Portraying a strong pioneer woman set in the 1870s could not have been easy. Karen Grassle, who portrayed Caroline Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie, was a little-known actor from Berkeley, California — a far stretch from the small town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Acting opposite Bonanza star, Michael Landon, who played Charles Ingalls, must have been daunting. Yet, despite the odds, Grassle made it work becoming loved by children everywhere and fondly known as “Ma.”
The NBC series was based on the Little House series of books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder of her life growing up on the prairie. The TV series ran from the fall of 1974 through the spring of 1982, featuring much of the same cast throughout its nine-year run. Subsequently, Little House: A New Beginning aired for one year following, with a few key characters missing. Here is how the show, and Grassle’s role, came about — and why she left.
The early acting years of Karen Grassle
Following high school, Grassle attended the University of California, Berkeley, graduating with BA degrees in Dramatic Art and English in the mid-1960s. According to the Little House on the Prairie website, upon receiving a Fulbright Grant to study theatre arts, Grassle attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. She made her Broadway debut in 1968, in The Gingham Dog, which opened doors for more stage roles, according to Biography.
More than a decade later when returning from England where she worked with a Shakespeare production company, Grassle was asked to audition for a movie which later fell through. Finding herself in Los Angeles and out of work, her agent suggested she read for the part in a new television series, the mother of a pioneer family set in the late 19th century.
Grassle admitted to not being much of a TV-fan and knew little about Landon, who was starring in the new series, according to Fox News. However, she went to the audition. “They’d seen everyone in Hollywood who was right for the part,” she exclaimed. “They were down to the wire because they cast everyone else. After I read my second scene with Mike, he leaped up like a jack-in-the-box and said, ‘Bring her to wardrobe!’”
Once approved by NBC, Grassle was on her way to becoming one of the most beloved moms on television for a decade.
Single at the time and childless, Grassle found herself an on-screen family complete with husband, Charles (Landon), and three daughters, Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson), Laura (Melissa Gilbert), and Carrie (Rachel Lindsay Greenbush and Sidney Greenbush). Her character, “Ma,” later gave birth on the show to the Ingalls’s fourth daughter, Grace (Brenda Turnbaugh and Wendi Turnbaugh).
At first, Grassle found Landon, who also directed nearly one-half of the show’s episodes, “a very hard worker and he could be quite moody,” she said. Despite finding inequities in her pay, Grassle said she and Landon became good friends.
Grassle based her role on her own mother. From reading the Little House books, she learned that Caroline was “tough and sturdy,” as was her mother. “I took her character, strength, and wisdom and infused Caroline with that,” she shared.
She had an immediate connection with the actors who portrayed her daughters, especially with Gilbert, making her role easier from the onset. “The two Melissas [Gilbert and Anderson] were unbelievably well cast,” she said. “The kids were all really good.”
‘A New Beginning’
Despite its popularity, as the Ingalls family grew up, Little House ratings went down. The Ingalls family members were each moving in their own direction, and Landon decided it was time for him to stop acting in the series. ‘Pa’ and ‘Ma’ moved on and a new name came to the show, Little House: A New Beginning,” with a focus on the younger generation.
Grassle’s part was retired in 1982. Following, Grassle could be seen in guest appearance roles on TV from time to time, but she wanted to get back to the theatre. She helped found a Santa Fe, New Mexico theatre company, and toured in a variety of shows including a 2007 tour of Driving Miss Daisy. Now at 78, Grassle resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and stays involved in local theatre.