Former child star Alison Arngrin hits Vroman’s with her hilarious memoir, ‘Confessions of a Prairie Bitch’
By Carl Kozlowski 07/01/2010
Most people have to spend their workdays sucking up to everyone around them in the interest of workplace civility. But actress Alison Arngrim got to live out every worker’s secret dream and act hostile all day long during her best job ever, as child villain Nellie Oleson on the classic TV series “Little House on the Prairie.”
In fact, her character’s behavior was so bad that Arngrim titled her new memoir “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch,” and is coming to Vroman’s on Friday to read from and sign the laugh-out-loud funny tome. Now 30 years after the series ended, and following a lengthy adult career as an actress and activist against AIDS and child trafficking, she maintains a wicked sense of humor about her childhood career that can draw explosive laughter from even the most serious of minds.
“‘Little House’ was a supposedly family show, but there was so much death and depravity,” Arngrim recalls with a chuckle. “I think that’s why people went so nuts over me because Nellie was so mean on a show where everyone was so good.”
Arngrim was born into a showbiz family. Her father was a manager for Liberace, and her mother was the voice for cartoon characters such as Casper the Friendly Ghost, Gumby and Sweet Polly Purebred, the girlfriend of Underdog. She started acting in commercials at the age of 6.
But she was 10 when the call came for her to audition for “Little House.” While she was turned down for the lead roles of Laura Ingalls and her sister Mary, she landed the role of Nellie Oleson and delivered an audition that left the show’s creator, TV legend Michael Landon, “in tears from laughing,” she remembers.
“I was fascinated with villains, wanted to play the bad guy and didn’t think they had parts like that for girls my age,” recalls Arngrin. “My dream role was [the classic evil girl title character of] ‘The Bad Seed.’ We didn’t think that the show would be a hit, and my dad thought it would flop after a season so he wondered why they built all the sets. It wound up lasting 7 years.”
The show still airs in 140 countries, and has remained so wildly successful in France that Arngrin makes at least two trips a year there to perform her solo comedy show, which shares her book’s title. In fact, on her next two-week trip in mid-July, she’ll also be hosting a week-long country music festival there.
Yet what really drives Arngrin these days is her social activism on behalf of AIDS-related and anti-child-trafficking causes. She was thrust into the battle against AIDS shortly after her run on “Little House” ended, when actor Steve Tracy, who played her husband on the show, revealed publicly that he was dying of AIDS.
“Steve died of AIDS around the time of Rock Hudson, but he admitted it freely while Hudson denied his gayness until just before
he died and Liberace said he was on a watermelon diet. There were no meds then, nothing, not even AZT. Steve let them use experimental drugs on him in hopes it could help others.”
So she started volunteering with AIDS Project Los Angeles, working on the hotline and in its speaker’s bureau to help out smaller agencies across the country.
Arngrin's involvement in child abuse and trafficking causes stems from an even sadder, more personal place, as she was physically and sexually abused from age 6 to 9. When she was approached by the National Coalition to Protect Children, she jumped at the chance because she was impressed with the fact that the group had already changed laws in three states.
“We have changed laws all over the country and have a petition going to Congress for increased funding for the cause,” says Arngrim. “The FBI can now find people uploading child pornography. They know where these people are, but they don’t have the manpower and money to arrest them all. You’d think it’d be a no-brainer and yet it's very difficult. Many groups say ‘if only, if only, boohoo.’ But we take on cases and we win.”