Michael Landon recruited an ensemble cast when he created Little House on the Prairie in 1974. Katherine MacGregor put a comedic spin on the role of the snobby and mean-spirited store owner Harriet Oleson. With stage and film credits to her name, MacGregor took some liberties with the script that didn’t sit well with Landon.
Alison Arngrim called Katherine MacGregor ‘fascinating to watch’
Alison Arngrim played Nellie Oleson, Harriet’s spoiled daughter, on Little House. In her memoir, Arngrim described her co-star’s impressive resume which included an appearance in the film classic On the Waterfront. Still, MacGregor was a theater actor at heart.
“Despite her enormous stage experience, she possessed relatively little experience with TV work,” Arngrim wrote in her 2010 book, Confessions of a Prairie B****. “Hence, she could be counted on to play every scene to the back row of the theater, even when the camera was six inches from her face. The woman was loud.“
MacGregor differed from her Little House character in many ways, including her demeanor.
“Fortunately, Katherine does not share Mrs. Oleson’s meanness, or her infamous prejudices,” Arngrim noted. “Unlike Mrs. Oleson and her pretense at great culture and education, Katherine actually did go to college… she was also fascinating to watch.”
Katherine MacGregor liked to improvise on ‘Little House’
MacGregor was steadfast in preparing for her scenes yet sometimes waffled on the dialogue.
“She often had trouble with her lines,” Arngrim remarked. “She studied them, of course; she even had an enormous leather-bound three-ring binder with her name in gold letters on the front to hold her script. … We rehearsed every scene before filming and yet, it was not uncommon to hear ‘Nels! How many times have I told you… Oh F***!! What is that line again.’”
The Little House star had her own way of making script changes much to the chagrin of Landon and his fellow producer.
“Sometimes, if she didn’t care for the lines, she simply changed them,” Arngrim explained. “This drove Michael and [producer] Bill Claxton nearly insane, but she would not be swayed.”
‘Little House’ alum raved of her TV mom
Despite some of MacGregor’s unorthodox quirks, Arngrim praised the energy and flair her co-star brought to Little House.
“When she came on the screen, there was no one else there,” Arngrim commented. “Her performance was mesmerizing, hilarious, outrageous. And on those occasions when Mrs. Oleson was in one of her pouting and wounded moments, even weirdly moving.”
Arngrim saw MacGregor as an irreplaceable cast member and applauded her talent as an actor and stage presence.
“Her acting was absolute genius,” the Little House star wrote of MacGregor. “There was no denying it. No matter what she said or did, it simply worked. The show could not function without her.”
MacGregor died in November 2018 at the age of 93.
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