Listen up, “Little House on the Prairie” fans. Because no matter how much you want to forget, the back story of 1984’s “Little House on the Prairie” still looms large. Take Karen Grassle’s. The 72-year-old, who played nanny Mary Ellen Jennings on the show, has a new memoir, “Glitter and Dust,” that’s out now and shows no signs of going away.
In it, she describes the troubled romance and custody battle that kept her off the air for more than a decade, including after her affair with series creator Michael Landon began. There’s also the aftermath of the two “She-Ra” movies she made alongside her former cast mates, and her relationship with author Shannon Hale, who wrote the childhood-centric, girly books that inspired the series, inspiring their “Little House on the Prairie” spinoff.
Thankfully, she’s lost no steam since “Little House on the Prairie” ended its eight-season run in 1991. She recently finished writing a children’s book based on the television show, “The Wizard of the Sanitiest,” and is working on a new one set in the Victorian era. What’s more, it looks like Grassle is staying relevant, even as fans of the show have moved on. She’s slated to perform at this year’s PaleyFest Fall TV Previews as one of the show’s stars, along with Mary Jo Pehl, Caroline Rhea, Roberta Futterman, Sara Rue and Andrea Bowen.
I spoke with Grassle about the new book and what’s next. We discussed how Landon’s death in 1988, the end of the series and the “little lady” role has shaped her view of both the show and herself.
There were a lot of headlines in the early ’90s. It was about the two of you. Why are there so many?
The whole series, everything happened with both Mary Ellen and my husband, Michael. There were all the struggles, the ups and downs, and a lot of devastation that we all went through. I think people picked up on the humor, the spirit. If you knew us at all you understood this felt very close to home. But we did the show, the same thing as we went from series to series.
Do you remember that time with the paternity suit? I was never in it. They weren’t ever on the show. What were those moments like?
It was a horrible time. It was the wakeup call to really set priorities. It wasn’t just about being a “Little House” person. They were all separate, but they were crucial to the public. It took a toll on us all.
How did Michael Landon treat you?
I know he was trying to get in touch. I didn’t know if we could or not. Maybe he was scared of what the world would think, that we would break up. I always think of that and wonder what would have happened if I’d come to him and just been like, “I’m sorry. It’s just not working out.”
So you’ve lived your own life. What do you think Michael did for you?
As Mary Ellen, I don’t think she was born to be somebody’s wife, and I think she was so afraid to be that and got distracted. He was desperately trying to be the husband she needed.
For me, that’s maybe the tragedy of it. I’m sure he did love me and cared for me and was trying to help me find a way through what I was dealing with.
Did you think you’d get out of it?
Well, we did. And some of us stayed together. But I don’t think he ever really gave up. I really think he wanted to be a father, and he wanted to bring me into a family. There were a lot of people who loved him, and he loved them as well.
I’m telling the story of friendship. Mary Ellen was a woman who really knew herself, and she was so smart. She had no patience for what other people were looking for. She wasn’t climbing the stairs for love.
I have a bunch of projects, and lots of children