Many grew up watching Alison Angrim heckle the children of Walnut Grove during her reign of terror as Nellie Oleson on the long running hit television show Little House on the Prairie, which will celebrate it’s 40th anniversary in 2014.
In addition to her seven years on Little House, Arngrim guest-starred on The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, the NBC movie of the week, I Married Wyatt Earp, as well as a number of stage performances including a successful stand-up comedy career.
Since the mid 1980s, Arngrim has devoted much of her time to AIDS awareness. One of her inspirations for her charity work is the memory of her friend and fellow actor Steve Tracy, who played the role of Nellie Oleson’s husband, Percival Dalton, on Little House on the Prairie. Openly gay, Tracy died from complications from AIDS in 1986.
In 2010, Alison turned her one-woman comedy show, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated, into New York Times Best Seller. The witty, poignant and sometimes hilarious tale details the childhood sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her brother and relates how she was hated by Little House fans on the screen and off.
The author, actress, and advocate spoke with Watermark before her stint at Parliament House’s Footlight Theater, May 11 and 12 to discuss life on the prairie, life as an author, and her return to Orlando for the first time since 1974.
WATERMARK: Can you tell me about the show and what fans can expect?
ALISON ARNGRIM: Confessions of Prairie Bitch is a one-woman extravaganza! There will be a question and answer segment. The audience is given cards at the beginning of the show that say “Ask Alison Anything.” And I’m serious. It’s one of my favorite parts of the show because I do answer them live and have no idea what anybody is going to ask.
I have insane stories from my life with photos and videos to back it up. I talk about what it’s been like to have people call me a “bitch” to my face every day since I was 11 years old. It’s a very strange way to grow up. [Laughs] Having all these people afraid of me when that’s so not “me.” I had to adjust to the idea that, if that’s how I’m going to be treated, I can work with this.
I talk about growing up in Hollywood and my gay dad, my mother being the voice of Casper, the Friendly Ghost and the mother on Davey and Goliath, Liberace, all the icons I had growing up; people like Eartha Kitt and Carol Channing, who’s a friend of mine. She’s fabulous.
I saw that you were just in France for your tour. Do you have a big following in Europe?
It’s crazy. Little House on the Prairie shows in 140 countries. In some places, they’re just obsessed with it. I need to go to Argentina apparently. They’re completely out of control for it. The French love it, and the Japanese as well. I go to France twice a year and do two different shows.
Will this be your first time in Florida?
This will be the premiere of Confessions of a Prairie Bitch in Florida. But sometime in the late 80s, I did stand-up at an AIDS benefit there. I actually filmed my first movie, Throw Out the Anchor in Orlando. [Laughs] God, it was awful. I was 10 years old and we got to go Disney World when it first opened. So, this will, in effect, be my triumphant return, 40 freaking years later! [Laughs]
Have you performed in a gay bar before?
That’s usually where I wind up. [Laughs] That’s true even with my following in France. Little House on the Prairie is one of those shows that truly unites everybody. Everybody likes it – old ladies, kids, born again Christians, drag queens. You have people who unplug their tv because they feel like it’s become too immoral and awful and they’ll only watch their Little House DVDs.
There are people who are dressing up as “Nellie Oleson” and doing vodka Jello shotsÂ to the show. There are shows that people are very sentimental about and they’d never make fun of and then there are others that people mock and then they send them up and laugh at them. I’ve never seen anything like it; where the feelings are so strong in both directions.
People will make fun of Little House – like the fact that Michael Landon never wore underwear or how “Nellie” was such a bitch or how Barry was such a snitch always ratting on Laura. It’s crazy; people will pick on it but then they’ll put on a certain episode and they’ll start sobbing, “Aw, I miss Michael Landon; I wish he was my pa.”
You’ve been acting since you were a child and surely worked with a lot of LGBT people, including your on-screen husband. Is it safe to say you have a close relationship with LGBT community?
