Born in 1962, Alison Arngrim followed in the footsteps of her showbiz family to become a child actress. In 1974, she was cast as spoiled Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie. Arngrim remains known for this role, and capitalized on this notoriety with a stage show and a memoir entitled Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. In 2004, she spoke out about the sexual abuse she experienced as a child.
Alison Arngrim was born on January 18, 1962, in New York City, but her showbiz family soon moved to Los Angeles. Arngrim's mother was a voice-over artist who brought characters like Gumby and Casper the Friendly Ghost to life, her father was a manager — at one time handling Liberace's career — and Arngrim's older brother, Stefan, was a child actor who starred in the television show Land of the Giants.
When Arngrim was 6, Stefan raped her. The abuse would continue for three years, and was one motivating factor behind her acting career — if Arngrim was away working, her brother couldn’t molest her. Arngrim started out with commercials, and by 1972 she was filming the movie Throw Out the Anchor. But her true breakthrough came in 1974 with Little House on the Prairie, a series adapted from the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Little House on the Prairie
Arngrim initially auditioned for the roles of both Laura and Mary Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie. However, it was the role of mean-spirited, demanding and spoiled Nellie Oleson that was deemed a perfect fit for her talents. Arngrim first appeared in the episode “Country Girls,” which aired on September 18, 1974.
Over the run of the series, Arngrim’s Nellie usually did her utmost to make Laura’s life miserable. The childhood nemeses competed over boys, horses and more, and sometimes their disputes ended in fighting matches that served as comic relief. Fortunately, Arngrim and Melissa Gilbert — who starred as Laura — were friends off screen, and they enjoyed facing off with each other. (The two remain good friends to this day.)
“Playing Nellie and being marked a bitch for life is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
When Nellie fell in love and married, the character mellowed, giving Arngrim less to do on the show. She therefore opted not to renew her Little House contract in 1981. Nellie and her husband were written off during the show's hiatus, but Arngrim did come back for a final episode, “The Return of Nellie,” which aired on November 15, 1982.
Activism and Personal Life
Arngrim had grown close to Steve Tracy, who played her husband on Little House, and the friendship continued after they left the show. Arngrim was therefore devastated later to learn that Tracy had AIDS. Wanting to help by countering misinformation about the disease, she volunteered with AIDS Project Los Angeles.
Tracy died in November of 1986, but Arngrim continued to work with AIDS organizations. She served as a project manager for Tuesday’s Child, which helps children with HIV and AIDS. She also assisted PAWS (the acronym stands for Pets Are Wonderful Support; the group took care of AIDS patients' pets).
Arngrim married Donald Spencer in 1989. The two divorced after four years of marriage, and Arngrim soon started to date Bob Schoonover, a musician she'd met when he was directing the Southern California AIDS Hotline. Arngrim and Schoonover tied the knot on November 6, 1993.
In 2003, Arngrim got involved with the National Association to Protect Children, or PROTECT, which wanted to improve laws intended to protect abused children. For example, a familial exception to child molestation laws existed in California, meaning that someone who'd raped a child could receive probation instead of jail time. To bring attention to this situation, Arngrim decided to publicly speak out about her own childhood abuse. She appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live in 2004; a California law removing the incest exception was signed in 2005.
In the 1980s, Arngrim could be seen on Fantasy Island, The Love Boat and in the made-for-TV movie I Married Wyatt Earp. She also appeared in comedy clubs, having dipped her toes into stand-up while still on Little House.
Arngrim ended up using her time as Nellie to create a comedic one-woman show, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. A memoir, entitled Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated, became a best seller after its release in 2010. Arngrim continues to tour with her popular show.
Though Arngrim has appeared in television movies, independent films and plays, Nellie Oleson remains her defining role. However, Arngrim doesn't resent this, and in fact appreciates that the character offered an outlet for the rage her abuse engendered. She's therefore been happy to participate in many cast reunions over the years, including on the Today show in 2014.
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