It’s hard to imagine anyone but Karen Grassle playing Caroline “Ma” Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie, but that’s almost what happened. The actress almost quit acting before landing a role on the hit show.
Grassle graduated from UC Berkley and took her acting very seriously. She spent time in London honing her craft and eventually moved to New York. Like many actors, she struggled with finding roles. There were multiple moments when she considered giving up.
“Then I came to New York City to find my fortune and it was very trying,” Grassle said in an interview with Dave Lefkowitz. “I did find a couple good jobs right away, but then I had one of those dry spells where you wonder if you’ll ever work again.”
After bouncing back and forth between London and New York, Grassle found herself in Los Angeles. She went out to Hollywood because she was offered a role in a film. While she was there, another piece of misfortune led to her auditioning for Little House on the Prairie.
“Someone offered me a film in Los Angeles,” Grassle continued. “And I went out there, and the film fell through, but I was there. So I did get seen for Little House on the Prairie. And that is how it all got going.”
As strange as it sounds, it was quite lucky for her that the film fell through. She explained in an interview that that allowed her to stumble into the role of Caroline Ingalls. Producer Michael Landon loved her audition, and Grassle went from struggling to get by to landing one of the best roles in television.
Karen Grassle Based her ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Character Off Her own Mother
Caroline Ingalls was tough, but for Grassle, her own mother was tougher. Grassle loosely based Caroline off of her own mom. It clearly worked, because many consider Caroline one of the TV moms they’d most like to have as their own Mother.
“I based her on my mother,” Grassle told Closer Weekly. “If you read [Laura Ingalls Wilder’s] books and see photos, Caroline was very tough and sturdy. My mother rode a horse barefoot to school, and as a young woman, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse! So I took her character, strength, and wisdom and infused Caroline with that.”
Many actors like infusing their characters with their own real-life family and experiences. For Grassle, this meant taking her own mother’s strength and translating that to the screen. Shortly after Little House on the Prairie’s run, Grassle became a mother herself. When asked how she’d compare as a Mom to Caroline, she admitted life isn’t as glamorous as it is on TV.
“That show was an idealized version of family life but I did the best I could. Much of the time I was a single mom, and that has its own challenges.” Even though being a Mom in the real world is a lot harder than in most fiction, Grassle said she did love being a Mom.
While her character may have been “idealized,” Caroline Ingalls taught viewers incredibly important lessons about motherhood, strength, and the value of family. Thankfully, Grassle stuck with acting just long enough to give the world a character like Ma.