Alison Arngrim is still considered synonymous with her nasty character Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prairie despite the series ending almost 40 years ago. Though Arngrim wanted to stretch her acting wings and take on roles far removed from Walnut Grove, the offers she was getting were all within the “Nellie” genre.
Alison Arngrim tried out for the ‘Laura’ and ‘Mary’ roles
Arngrim was just 12 years old when she landed the part of Nellie Oleson. The Little House alum originally auditioned for the role of Laura Ingalls (which went to Melissa Gilbert), and then her sister Mary (played by Melissa Sue Anderson). Looking back, Arngrim is grateful for being cast as the Walnut Grove bully.
“I would have hated being one of the Ingalls,” Arngrim told the College Crowd Digs Me blog with a laugh. “Not to mention the impact it has had on my life. It wouldn’t have been as much fun to be Laura or Mary, Nellie was way more fun. In the long haul, it would also had been difficult to maintain that goody two-shoes image. Nellie gave me more freedom.
Hired by show creator and star Michael Landon, Arngrim described how her character grew to be such a spirited force of nature.
“When we did the show, and I really took to the character,” she said, “and also Michael Landon and the production crew took to me, Nellie did evolve to become much meaner, more scheming, more campy and outrageous.”
‘Little House’ star couldn’t shake ‘Nellie’ persona
Arngrim admitted that sometimes playing a character in the 1800s was a bit confining, especially when a plethora of popular sitcoms were airing at the same time. Little House was an NBC hit though it fell in a different category than ratings mammoths like Laverne & Shirley and Three’s Company.
“You go through the phase where you want to be the ‘pretty girl’ and want people to love you, and that’s not what I was doing on the show,” Arngrim explained. “And people used to say to me in the 1970s, ‘why can’t you be on a cool show, like Happy Days?’ “
When Arngrim left Little House after season 7, she received a few callbacks for a different overall character. Still, the majority of offers were for either a bully or a prairie girl.
“I admittedly turned down a couple things,” Arngrim said. “I was hoping, well, we’re done with Little House now, so hire me for something else. I was amazed on how many times I was called not only for the b**** roles, but for period 1800-era roles.”
Alison Arngrim embraces her Nellie fame
Despite being unable to break free from her Little House identity, Arngrim is grateful for what the iconic role has brought to her life.
“I honestly can’t say I was ever really ‘bitter’ about Nellie, even with the typecasting,” Arngrim told From the Desk. “I always loved the character and thought it was the most hilarious thing ever that I had been cast as a villain – I was and am still very proud of the work I did as Nellie.”
She added, “Even though, from a professional, financial outlook, being typecast as anything can really suck, I couldn’t help buy take it as a compliment that people so bought into what I was doing that they believed it was real. I think it drove my agents much crazier than it did me.”