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For fans of the beloved TV show Little House on the Prairie, a self-help book by Melissa Francis, bestselling author of Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter and child star of Little House, revealing important life lessons inspired by a childhood on set.
Melissa Francis was only eight years old when she won the role of a lifetime: playing Cassandra Cooper Ingalls on the world’s most famous prime-time soap opera, Little House on the Prairie.
Now in Lessons from the Prairie, she shares behind-the-scenes stories from the set, and lessons learned from the show’s dynamic creator, Michael Landon, that have echoed throughout Melissa’s adult life. With novel insights on hard work, making mistakes, and even spirituality, Francis shares inspirational and practical life lessons that will appeal both to her current TV fans, and fans of one of the most adored TV shows of all time.
THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE ONE
The red digital clock just beneath the camera lens hits the top of the hour, and I kick off my four-inch, red stilettos faster than you can say hideous bunions. Before I even stand up from the curvy white couch, I slide on my homely (heavenly) orthopedic sneakers and sigh. I'm sure the tourists on the other side of our glass studio windows at Fox News are horrified, but also secretly reveling in the pure humanity that is my ugly, ugly feet. Oh well. Sharing such secrets is the price I pay for working, quite literally, on display.
Like all the big networks these days, Fox has built a street-level studio behind big picture windows that allows fans and tourists to look in on our workspace during the live show and wave manically while we fight about hot topics in bright dresses and fake eyelashes. Most days I feel like a goldfish in a shiny fishbowl. A goldfish who sincerely appreciates that viewers find the spectacle compelling enough to stop by and tap on the glass. Without their interest, I wouldn't have a job!
I usually pass unnoticed as I make my way from the studio, through the breezeway, and back to my office, but on this day I'm stopped by two smiling ladies bundled against the cold, holding out comically oversized pens. They look like the writing instruments my kids hand to Mickey Mouse to get his signature at Disney.
"Would you sign this for me?" the pink-coated lady asks, pressing a piece of paper into my hands.
"I'd be happy to," I say. "But I think you'll be disappointed when you read my name. The ladies coming right behind me are a lot more famous. You should wait for one of them."
"Oh, no. We know who you are. You're Melissa Francis," the second lady says, handing me her own pen and paper. "You're the Little House on the Prairie one! I grew up with you."
The Little House on the Prairie one…
I never think of myself as the Little House on the Prairie one, and I'm still taken aback when people remember me from that time. Decades later (please don't stop to do the math—I can't take it), most people recognize me as a television journalist, but I grew up in Hollywood, smiling for the camera before my first birthday. From sudsing my hair in an infant tub to sell Johnson & Johnson Baby Shampoo, to hawking (cold, painted) hamburgers for McDonald's, to more serious turns in dramas, I worked pretty steadily from the time I was a baby though my teenage years. I was probably best known as Cassandra Cooper Ingalls, Michael Landon's adopted daughter on Little House on the Prairie. Pa adopted my TV brother, Jason Bateman, and me after a violent covered-wagon accident pulverized our natural parents right before our very eyes.
For those of you too young to remember—or others who are unfamiliar with the concept of television or People magazine—Little House on the Prairie was a wholesome family drama broadcast during the late seventies and early eighties that was set a hundred years earlier in the small prairie town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. We rode around in wagons pulled by horses, mostly grew our own food, and lived in a tiny wooden house that lacked plumbing.
Just as a side note, after I showed my sons the show and pointed to myself as the child on the screen with a bonnet and long brown braids sitting in the back of the wagon, they naturally assumed I grew up in a time before cars were invented and continued to carry that idea with them and share the notion with friends despite my protests to the contrary. Which is not terribly flattering in my business, where age really counts. They also asked at what age their hair would turn spontaneously blonde like mine obviously had.
But I digress.
