Born Dorlee McGregor in California in 1925, Katherine MacGregor first found success as a stage actress. However, it was her memorable performance as Mrs. Oleson, the willful, prideful and often spiteful owner of the town’s mercantile on the popular show Little House on the Prairie (1974 - 83), that became her career-defining role. MacGregor retired from acting when Little House ended its run.
Katherine MacGregor was born Dorlee Deane McGregor on January 12, 1925, in Glendale, California. She spent most of her childhood in Colorado. She stayed in Colorado to attend the University of Denver, where she prepared for her future career by joining the drama club.
After leaving school, MacGregor moved to New York City. Under the name Scottie MacGregor, she found work both onstage and in films; one early role was a small, uncredited part in On the Waterfront (1954).
MacGregor also honed her acting skills by studying with renowned teachers Sanford Meisner and Stella Adler. She received kudos for her work on the stage, which included touring productions of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Following a move back to California, MacGregor continued to pursue an acting career. She was cast in small supporting roles — often playing a nurse, secretary or teacher — on television shows such as All in the Family and Emergency!. However, given the meaty parts she'd tackled in plays, this kind of work left MacGregor feeling frustrated.
On the verge of leaving acting, MacGregor started to work in an art gallery until she was hired for her career-defining role: Mrs. Harriet Oleson on Little House on the Prairie.
Little House on the Prairie
Now credited as Katherine MacGregor, she made her debut in "A Harvest of Friends," the first Little House on the Prairie episode after the pilot. Mrs. Oleson's narrow-mindedness and overbearing attitude were on display in this episode; these qualities would often make life difficult for the Ingalls clan throughout the show's run.
“I look for the humor of Mrs. Oleson. She was originally painted as just black-and-white mean. Anyone that mean has to be a fool.” - Katherine MacGregor
However, MacGregor brought occasional flashes of humanity and hidden depths to Mrs. Oleson over the years (in fact, she had created her own character biography in order to better understand Mrs. Oleson). MacGregor's comedic gifts were also used to great effect on the show; her pratfalls and affronted miens when Mrs. Oleson's ego was (partly) deflated helped her become a villain that audiences loved to hate.
Behind the scenes, MacGregor was much more popular than her character. Richard Bull, who played Mrs. Oleson's long-suffering husband, Nels, enjoyed working with her. MacGregor also had fun with the children on the set, growing close to both Alison Arngrim, who played her daughter, Nellie, and Melissa Gilbert, who starred as Laura Ingalls.
"That woman's a genius. She's absolutely hilarious.” - Alison Arngrim
MacGregor remained on Little House on the Prairie for its entire run, from 1974 until 1982. She also appeared as Mrs. Oleson in the spin-off Little House: A New Beginning, which aired from 1982 to 1983.
After Little House: A New Beginning was canceled, MacGregor opted to retire from acting. But she continued to share her love of performing by starting a children's theater company, the Wee Hollywood Vedanta Players (MacGregor had been a Hindu for years, and the name Vedanta came from her Hindu faith).
Though she did not appear in any of the Little House TV movies, MacGregor remained close to many cast members. In 2007, she took part in a cast reunion on the Today show.
MacGregor lived in Los Angeles in the Motion Picture & Television Fund's home for retired actors. She passed away on November 13, 2018.
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