Monday, August 29, 2011

Nellie Oleson: Prairie Bitch with a Mission

Jon Provost, like Ron Howard, grew up on television. As the human star of the Lassie series from age 7 to 14, the tow-headed youngster entered the fabric of American daily life. He explained to me a few years back, “When you’re in somebody’s living room, you become part of their family, and when they meet you they subconsciously think they know you.”

To have an intimate connection with the American public can be both a blessing and a curse. Provost understood how his TV persona could help people in need: “I’ve had over the years many fans say that they were growing up in an abusive household or something like that, and they would use Lassie as a means of escape, to help them get through some hard times.” Provost also learned, though, that being reared on a TV show can present interesting challenges, and that stardom at an early age can lead to unrealistic expectations.

Two recent show biz memoirs vividly cover this terrain. Both were written by women who, as girls, were regular fixtures on family-friendly TV series. Lessons from the Mountain: What I Learned from Erin Walton (Kensington Books) is Mary McDonough’s account of the years she spent playing the middle daughter on The Waltons. Alison Arngrim’s Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated is the rollicking saga of Arngrim’s years as the resident Mean Girl who tormented Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie. Arngrim’s memoir, a hit in hardcover, is newly out in paperback from HarperCollins.

McDonough, a shy and obedient child, clearly had a lovely time on Walton’s Mountain. Her challenge came later, when she needed to move on. Her poor body-image, combined with a yen to make her way into grown-up roles, led her to opt for breast implant surgery, with disastrous medical consequences. Her book traces her evolution from a victim into an activist, whose outspoken concern with women’s health issues even took her into the halls of Congress.

Arngrim, who weathered years of being reviled by the public as nasty Nellie, offers a more colorful tale, full of fascinating contradictions. Her series was child-friendly in the extreme, but on the set the adult world intruded (alcohol consumption was rife; bare-chested crew members ogled her developing body; star Michael Landon—whose roguish charm she adored—favored tight jeans and no underwear). And the difference between the uncomplicated world of Little House on the Prairie and her own tangled homelife (involving a gay father, an oblivious mother, and a drug-addled, abusive brother) was even more dramatic.

Arngrim learned to use her notoriety to shine a light on the sexual abuse of children. She has gotten involved in fighting AIDS too, and the end of her book is a detailed list of resources for those in need. Though her memoir pulls no punches, her ability to be gossipy and funny (she’s become a popular stand-up) made me sorry to see it end.

Years ago I spent the evening with two doting parents whose adorable six-year-old had just landed the lead in an ultraviolent supernatural thriller. The parents, deeply religious, were convinced that this film role was a heaven-sent mission, enabling their daughter to serve as a force of good for all mankind. I was skeptical then, and still am—but it’s also clear that a young actor who’s spent half a lifetime in our nation’s homes and hearts can use her fame to make the world a (slightly) better place.


  1. I was never a fan of THE WALTONS, but did love LITTLE HOUSE as a kid. My mom watched it incessantly and we would often talk about it at school, believe it or not. Nellie was a huge draw for us kids at the time wondering what she was going to do next and how she was going to pay for her mischievous deeds by episodes end.

    I identify with this post quite a bit. I, too, came from an abusive home and wasn't allowed to have friends over (only on a rare occasion) so television was my major escape and seeing all those great old shows helped in some odd way in shaping me into who I am today. I'll definitely look out for the Nellie book!

  2. Many thanks for this comment, Brian. It's instructive how often I've talked to people who've survived a tough childhood by turning TV characters into their best friends. No wonder you know so much about TV and movies! By the way, I passed your comment on to someone with a close personal and professional relationship to Alison Arngrim, and he really appreciated what you had to say.

  3. Cool, thanks a lot, Beverly! Those good times back then may be why I pine for them now and reflect on that period so much today.

  4. I had the same experience as Venom in my home - little Waltons, but quite a bit of Little House - and the show was so much enlivened by Nellie and her mom - I just added Ms. Arngrim's book to my Amazon Wish List - can't wait to get it! Thanks for the pointer to it!

  5. Great! Wish I got kickbacks on sales.