The show was based on the best-selling series of Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which still reign as timeless, go-to children's literature, having hit the must-read list long before Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen ever inspired legions of fans. I must tell you, these colorful, historic stories still hold up. I took the whole series on vacation, and other than the predictable fact that Charles never dies at the hands of the grizzly bear/furious Native American/storm of the century, they are wildly entertaining, and one can easily understand why countless readers have put themselves in the rough boots and stockings of those who grew up on the prairie in the mid-1800s and experienced the rigors of farm life on the frontier firsthand. What blows me away is that the hardscrabble stories of life on the very edge of civilization are supposedly true! I have to hand it to Laura Ingalls Wilder: even if she did exaggerate a bit here and there, or her daughter did when she filled out the stories in her mother's advancing years, the content is staggering. I never would have survived for more than a week on the prairie. Lord knows I need a hot bath and a glass of Mommy's Time Out at the end of a long day or I'm no good to anyone in the morning.
For years, Little House was one of the top-rated shows on television, one of the tent poles of the NBC prime-time lineup. You can imagine the impact of being a hit in the 1970s and '80s, when people had perhaps six or seven working channels at best. And no Internet. And no Facebook. Or smart phones. So you could basically watch one of half a dozen shows on TV or play a board game. I guess you could read. But you get my point.
A lot of kids at my school watched Little House, which also starred Melissa Gilbert, Melissa Sue Anderson, and Karen Grassle. However, in our house, the show was on past my bedtime, so I had never seen that covered wagon roll into the tall grass of the prairie during the opening credits, or watched the girl who played Carrie wipe out while running down the hill and then stand up and looked dazed, as if she'd hit her head a bit too hard. My sister and I were overscheduled children before that was a thing, and my mother was absolutely done with us by 8:00 p.m., so Tiffany and I were always bathed, scrubbed, and tucked in by then. I had never seen 8:01 and had no idea prime-time television existed.
That's why, when I got a call for the audition, I gave the whole thing one big yawn. Another day, another audition, nothing to see here. Except this bunch of freaks used odd language like "Ma" and "Pa" and "reckon."
"Maybe I will just change that when I go in and say something more believable like, 'Mom,'" I mulled over while reading the sides (sides are the little fraction of a scene they give you for the tryout so you don't walk out the door with too much information about what's coming up on the show and blab the juicy details to the world).
"No, no, no," my mother said with her terrifying, trademark force. "Stick to the script! These people lived, I don't know, like in the 1800s. Pioneers and covered wagons and all that. You've seen pictures in school. They all had horses; you love horses. Think horses. Do well and you'll get a horse. Think horses."
Mmmmm, horses. Little girls do love horses.
Wait, where was I?
My mother was wound tight as a top for this audition. Her normal audition swagger had a hitch. We used to joke that the other kids sitting in the waiting room, going over their sides, had "wasted their gas." That was our code for: I'm getting this job, just how I got so many others.
This time, she looked less sure.
She said, "You really need to do well on this one."
I thought I had to do well on every audition. Why was this one any different? Whatever. Where was my horse anyway?
When I strolled into the room to audition, Michael Landon was there. I didn't know who he was, but I could tell by the energy in the room that he was an important person. There were probably four or five other people in the room with us. My mother was on the other side of the door, biting her nails with the other stage moms—willing me to get the part. But even at eight years old, never having seen the show, I could immediately tell that Michael Landon was a force. He filled the room. He had an undeniable star quality. His energy electrified the air the moment he laughed at my wide eyes, framed by long ropes of brown braids that (God and my mother willing!) would be right at home in Walnut Grove.
"So you're Missy?" he boomed, with a wide grin.
Understand, I still had no idea who he was. I'd never even seen a picture of him or seen him on TV that I could remember. But that room suddenly felt like Christmas, and that man was certainly Santa.
We did two scenes together. One was run of the mill, a back and forth at the dinner table. The second called for me to work my signature magic: cry on cue. And I didn't just cry—I shed real tears, having just smiled and greeted everyone minutes before. Few kids could pull off this feat. The level of difficulty for an eight-year-old, alone in a room with strangers, just cold one line into a scene, was up there with climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and running a marathon. In the same day. But this was what I did. I was perhaps the only girl under ten on the audition circuit who could jump into character and turn on the waterworks from a standing start. This trick was my forte.
