60 Surprising Little House On The Prairie Secrets That Pa Ingalls Wouldn’t Want You To Know

Little House on the Prairie is one of the most iconic American television programs of all time. The hit show, which ran from 1974 to 1982, was based upon the diaries and real-life hardships of prairie girl Laura Ingalls Wilder. But while the show itself was wonderfully heartwarming and earnest, everything that went on behind the scenes wasn’t so… well, wholesome. In this list of shocking and tragic Little House secrets, then, we look at some of the things that Pa Ingalls probably would have wanted to keep under his hat…

60. Walnut Grove is real

Who knew that Little House on the Prairie’s small-town setting Walnut Grove was actually a very real place? Yes, the author whose books provided the inspiration for the series, Laura Ingalls, used to live there herself. Walnut Grove is situated in Minnesota with a population of no more than 900 people, said the 2010 census anyway.

59. It only picked up one acting Emmy nod

Little House on the Prairie picked up 16 Emmy nominations during the course of its nine years. But only one of them was for acting. That’s right: while the show’s music and cinematography were regularly recognized, Melissa Sue Anderson was the only cast member to pick up a nod for the prestigious awards. The actress was singled out for the storyline in which her character Mary goes blind.

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58. Scottie MacGregor injured herself after falling off a horse

Scottie MacGregor sure suffered for her art during the filming of one particular episode. The actress was injured for real when her character, the gossipmonger Mrs. Oleson, fell off a horse. So a fully costumed stand-in for the star had to finish the scene.

57. Kevin Hagen fought for the actors’ rights

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The stars of today’s TV hits can demand six and even nine-figure sums per episode in royalty payments. But things were different back in Little House on the Prairie’s day. Kevin Hagen, who you may remember played the town’s resident doctor Hiram Baker, did once try to persuade NBC bosses to dish out more money. Yet sadly for the cast, his pleas fell on deaf ears.

56. Michael Landon regularly cast his daughter

The show’s leading man Michael Landon didn’t appear to be worried about accusations of nepotism. Because the star regularly gave his daughter Leslie the chance to display her acting talents on the show. Etta Plum, Pam and Marge were just a few of the minor characters that the youngster played.

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55. Melissa Gilbert has undergone four spinal fusions

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Poor Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls Wilder in the show, has had to go under the knife for no fewer than four different spinal fusions. The actress’ first bout of surgery was in 2001, and she went on to have similar procedures in 2010, 2016 and 2020. As Gilbert prepared for the latter, she told her Instagram followers, “I’m channeling my inner Halfpint for this one. The one who believes anything is possible.”

54. It predicted COVID?

Fans who were hoping to forget all about COVID-19 in 2020 by watching replays, were left astounded by two particularly prescient episodes. As their titles suggest, 1975’s “Plague” and 1977’s “Quarantine” both focused on epidemics that hit the Walnut Grove town. One of the show’s stars, Melissa Gilbert, acknowledged the similarities, too, telling the New York Post, “Even on that tiny scale, so much of what they were doing is now applicable.”

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53. Albert’s character was Michael Landon’s idea

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Matthew Labyorteaux joined the Little House on the Prairie family in season five as adoptee Albert Ingalls. And he apparently has his on-screen father to thank. That’s right: star and executive producer Michael Landon decided the show needed a bit more testosterone, and subsequently gave Ma and Pa a son.

52. Karen Grassle based Caroline on her mom

Karen Grassle didn’t look far for inspiration when it came to playing the show’s matriarch. In 2020 she told Closer Weekly, “I based her on my mother. If you read [Laura Ingalls Wilder’s] books and see photos, Caroline was very tough and sturdy. My mother rode a horse barefoot to school, and as a young woman, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse!”

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51. Its cast included eight Oscar winners

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Little House on the Prairie might not have picked up any major awards for its acting. But several cast members had previously won, or would go on to win, their craft’s ultimate prize. Yes, the show welcomed no fewer than eight previous or future Oscar winners over the years, including Ernest Borgnine, Eileen Heckart, Burl Ives and Sean Penn.

