grace, all had scarlet fever. The Little House on the Prairie books always said the fever settled in Mary’s eyes, leaving her blind at age 14.

In the TV adaptation, Mary Ingalls also went blind at 14. Scarlet fever was diagnosed. However, about a decade ago, a group of scientists studied the Mary Ingalls case.

They looked at newspaper accounts, studied medical data and read “Pioneer Girl,” an unpublished book from Laura Ingalls Wilder. They determined Mary Ingalls likely had viral meningoencephalitis, an inflammatory disease that attacks the brain.

So whatever caused the blindness, it’s a fact Mary Ingalls couldn’t see. Yet, one actress from the Little House on the Prairie show said Michael Landon originally wanted Mary to have her sight throughout the series.

Was Melissa Sue Anderson Too Mean on Little House on the Prairie?

The actress who played Nellie Oleson, let’s call her the Mean Girl on the Prairie, said it was Melissa Sue Anderson’s fault she went blind. OK, what’s that about? Iciness on the “Little House on the Prairie” set.

Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie, wrote the memoir “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch” about her time on the show. She wrote that Melissa Sue Anderson didn’t like her in real life. She didn’t like anybody.

“Her hair was not mixed dishwater blond like mine,” Arngrim wrote. “It was perfect, shining, yellow-white blond, like a Breck commercial. She was spectacular.”

Arngrim continued: “‘Oh crap,’ I thought. Girls like this always hated me. As if on cue, Melissa Sue Anderson turned to look at me, her huge, round blue eyes narrowing to slits.”

Melissa Gilbert, who starred as Laura Ingalls, also wrote she didn’t get along with her co-star who played her big sister, Mary. Gilbert wrote of Anderson: “There was a distance to her, a coldness, though sometimes I wonder if it was just that I never knew how to get her to let me in. She wasn’t easy to get along with. I think her reserve came across on-screen and was certainly apparent off-screen.”

Arngrim said that Anderson refused to share a kiss with her on-screen boyfriend played by Radames Pera. He portrayed John Sanderson Edwards. Arngrim said Anderson hated Pera. However, her character was supposed to marry him. Melissa Sue Anderson refused to fake it. So Michael Landon changed plans. He decided to stick with Ingalls’ family history.

So Mary went blind on the TV version of Little House on the Prairie.

“Michael had to go back to the old plot line and make her blind,” Arngrim wrote. “The logical consequences of one’s actions or spiritual karma? You decide.”

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