I dug in as Michael read the first few lines looking at my face to see what I could muster. Then I hit the gas. I pictured my parents rolling off the side of a hill in their covered wagon as the wood smashed into splinters, the canvas shredding to ribbons, killing my ma and pa and a team of horses to boot. Then I cheated (this is not really kosher in acting) and pictured my real cat and dog in the back, flying into the air and then crashing down, their bones shattering with every blow. Then I added my goldfish, King Neptune, whose bowl smashed into shards in my imagination, while water splashed all over and he gasped and choked on the air. The carnage!
I wailed and let loose howling. Poor Princess! And K.C.! And poor King Neptune! Not King Neptune!
And that was that.
I crushed it. Totally owned the scene. I knew because a nice lady in the room offered me tissues, and Michael smiled from ear to ear at my misery.
I strutted from the room and out the door, letting my mother trail me from the building, desperate for details. I thought the whole ball of wax had gone fairly well, but I'd learned not to dwell on an audition after I'd said thank you and hopped back in our family's brown station wagon to make the long journey back deep into the Valley. Even I knew the vagaries of casting were impossible to predict.
On the way home, my mother was full of questions. I never wanted to talk when she was like this. There was so much power in holding back.
"Was Michael Landon inside?" she wanted to know.
"Who?" I asked, uninterested.
"Michael Landon," she repeated with more force, wanting to strangle me, but not daring when it seemed I could very well be the proverbial goose getting ready to lay that precious golden egg.
"Pa! The star of the show."
"I don't know," I said—and, honestly, I didn't. Was that man him? Probably, but who knew? I'm sure he'd told me his name, but I'd been too focused on the flood of tears ahead to absorb that detail. Now I was focused on getting home to make sure all my pets were still alive.
She tried to describe him: "Longish brown curly hair. Haaaaandsome."
Handsome? At his age? He had to be older than my mother, for sure. Handsome? Forget it! She was nuts.
When I got a callback, my mother was over the moon with excitement. She was practically vibrating with anticipation. By this point, I'd stayed up late to watch an episode of the show. I sat on the big chair in front of the television in the living room, with Princess in my lap, and I realized this opportunity was enormous.
So I immediately began negotiating.
I said to my mother, "If I get this, can I have a new bridle for Felina?" She was the dapple gray mare I rode on the weekends. See, I was thinking horses, just as she suggested.
My mother said, "Yes, any brand you like."
She would have said anything to ensure I'd be wearing my serious game face, which is why I had already blown off her original pony promise—even though in truth, I didn't need the extra incentive. I always played to win. I was incapable of throwing an audition. I had no problem walking into a roomful of strangers and finding a way to shine. That's how you charm your way through the process and land all those parts. You learn to walk into a room and just own that bitch.
I got the part (and the bridle), but at this point the show was limping along on its last legs. Most of the children, like Laura and her sister Mary, along with their nemesis, Nellie, had grown up. Frantically, the producers scrambled to reinject some youth and energy into the show (read: get ratings back where they used to be). Their solution was to round up a fresh batch of kids and find some ways in the storyline to keep them connected to Ma and Pa Ingalls. That's where I came in—me and a young Jason Bateman in one of his early television roles. We were cast as sister and brother, Cassandra and James Cooper.
Let me just take a moment to mention that I thought I had completely hit the jackpot. Here's this older boy, with shiny red hair cut in a straight line across his forehead and dreamy freckles. And we did every scene together. And he was almost always forced to hold my hand! And occasionally hug me! Who needed a pony? This was way better!
Our introductory episode was set around that horrific wagon accident from the audition. Tragically—and inevitably, I guess, given the producers' agenda—my character's parents were killed, and after a few plot twists and turns the Ingalls adopted Cassandra and James. Lucky us! Plus there was a ton of hand holding along the way (yes!).
These new developments allowed the writers to come up with a new batch of stories involving young children—a huge part of the Little House formula. And by a new batch of stories, I mean they went back and dug the old scripts out of some dusty filing cabinet somewhere and used White Out to blot the names and scribble in new ones. Then we reprised the old conflict that existed in the earlier episodes between Laura Ingalls and her arch nemesis, Nellie Oleson, played by an actress named Alison Arngrim. If you remember, there was a constant tug and pull between those characters, which in the not-so-subtle ways of prime-time network television came across as the conflict between good and evil. This time around, my Cassandra character would go up against a character called Nancy, an adopted daughter of the Olesons', played by Allison Balson.
