During her seven seasons as Little House on the Prairie’s nasty Nellie Oleson, Alison Arngrim terrorized her costars with vicious looks, cutting quips and the occasional slap. Offscreen, she could be almost as menacing, spying on the crew, sneaking into the candy truck for snacks and spreading dirty jokes. “I always had a sick sense of humor,” Arngrim admits.
She still does. These days the 38-year-old actress—sporting a closely cropped do instead of her signature ringlets—performs stand-up comedy at L.A.-area clubs as the self-styled Prairie Bitch, taking shots at, among others, Little House creator Michael Landon. Poking fun at the actor, who died of cancer of the liver and pancreas in 1991, for having played “a dirt-poor farmer—with a $137 Beverly Hills haircut,” she also mocks his squeaky-clean image.
“Ahhh yes, he’s wonderful,” her routine goes. “If he wants to dress in cheap women’s clothing, I think it’s his business.”
Arngrim claims that Landon, whom she remembers fondly, would approve of her act given his own penchant for practical jokes, which included hiding frogs in his mouth only to let them leap out at women visiting the set. “The idea that some people have made him a saint cracks me up,” she says. “It’s like going to a funeral and having people tell very serious stories about [someone]—and you’re remembering the rime he put that lampshade on his head.”
Not that it was all fun and games for Arngrim on the Little House set. For one thing, her prized curls were actually part of a wig held so tightly to her head with a big metal comb that “my scalp bled,” she says. The L.A.-raised actress also fainted regularly while filming the show in California’s hot Simi Valley. “It would be 107 degrees in the shade and I’d be wearing a wig and five layers of petticoats,” she notes. Which, perhaps, explains why Arngrim promptly shed her clothes when she left the series in 1981 (the show, which now airs on TBS Super-Station, was canceled two years later). She spent the next three years shooting cheesecake posters (“God, I spent so much time posing in my underwear,” she recalls) and taking more provocative parts, like a 1980s Fantasy Island role as a hooker.
Still, Arngrim—who departed Little House with a sizable trust fund from her earnings, a pickup truck and a West Hollywood condo—managed to avoid the grim fates of other child stars like Diff’rent Strokes actress Dana Plato, who died of a drug overdose last year and whose funeral Arngrim attended. Perhaps that’s because her energies were focused on more serious concerns. After the 1986 AIDS-related death of her friend Steve Tracy, who played her Little House husband, Arngrim slipped into a new role as an AIDS activist, volunteering at AIDS Project Los Angeles and working for a family-oriented AIDS organization, Tuesday’s Child. “Alison is one of the most generous people with her heart that I have ever known,” says Arngrim’s Little House costar and close friend Melissa Gilbert, adding, “I’m pushing her to have kids.”
That’s something Arngrim and her second husband, musician Bob Schoonover—through whom she has a 22-year-old stepdaughter—are “plotting,” the actress admits. (Arngrim’s first marriage, in 1989, to actor-writer Donald Mark Spencer, ended four years later.) But at the moment, Arngrim, whose father, Thor, 71, is a producer-manager, and whose mother, Norma MacMillan, 78, and brother Stefan, 44, are both actors, finds herself tugged by the familiar pull of show business. She is taking acting classes and has wrapped a small role in an upcoming independent film, The Last Place on Earth.
Of course, she’d prefer to avoid period pieces. “I have a horrible nightmare in which the phone rings and I get a huge show—that’s set in the 1800s,” she groans. “God has cursed me: I’m going to wear a wig and petticoats!”
Karen Brailsford in Los Angeles