Oh, gosh, yes! I was raised in West Hollywood. My father was bi-sexual and working for Liberace as his manager through the 60s and 70s. I was completely raised in “Gay Land.” [Laughs] I got involved with AIDS activism in the late 80s after Steve Tracy, my on-screen husband “Percival” got sick. He was very public about it at a time when people were not. I tried to do stuff to help other people, like working on the California AIDS Hotline. That was actually how I met my husband Bob, who was running the Hotline.
Since the early 2000s, I’ve been on the board for PROTECT, lobbying and changing lives to protect children from abuse.
In addition to being an actress, writer, and advocate, you have a career as a standup comic. You touch on it in the book, but in a bit more detail, when and why did you start performing?
I started doing stand-up when I was 15 in L.A. My father was a manager for a number of stand-up comics at the time. I would hang out at the club and heckle the comics and one night I was dared to try it. And it just seemed to work and really suited my personality. In 2002, instead of doing my regular act, I started telling true stories from my life. Boy, it really took off! That’s how my whole one-woman show Confessions of A Prairie Bitch started.
Do you have a charity foundation you are especially passionate about?
AIDS Project Los Angeles, where I started but I try to work with a lot of the smaller organizations around the country who can’t afford to get Madonna to perform to help raise money. [Laughs] The folks up in Seattle are really cool, Lifelong AIDS Alliance. I did their AIDS Walk a few years back.
In your book you talk about the abuse you suffered as aÂ child. Has your celebrity helped your role as an advocate?
Rightly or wrongly, people listen to what celebs have to say. The media will let them on the TV and blabber about things. Like George Clooney when he spoke about the Sudan Relief and Elizabeth Taylor and her work with AIDS, celebrities are really able to throw attention toward causes. The problem is, sometimes you have to give the celebrity spokesperson cue cards so they don’t screw it up. [Laughs]
I think if someone with the following of – good lord – say Paris Hilton, would use her celebrity, think of the things she could do. Tell people to recycle or save a tree. [Laughs] I’m shocked that a lot don’t do more with their celebrity. There are thousands of people in Hollywood making movies and on television shows and you just never know who’s going to catch on and become these icons.
When I started on Little House, I could never have predicted the longevity of the series – none of us would have. I didn’t think I’d be getting mobbed in Paris, getting fan mail from China and Ecuador. I never thought “Nellie Oleson” would have struck such a nerve where I’d see people dressing up as her in bars. So, I think when you get struck by lightning, you should say something worthwhile.
Like when Steve [Tracy] got sick, my phone rang off the hook with stupid questions like, “Do you have AIDS? You kissed him on the show.” I could’ve hidden but I was like, “Hey, I’ve got this opportunity.” The media was literally shoving microphones in my face and saying “We’re going to run what you say.” I was like, “They’re letting me talk, I should say something useful.”
I used the opportunity to help people who were sick or depressed. I’m just amazed more famous people don’t.
Being in the business for so long, what advice would you offer to your younger colleagues?
A lot of kids want to get into the business, even more so now than when I was a kid. There’s a lot of young people who see shows like The Voice or American Idol and think, “If I sing in the shower, I can go on this show and get a career.” Then, there are the reality stars. That’s not how it works; you become famous for doing something. This famous for being famous thing, it’s not really good for people.
There was a report that came out of England that reported that the suicide rate of those involved in reality shows is really high. So, my advice is to stay the hell away from reality TV – that shit isn’t good for you. It’s the crack cocaine of television. If you’re on a show as a kid, save your money. Make sure your parents aren’t stealing from you. Keep your pants on. [Laughs]
In summary: no drugs, save your money, keeps the pants on and say “no” to reality TV. That’s my advice.
Everything and anything. After touring with this show, I’ll be working on a second book. There’s a fabulous web series called Child of the 70’s, which I’m going to be doing. I also just did a pilot called Living the Dream.Â It’s about a young man who wants to be an actor. I play his very sweet but totally overbearing, out-of-control mother.
WHAT: Wanzie Presents…Confessions of a Prairie Bitch
WHERE: The Footlight Theater
WHEN: May 11, 7:30 p.m., May 12, 3 p.m.