‘Little House on the Prairie’: Why Karen Grassle Often Went by Another Name

by Clayton Edwards

Ma Ingalls wasn’t the main character on “Lille House on the Prairie,” but she was important. Some would say that she was the glue that held the family together. Part of the strength of the character came from the writing and directing. At the same time, Karen Grassle brought some serious talent to the role. Before auditioning for Little House, Grassle had impressive credits. She graduated from UC Berkley with degrees in English and Drama. Her first years in acting were spend on the stage. She worked in Shakespearean theater in the United States and England as well as on Broadway. Audiences knew her as Gabriel Tree.

Karen Grassle auditioned for “Little House on the Prairie” using her stage name. Michael Landon loved her for the role almost immediately. He did not, however, love her stage name. He convinced her to use her given name for the series, according to Biography. Though, it’s unclear why he made the push for her to use her given name. It could have been that he wanted her to separate her theater and television careers. On the other hand, it could have been because Gabriel Tree sounds very much like a hippie name. Karen Grassle, on the other hand, fits in well with the names of other cast members. Whatever the reason, she went along with the change.

Karen Grassle Before and After “Little House on the Prairie”

Before she was Ma Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie” Karen Grassle had an impressive career. She had a love for theater early in life. Grassle studied both English and drama at UC Berkley. She then received a grant to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. This prepared her for her future on the stage and screen.

Her first big role was in the Broadway drama “The Gingham Dog.” This play only ran for a few days but it laid the groundwork for her future. She then took a role in “Butterflies are Free,” and performed on Broadway as well as the Historic Elitch Theater in Denver, Colorado. Just before auditioning for “Little House on the Prairie,” she appeared in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Cymbeline,” alongside Christopher Walken.

After leaving “Little House on the Prairie,” Karen Grassle made a few guest appearances on television. However, she mostly focused on stage acting. She returned to Broadway and served as an understudy on “Sweet Sue,” which starred Mary Tyler Moore. Later, she would star in several regional and touring productions. One of which was the 2007 touring production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Driving Miss Daisy.” She also helped to found the Resource Theater Company in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Karen Grassle also took some film roles after “Little House on the Prairie.” She was Mrs. Sutherland in the 1994 western “Wyatt Earp.” Since then, she has held several small roles in both short and feature-length films.

It seems that Karen Grassle left her old stage name behind after her role in “Little House on the Prairie. We may not know why Michael Landon wanted her to change it, but she did and the change stuck. The important thing is that she was the perfect actress for the role of Caroline Ingalls. Like Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” No matter what name she used, Grassle is incredible on screen.