50. MacGregor missed the finale to go on a religious retreat

Ever wondered why show regular Mrs. Oleson doesn’t appear in the finale? Well, the woman who played her, Scottie MacGregor, was on a religious retreat at the time. The actress had converted to Hinduism as a way of dealing with her alcoholism. And despite coinciding with Little House on the Prairie’s conclusion, McGregor believed that a faith-based trip to India was more important.

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49. Victor French left the show for a short-lived sitcom

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After playing farmer Isaiah Edwards for the first three seasons, Victor French decided he wanted to try something new. So the actor left to showcase his comic timing as a police chief in small-town sitcom Carter Country. But the ABC show didn’t make it to a third season. Luckily for him, Landon and co. welcomed him back with open arms.

48. Landon didn’t want to pay Grassle any more money

As executive producer, Michael Landon was also responsible for some behind the scenes decisions. And his tight control of the budget didn’t go down well with his on-screen wife. In a 2017 chat with Closer Weekly, Karen Grassle revealed, “When we were in the top 10 [TV shows] and I said, ‘Gee, it is time to renegotiate my contract,’ Michael did not want to pay me. It was very difficult.”

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47. They filmed on The Wizard of Oz’s set

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Several cast members couldn’t contain their excitement when they discovered that The Wizard of Oz had been filmed at the MGM studios the show later transfered to. In 2017 Alison Arngrim, aka Nellie Oleson Dalton, told Closer Weekly, “They were ripping up the floor of the set, and what Melissa [Gilbert] and I see, lying beneath, was the Yellow Brick Road! Melissa and I went nuts. We were dancing around, singing the song, pretending to be Dorothy!”

46. There were several test runs of the house explosion

The show famously concluded in surprisingly spectacular style when the Ingalls’ family home blew up. Thankfully, the producers did their research beforehand to ensure that the big explosion went off without a hitch. In an interview with The New York Times, Landon revealed, “We did quite a few tests first to make sure nobody would get hurt. So when we finally blew everything up, it went off like clockwork.”

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45. One of its stars kept its homestead

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Stan Ivar, who played John Carter in the show’s last season, was so enamored with his character’s homestead that he actually kept it. Yes, the actor managed to disassemble the farmhouse and take it back to his home where he stored it in his barn. Ivar later attempted to give the homestead to the real Walnut Grove but was thwarted by the Prairie brand’s owner Ed Friendly.

44. Baby Grace published a faith-based book about the show

Wendi Turnbaugh was still in nappies when she was cast as the Ingalls family’s youngest member Grace. Nearly half a century later, the actress decided to pen a book which combined her Little House on the Prairie experiences with her faith. Turnbaugh was inspired to write A Prairie Devotional while recuperating from a tumor in her brain.

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43. Nellie has been adopted as a gay icon

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Alison Arngrim is fully on board with the LGBT community adopting her Little House on the Prairie character Nellie as a gay icon. She’s shown up at DragCon in Los Angeles, staged her one-woman show at an Orlando gay resort and been heavily involved with AIDS awareness charities. The actress, who had a gay father, told The New York Times, “I turned toward the people who were still clapping the loudest for her.”

42. There’s a Little House on the Prairie museum

Ever wanted to be transported back to the pioneer life of the late 19th century? Well, look no further than the Little House on the Prairie museum situated in the very real Walnut Creek. Fans can immerse themselves in the world of both Laura Ingalls’ books and their TV adaptations including a replica of the house the author grew up in.

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41. Grassle was flat broke when she landed her role

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The role of Caroline Ingalls came just in the nick of time for the woman who played her. Karen Grassle had barely a cent to her name when she landed the part that would launch her to fame. The actress explained to Closer Weekly in 2020, “I had spent a year in England, working with a Shakespeare company and teaching, and came back to the States flat broke.”

40. Gilbert had her first kiss on screen

Your first kiss is a rites of passage that’s awkward enough without having it captured for millions of viewers. That’s the unfortunate situation that a 15-year-old Melissa Gilbert faced when she was required to pucker up with co-star Dean Butler on screen. The actress was understandably more nervous given her on-screen husband was eight years older and had a notable amount of stubble.

