Michael Landon was married to Lynn Noe when he launched the NBC hit Little House on the Prairie in 1974. Serving as the show’s executive producer and starring as patriarch Charles Ingalls, he cast Karen Grassle to play his wife Caroline. Grassle recalled a distinct shift on the set when Landon became enamored with the new stand-in for co-star Melissa Sue Anderson.
Michael Landon and Cindy Clerico had a noticeable attraction
Anderson, who Grassle often referred to by her nickname Missy, portrayed oldest daughter Mary on Little House. Cindy Clerico was hired as Anderson’s stand-in for many of her scenes when she was a teenager. Clerico was just a teen herself at the time and made an immediate impression on Landon.
“Missy had grown taller, and a new stand-in who could relate to a young teenager had been found,” Grassle wrote in her book, “Bright Lights, Prairie Dust“. “Cindy Clerico was a nice young woman, 18, and her tiny slim body looked great in the tight jeans that had been made popular by Charlie’s Angels. She wore cute, colorful tops… Mike began to arrive jubilant at the makeup table.”
Landon, who was more than 20 years older than Clerico, was married to Lynn when he began his flirtation with the newest cast member. Grassle noticed the how the relationship started to evolve.
“At first, they were just standing and talking a little longer than he talked to anybody else,” Grassle recalled. “Then she loaned him ‘My Mother, My Self’, Nancy Friday’s probing book exploring her relationship with her mother – fitting since, as his work so often revealed, Mike had been wounded by his mother.”
‘Little House’ co-stars ‘looked away’ from the growing affair
Grassle described how Landon and Clerico’s developing affair impacted the entire Little House cast and crew.
“They began to walk farther away from the action, engrossed in conversation, and in each other,” the Little House alum remarked of the pair. “It was awkward as hell for us in the company. Everyone saw. Everyone looked away.”
Since she already had formed somewhat of a friendship with Landon’s wife, Grassle felt compassion for Lynn.
“I knew his wife,” she explained. “I had been in her home. She had been kind to me. And I thought about their children – there were still three at home, I thought – and younger than Cindy. This, after doing everything his way. … Living with his long work hours. All the business entertaining. Christmas Eve alone with the kids, while he gambled at the office.”
Many ‘Little House’ cast members disapproved
Grassle revealed that Clerico was promoted to makeup artist and Landon soon left his wife. According to Grassle’s memoir, Clerico and Landon moved in together and were expecting a baby before Landon’s divorce from Lynn was finalized in 1982. The breakup of his marriage and affair with Clerico tarnished Landon’s image as the ideal husband and father that he played on TV, and affected his relationships with his cast.
“The split rocked my world, which was dominated by Mike,” Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls, wrote in “Prairie Tale“. “At a certain point, I thought, ‘Hey, wait a minute. What about me? I have to work with Mike. I can’t take sides, yet he’s done something that’s turned my world into angry, opposing sides.’”
Anderson also felt betrayed by Landon and sided with Lynn. She even refused to sit in Clerico’s makeup chair.
“In my silent show of solidarity with Lynn Landon, I did not have my makeup done by Cindy,” Anderson shared in her book, “The Way I See It: A Look Back at My Life on Little House“. “And she was good, too. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was civil to her, but that’s about it. We certainly were no longer friends.”
Landon and Clerico wed in 1983 and were married until his death in 1991.