Little House on The Prairie actor Jonathan Gilbert, who played Willie Oleson, turns 54 today. Little House on the Prairie was Gilbert’s only acting gig. He’s also the brother of Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls Wilder. He left the acting scene to pursue an MBA in finance and now works as a stockbroker in New York.
Acting Runs in the Family
While Jonathan Gilbert decided not to act, he was one of the only members of his family to do so. Jonathan and Melissa Gilbert were adopted by famous parents Paul Gilbert and Barbara Crane. While Little House on the Prairie was in its earlier seasons, their parents divorced.
Both kids had a tough time off set. Melissa Gilbert admitted in her book Prairie Tale, that she felt very controlled by her mother, who would dictate everything in their life. Later on, their stepfather would suffer a brain hemorrhage.
Tragically, Jonathan and Melissa’s father, Paul Gilbert, passed away in 1976. The two children were lied to about his cause of death. While Paul Gilbert died from suicide, the two were told it was a stroke.
Both siblings took different career paths once they got to make decisions for themselves. For Jonathan, that meant leaving the business, and a lot of the family, behind. Melissa Gilbert has said they haven’t had contact since their late teens, and she doesn’t quite understand why.
Melissa Gilbert has since acted in multiple films. In 2016, she made a run for congress as a Democrat in Michigan’s 8th congressional district but had to drop from the race after facing a spinal injury.
‘Little House on The Prairie’s TV Legacy
Little House on the Prairie aired on NBC in September 1974 and lasted until 1983. Jonathan Gilbert appeared in all 9 seasons and two post-series films. The wildly popular drama was based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series.
The show, produced by Michael Landon (who also starred as Charles Ingalls), was unafraid to tackle heavy subjects. Little House on The Prairie had plotlines and episodes that tackled addiction to substances, disabilities, cancer, racism, child abuse, and assault. Landon wrote and directed a large amount of the episodes.
In particular, an episode about one of the children, Mary, going blind was widely praised. In 1997, TV Guide put the two-part episode where Mary went blind in their list of 100 Greatest Episodes of all time.
Despite this, Little House on The Prairie had enough lighthearted and wholesome moments to not make the show too depressing. Thankfully, most of the cast, who were children at the time, have described working on set as a very positive experience. This is particularly true for Melissa Gilbert and is hopefully true for Jonathan as well.
In her book, Gilbert describes the time she and Jonathan worked on Little House on the Prairie as a “fantasy” with some of the best moments in her childhood.
“There were people I could talk to and count on, and horses and cows and other animals I could play within an idyllic outdoor setting.” Gilbert said, “In real life, I struggled with the mythology of my existence — the story of my birth grew from the fairy dust my mother sprinkled on the truth, whatever that was.”
Jonathan Gilbert did a fantastic job playing Wille Oleson, now the 54-year-old has pursued his own unique path.