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39. Landon left his wife for the show’s makeup artist

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Landon made tabloid headlines in 1982 when he split up with his wife to begin dating Cindy Clerico, Little House on the Prairie’s makeup artist. And one of the cast members certainly didn’t approve. In fact, an upset Melissa Gilbert cut all ties with Landon. Furthermore, she only got back in touch with him on discovering that her on-screen father had been diagnosed with cancer.

38. Gilbert dated a rock wildman

Gilbert may be renowned for playing the innocent Laura Ingalls Wilder. But away from the Little House on the Prairie set she was a little hedonistic. Indeed, the actress was a regular presence on the Hollywood party scene, and she dated several high profile names, too. Alongside Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe and her on-screen father’s son, Gilbert once stepped out with wild rock star Billy Idol.

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38. Nellie’s hair was fake

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Nellie Oleson was famous for her fat, blonde sausage curls. But many viewers probably didn’t realize she was wearing a specially-made wig. Moreover, while the style became famous as “Nellie Oleson curls,” it came at a price – the wig was incredibly painful to wear and made Alison Arngrim’s scalp bleed. Ouch!

36. The show gave Jason Bateman his first gig

Jason Bateman is now regarded as one of Hollywood’s most popular leading actors. But he was a complete unknown when he was cast as young orphan James Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie’s seventh season. In fact, the hit historical drama was Bateman’s first ever professional acting gig.

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35. Landon was a practical joker

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Although he appeared at the height of respectability on camera, Michael Landon wasn’t afraid to get silly once the director shouted cut. Yes, the actor would regularly engage in games of chase with the younger members of the Little House on the Prairie cast. His mischievous nature appeared to rub off on Melissa Gilbert and Alison Arngrim, too. The pair once covered one of the crew’s toilet seats entirely in plastic wrap.

34. Linwood Boomer created a classic sitcom

After playing Mary’s husband Adam Kendall on Little House on the Prairie, Linwood Boomer decided to move behind the camera. He served as a producer and writer on several hit shows. But his most impressive achievement was creating one of the 2000s’ most popular TV comedies, the madcap Malcolm in the Middle.

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33. The food on display was anachronistic

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Little House on the Prairie’s behind the scenes team appeared to get most things accurate regarding the show’s late 19th Century time period. But they were a little sloppy when it came to the Ingalls’ mealtimes. Instead of good old-fashioned American frontier food, the family would often be given Colonel Sanders’ chicken.

32. A love story was scrapped due to lack of chemistry

Mary Ingalls and John Sanderson were supposed to become husband and wife in the period drama. But the actors behind the characters, Melissa Sue Anderson and Radames Pera, had such little chemistry on screen that writers were left with no option but to abandon this storyline. Instead, they gave Mary a different love interest at the blind school she attended after contracting scarlet fever.

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31. Gilbert once stepped into the shoes of Ma

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Melissa Gilbert made her name playing Little House on the Prairie’s Laura Ingalls. But when the show was transformed into a musical in the late 2000s, the actress was obviously too old to reprise the role. Instead, she was cast as Ma in the sold-out Minneapolis production.

30. Landon laughed like a girl

Apparently Landon wasn’t always the macho figure he presented on screen as “Pa” Charles Ingalls. In fact, according to his younger co-star Alison Arngrim, the leading man would often laugh like a little girl. “You could hear him for miles,” the actress once told magazine Closer Weekly.

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29. Landon had a novel method of getting the child actors to cry

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Crying on cue can be one of the most difficult things for an actor. But Landon did his best to make the younger cast members shed a tear whenever the show required it. Melissa Gilbert once revealed that the actor would get misty-eyed himself before going face-to-face with her and asking, “Do you know how much I love you?” Apparently this would do the trick.

28. It was Ronald Reagan’s favorite show

Little House on the Prairie was reportedly one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite shows on television. And it turns out that the period drama’s leading man was one of the POTUS’s biggest fans, too. Indeed, Michael Landon was reportedly a proud Republican who supported both of the 40th’s successful presidential election campaigns.