The only thing they really changed was that Nancy Oleson would turn out to be even more scheming and dastardly than Nellie Oleson. Cassandra wasn't quite as angelic as Laura Ingalls, but the rest was pretty much the same and everyone was happy: audience, Michael, me (and, obviously, my mother).
Nearly a decade after the show ended its historic run, I decided to leave Hollywood behind and boarded a plane to Boston to study economics at Harvard University. I never really looked back. Oh, I carried the baggage of my hard-charging, toughened-by-rejection, always-striving career as a child actress right onboard that plane with me, but I was done chasing that particular dream. I wanted to try on a life without acting, without the inconsistent joy, without the endless uncertainty, without my controlling stage mother pushing all those buttons behind the scenes. I tried to leave that part of my life at the curb for morning pickup right next to the recyclable cans and plastic.
But you can't really do that, can you?
With age and time, I built a new life. I'm now intensely grateful to have a husband who is loving beyond all measure, and together we have three ridiculous children, who make a deafening amount of noise and light up our lives in the process. I've also built an entirely different career.
Okay, I know what you're thinking: "You're still on television, lady. Entirely different career? Who the hell are you kidding?"
Yes, I'm aware of the irony. I have traveled a great distance in (physical and mental) space and time to do… almost the same thing. I guess that can only mean that I have a pathological need to be on television. At least I can admit it. That counts for something! Besides, I have so many issues to tackle in therapy, there really aren't enough hours or doctors. So perhaps you will indulge me and believe that for me, this job is vastly different. For one thing, no one is putting words in my mouth, and that suits me a whole lot better.
But just when I think I'm a completely new person, someone calls me the Little House on the Prairie one. I'm still stunned when people remember that part of my life and tell me "that was the only show my mom let me watch." Television goddess Megyn Kelly among them! I remember the first time we met at Fox, and I was such a huge fan, I called her Kelly. As in, "Hi Kelly! I'm a huge fan! Great to meet you!" She must have thought, What a jackass this girl is. (I'm getting hives on my neck reliving this story. I wish I were kidding.)
Megyn was of course completely gracious and acted as if she didn't hear my moronic error. And just when I thought I could slink away and reintroduce myself, maybe ten years in the future, when the mortification wore off, she mentioned that, yep, she had watched every episode and knew exactly who I was.
Holy disaster, Batman.
The irony for me is that in the determined process to try to reinvent myself, I failed to embrace the value of where I'd come from. Oprah, the Confucius of our time, says, "No experience is wasted." In fact, what I learned in front of the camera and behind the scenes on Little House laid the very foundation and provided the essential tools to build a happy, meaningful life today. For example, who could ever be more resilient than the pioneering Ingalls? Instead of just lying down in the dusty road and letting the next wagon that rolled by put them out of their misery when their crop failed for the fiftieth time, they found, deep inside, the strength to pull up their petticoats and soldier on to better times. In real life, Michael Landon personified that same pioneering spirit as a master of reinvention, repackaging himself on one hit show after another, that he was clever and industrious enough to own and operate as his unique and highly profitable cottage industry.
The Little House experience taught me, among other things, to dig deep to find the strength to always fight on another day, sometimes reinventing myself in the process; that good guys really do win in the end, even though they may not always lead at the turn; that motherhood is not for sissies; to identify and chase my passion without letting myself be distracted by fear; and to believe in miracles.
For me, that makeshift set, deep in the Simi Valley under the scorching sun, was in truth a priceless training ground. There was a lot of wisdom in the air—as if the horses kicked up bits of brilliance, not just California dirt—that settled over my shoulders and helped to guide me in the years that followed. If you read on and take this ride with me, I promise to sprinkle a little of that magic on your head, too.
YOU JUST CAN'T KILL ME (AT LEAST NOT WITHOUT A SERIOUS WEAPON)
When my first book was coming out, Melissa Gilbert offered to meet for dinner and fill me in on the unexpected joy and torture that would be The Book Tour. This meeting was like having a date with your kindergarten boyfriend thirty years later. I teased and curled my hair five or six times, and then got right in the shower and started over from scratch.
