|In her one-woman show, Alison Arngrim recalls playing Nellie Oleson. (Spin Cycle)|
She has learned to love being hated
Ex-child star returns to ‘Little House’
For 30 years, actress Alison Arngrim has carried the reputation of the nasty Nellie Oleson around with her, and she’s learned to love it. The phenomenal success of TV’s “Little House on the Prairie,’’ which still runs on various cable stations in over 140 countries, has made Nellie, and by association Arngrim, an international cause célèbre. “I’m hated all over the world,’’ Arngrim says in amazement. “Damn, I must be good.’’ For seven seasons, from age 11 to 18, Arngrim played the resentful and arrogant neighbor of the Ingalls family in the series set in Minnesota in the 1870s and based on the children’s books of the same name.
Part promotional book tour, part stand-up comedy routine, Arngrim’s one-woman stage version of her memoir, “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated,’’ allows her the opportunity to present herself as a remarkably well-adjusted former child star and a quick-witted comedian. Unlike fellow “Little House’’ stars Melissa Gilbert, whose book recounts her numerous sexual escapades, and Melissa Sue Anderson, whose memoir reinforces Arngrim’s opinion that she was the true villain of the show; Arngrim dishes the family drama with gentle affection, particularly for producer, director, writer, and star Michael Landon.
“Michael ran the set like a battleship,’’ Arngrim says. “He knew what he was doing. He’s the only guy who could have pulled off having a dirt-poor Minnesota farmer wear a $400 Beverly Hills haircut.’’ And when Landon’s Pa was injured in the ribs, it allowed him to take off his shirt and show off his buff body.
Arngrim’s ability to roll with the punches can be attributed, she says, to her upbringing. Her parents were Thor Arngrim, who managed Liberace’s career, and Norma Macmillan, who provided the voices of animated characters Casper the Friendly Ghost, Gumby, and Davey of the “Davey and Goliath’’ TV series. Growing up in West Hollywood, which Arngrim calls “Gayland,’’ with a “mom who’s a talking green ball of clay and a dad who’s running around with Liberace gives you a different perspective from most kids growing up in the ’60s,’’ Arngrim says.
The first half of her performance includes video clips from some of her favorite “Little House’’ moments, an embarrassing appearance on “Fantasy Island,’’ and an appearance on a TV show in France, where she’s considered a hero. Interspersed throughout the beginning are references to ’80s pop culture and showbiz icons, including Carol Channing and Eartha Kitt. For the second half, Arngrim answers questions submitted by the audience. Although she rattles off the 10 questions most often asked about “Little House,’’ and later gives her 10 stock answers, she is hilariously candid and outrageously funny with her fast, off-the-cuff responses.
A longtime AIDS activist and ardent supporter of the National Association to Protect Children, Arngrim presents herself as a woman who experienced both the problems and privileges that go along with early stardom, and unlike many of her contemporaries, has come to terms with it in a way that’s both healthy and entertaining.
“I got to go to work every day and break things,’’ Arngrim says of her tantrum-throwing character. “Any idiot can be liked. It takes talent to scare people.’’
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.