It's been 26 years since Little House on the Prairie was on television, but Alison Arngrim, the self-described "Prairie bitch" who played Walnut Grove's nasty Nellie Oleson, says she still runs into diehard fans in the most unlikely places - Sri Lanka, Borneo, Bangladesh, even a tiny island off Singapore.
Fans of the show, mind you. Not the puerile Nellie, whom millions of people had grown to hate.
But it was a headline in the National Enquirer a few years back that finally struck home for Arngrim just how big (and global) Michael Landon's tear-jerker family drama really was. The bold print read thus: Saddam Hussein: His Lust for Power. His Sexual Perversion. His Passion for Little House on the Prairie.
"I wasn't sure I believed it," chuckles Arngrim, who says former U.S. president Bill Clinton was also a fan. "But [ The Tonight Show's original host]Steve Allen's wife, Jayne Meadows, who knows everybody, told me, yes, Little House was Hussein's favourite show. To this day, it boggles my mind that people in places like Iraq, Iran and Indonesia are transfixed by a bunch of blond people running around in covered wagons.
"But I guess the Ingalls were in a situation similar to people all over the world - dependent on agriculture, with lots of kids, dirt poor, and being driven crazy by a wealthy family. And hoping some day to have an extra 10 cents to buy something nice for their children."
Arngrim, now 48, started on the hour-long drama when she was 12, making her the eldest child actor of a pack that also included Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls) and Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary Ingalls). In a new book, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, Arngrim dishes many personal tidbits about her co-stars on the show, syndicated in 140 countries, which the late Landon adapted loosely from Laura Ingalls Wilder's semi-autobiographical books.
In a call from her home in Los Angeles, Arngrim discloses, for instance, that Landon never wore underwear (better to show off his tush), a wardrobe choice supported by NBC, which knew the lion's share of Little House's viewers were women aged 40-plus. "Michael was gorgeous, absolutely breathtaking," Arngrim gushes. "All muscles and tanned skin, big white teeth, and a wild mane of shining, curly hair. He was like a male version of a Farrah Fawcett poster."
He also, apparently, was christened Eugene Maurice Orowitz. On set, she adds, the former Bonanza star was a consummate professional who worked like a dog, could drink Wild Turkey from 10:30 in the morning (without slurring a word), peed his bed as a kid, and ruled the set with an iron fist, tolerating no self-destructive behaviour.
"Michael was the mad scientist of episodic TV," says Arngrim, who kicks off her book tour in New York this week. "He grew up in a Mad Men-type environment, with the men constantly drinking and smoking. They thought it was the most normal thing in the world. But he was never intoxicated on set, and was absolutely the most energized person there.
"And he expected his child actors to be professionals. He tolerated no drama. I always like to describe the cast of Little House as 'No arrests. No convictions.' And it was because of the discipline instilled by Michael Landon. You followed the rules or you were fired. It was as simple as that."
Arngrim grew up in a show-business family with Canadian roots. Her father, Thor, hailed from Mozart, Sask., and was a gay theatre actor who eventually opened a talent agency in L.A., representing Liberace at his prime. Her mother, Norma, was a wealthy doctor's daughter from Vancouver, and went on to voice the cartoon characters Gumby and Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Her brother, Stefan, whom she says sexually abused her from age six and introduced her to marijuana, cocaine and LSD, was a teen heartthrob in the sixties, starring in Land of the Giants. He now lives quietly in Vancouver.
Arngrim says the sexual abuse finally stopped when she signed in May, 1974, to play the heartless Nellie, who delighted, week after week, in tormenting her poor country-mouse classmate, Laura. "Given everything that was going on at home, playing a girl who kicked, screamed, ranted and raved was therapy for me. It was the dream role for a girl with demons," says Arngrim, who now spends the bulk of her time touring a stand-up comedy routine, also called Confessions of a Prairie Bitch.
To this day, Arngrim says she gets stopped on the street by people who recognize Nellie, and expect the worst. "Luckily, most people have gotten their act together and realize it was just a TV show. But I still get the strangest looks. Like they're happy to see me, but afraid I'm going to hurt them.
"I tell them I don't bite," she says with a girlish giggle.