Melissa is truly the keeper of the Little House fan base and heritage, and she has no reason to share, unless you believe that good deeds recycle themselves in the universe.
We met for dinner at her hotel near Gramercy Park, and I had that bizarre experience when someone you haven't seen forever is instantly familiar, as if no time has gone by at all. Voices always stick in my memory. I can think of someone and immediately hear the pitch and melody of their speech. Of course anyone who's watched Little House knows Melissa's voice because she was the narrator, but seeing her (and hearing her) in person is still somewhat mind-blowing. The candy-apple-sweet lisp that talked over the frames of so many childhoods was suddenly asking me what I felt like ordering for dinner.
She sat in a chair and folded her legs underneath her like a middle school friend who wanted to gossip about boys. I was a child again. My chest tightened. Here was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see if my behind-the-scenes memories matched hers. In my head, the chatter and play that happened in the dark corners of the studio and unlit sets, and the action and lines of the scenes that still ran daily in reruns on the cable dial—all of this smashed together on one reel of film that played in my mind's eye.
We had identical memories of how Michael treated us as tiny professionals when we came to work. Although she calls him Mike, and I wonder if I was the only kid saying Michael.
"We were there to work," she laughed. "I remember not knowing my lines once. Once. He got so mad, but quietly mad, scary mad, and sent me away to learn those lines and come back when I could do it right. It wasn't funny. I remember that. I did not do that again."
I told Melissa about the time I accidentally wore my retainer while we were shooting a scene. The orthodontist said to wear the painful piece of plastic every single second that I could when I wasn't shooting. So I wore it between takes, which was begging for disaster. Inevitably I forgot to take it out, and when I told my mom, she immediately marched me to Michael to confess. I was so embarrassed, and plainly terrified. They were already breaking down for the next shot, and I had blown it.
Hearing this story, Melissa clapped her hand over her mouth with a gasp. The shame of our ancient blunders burned as hot as if we were still right there on the set, in the blazing Southern California heat.
"He ran a tight ship. Very tight. We had fun, so many pranks!" Melissa and I reminisced about all the times he shocked the kids on set by taking off his big hat and revealing a giant hairy tarantula—that he then let walk down his face—or scooping up a filthy frog and letting it jump out of his mouth when he spoke. "Yuck! But then when he called action… he was no joke," I said.
"But you waited tables and worked in the back of kitchens… after Little House. After acting. That's a major pay cut. And, you know, humbling. I was surprised to read that about you. That's… well, I respect that. I don't know how many kids from back then would do the same thing once they had a taste of the big time," she confessed.
"You are so universally recognizable it would have caused quite a tabloid stir if you stopped by someone's table in a uniform to ask how they like their eggs," I joked.
She laughed. But I knew Melissa was just as much of a fighter. I've seen her in a commercial break during one of my shows selling skin cream that promises to reduce creping (I bought a tube), on the same day I was flipping through her new cookbook. She's magnificent at finding an opening to cleverly capitalize on what's hot. I love that about her.
"Maybe Michael knew how to pick worker-bee kids," I went on. "Or maybe we learned watching him work himself to death every day. Perhaps a bit of both. Either way, we all graduated from his care as nose-to-the-grindstone workers."
"I think that's why none of us ended up in rehab or sticking up a convenience store," she said. "I don't think any of us could stand the thought of him seeing our mug shot."
I think Half-Pint was onto something.
"Melissa Francis is live in Concord with the latest on that story…"
That was my cue. I stared into the camera lens, a black abyss that sucked the breath from my body. I could hear my photographer's boots as he shifted behind the camera, waiting.
This moment was exactly what I'd worked so hard for, fought for… cajoled, stretched the truth, charmed, and begged for…
And I was choking.
I'd done so much to claw my way to this opportunity. I'd taken enormous gambles, like chucking a childhood acting career into the waste bin and moving as far across the country as I possibly could. I had spread out my college acceptance letters on the kitchen table and picked Harvard not for the name (I swear) but for the physical distance from Hollywood (2,986 miles by car). I didn't want to be tempted by a smooth-talking agent or strong-armed by my mother to pop back into town for a quick audition. A five-hour plane ride clear across the continent hung up the phone on that conversation. I was going cold turkey on Hollywood.
During that first brisk fall, I trudged through Harvard Yard, crunching pumpkin-colored leaves under my new lace-up duck boots, and, just like Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, I gaped in delighted awe at the centuries-old dorms. I thought about what I might transform myself into in the future and what to study to get there. The choices were dazzling: Near Eastern Religion, Romance Languages, Frozen Heroes, Plant Sex! All very tempting.
Ultimately, the Economics Department seemed the right fit. Dissecting the country's balance sheet, studying what breathed life into an expansion and what hobbled a healthy economic growth spurt appealed to my curiosity and my sense of order (plus I'm a huge nerd).
I was drawn to politics, but here the debate from both sides would be sorted, organized, and reasoned with math. Proof. Using unbiased, hard numbers to prove or disprove political theory? I loved the very idea.
When I went to look for a summer internship after my freshman year, though, I knew I didn't want to sit at a desk every day. My first career, my first lifetime, had been spent under the dazzling lights of the entertainment industry, in front of the camera. Earning a paycheck now in front of a computer wouldn't hold my attention for long. I had been spoiled by a life where people seemed to believe that what I did held a kind of magic, even if I knew better. I couldn't quietly type up reports in a dimly lit cubicle now.
I'd gone to the Career Counseling Office and flipped through the black three-ring binders filled with postings for summer interns. Consultants, analysts. I wasn't totally sure what I was qualified to analyze at this point. A listing in the fortieth binder caught my attention: KTTV, the local Fox affiliate in Los Angeles, was looking for an intern to hop on the assignment desk, with an ear to the police scanner and an eye on the breaking news wires. Keeping track of the reporters! Making sure the show producers had the latest updates on raging fires and high-speed car chases! Greasing the wheels of production as the entire machine careens toward show time! This held promise.
And I thought, They'll let me do that for free? I don't even have to pay for the education? What luck!
- "Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter is touching and brave, heartbreaking and inspirational... I simply loved it."—Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle
"Melissa Francis's Lessons from the Prairie is a busy mom's manifesto-candid and commonsense, insightful, laugh-out-loud funny. A refreshing reality check for working moms who love their jobs as well as their families, and won't compromise their happiness."
"Melissa Francis' Lessons from the Prairie delivers one belly laugh after another as she tees up an easy to follow, step-by-step guide to tackling the toughest challenges that dog each of us. She charmingly turns personal disasters into hilarious anecdotes that will seem all too familiar to every reader, then follows with a clever take away to make your life happier. What a fun way to share the wisdom she gained growing up before our eyes on the Prairie."
- "An extraordinary personal account that is as inherently fascinating as it is informative and ultimately inspiring."—Midwest Book Review
- "Francis' narrative grabs readers immediately . . . One of those intimate, heartbreaking, double-edged stories that is hard to read, impossible to put down."—Kirkus Reviews
- "I am always in search of the book I can't put down...I may have missed a few nights sleep, but I am so much better for it. [Melissa's] book is captivating, revealing and ultimately healing. Who knew the kid from Little House on the Prairie had such a fascinating real-life story? I am in awe."—Hoda Kotb
- "Melissa Francis' story is riveting. The book is the perfect antidote for the 'Tiger Mom' syndrome that seems to be gaining traction in today's society . . . If you want to be inspired to reach beyond what you were taught as a child, get this book now."—Melissa Gilbert, author of the bestselling "Prairie Tale: A Memoir"
- "What makes Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter so compelling aren't just the behind-the-scenes details but the spirited conclusion."—Entertainment Weekly
- "[A] memoir...that you will never forget. It is captivating, revealing, and had me glued to the pages."—BlogCritics.org
- "[A] superb family memoir."—The Washington Post
- "The against-all-odds story...is, by turns, harrowing, shocking, and inspiring. Ultimately, it is a celebration of Francis' greatest role: survivor."—Elle.com Reader's Choice blog
- On Sale
- Apr 25, 2017
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Hachette Books