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27. Katherine McGregor was a disruptive influence on set

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Katherine McGregor was cast as Harriet Oleson on the hit show but apparently fancied herself as a bit of a director, too. In memoir Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, Alison Arngrim described her older co-star as nice but disruptive thanks to her habit of telling other actors what to do. In fact, McGregor was almost fired due to her clashing with the show’s real directors. But her villainous character was deemed to be too invaluable to let go.

26. Its explosive finale was born out of pettiness

Little House: The Last Farewell, the show’s 1984 TV movie, concluded in unlikely explosive style. But the blowing up of Walnut Grove came about due to practical rather than narrative reasons, as well as a little pettiness. Producers decided it would be much easier to return the set to its earlier state with a controlled demolition. This also suited Landon, who apparently wasn’t willing for the set to be used by other productions.

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25. There was tension between Grassle and Landon

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In her memoir, The Way I See It, Melissa Sue Anderson claimed that her on-screen mother and father didn’t get along. Apparently, Grassle didn’t appreciate her character being submissive to Landon’s and was jealous of the power that the actor held. “Theirs was not an equal relationship,” Anderson wrote.

24. Arngrim wanted to date one of her co-stars

Alison Arngrim allegedly fell hard for her co-star Radames Pera, but sadly for her the feeling wasn’t mutual. The actor, who played John Sanderson in the hit period drama, believed that he was too old to date her. Perhaps this was just his way of letting Arngrim down gently as their age gap was no bigger than two years.

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23. One actor played five different characters on the show

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Little House on the Prairie certainly got the most out of E.J. Andre. Incredibly, the actor played no fewer than five different characters across seven episodes on the hit show. Alongside Jed Cooper, Matthew Simms and St. Peter, the versatile Andre also assumed the roles of Zachariah and Amos Thoms.

22. Shannen Doherty slept with Gilbert’s husband

One of the juiciest revelations from Melissa Gilbert’s memoir Prairie Tale concerned Shannen Doherty. The Beverly Hills, 90210 star, who joined the show’s cast in the ninth season as Jenny Wilder, apparently jumped into bed with the actress’ husband at the time. After being confronted about the incident by Gilbert, Doherty reportedly responded, “Well, you know I always wanted to be you.”

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21. Two episodes’ plotlines are identical

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Little House on the Prairie’s scriptwriting team appeared to believe in recycling. In the first season’s 17th episode, “Doctor’s Lady,” an older man, Doc Baker, falls head over heels for a younger woman but decides against pursuing the relationship any further due to their age gap. Mr. Edwards then goes through the exact same scenario in the ninth season’s 10th episode, “Love.”

20. Landon persuaded Grassle to change her stage name

Karen Grassle reportedly bagged the role of Ma Ingalls with ease. However, her on-screen husband believed she still needed to make one significant change before showing up on set. Indeed, Landon felt that Grassle’s stage name, Gabriel Tree, was too bohemian and encouraged the actress to use her more traditional real moniker.

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19. The costumes caused heatstroke

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The Little House bonnets and petticoats may have looked charming and lovely, but wearing all that gear while filming in 90-degree heat was no picnic. In fact, the actress who played Nellie Oleson once collapsed from heatstroke.

18. The set may have been contaminated

Sadly, five different members of the cast developed cancer – with four of them, including Landon, ultimately dying from the disease. And there has long been speculation that the Little House set was contaminated by radioactive waste from the Santa Susana nuclear meltdown in 1959.

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17. Melissa Sue Anderson wasn’t buddies with the rest of the crew

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While most of the cast members happily recall the many friendships they made on set, the actress who played Mary isn’t remembered so fondly. Indeed, while Laura and Mary may have been close on the show, in real life Melissa Gilbert found Melissa Sue Anderson to be conceited. Alison Arngrim, meanwhile, dubbed Anderson a “frenemy” in a 2010 interview with Fox News.

16. Pa didn’t like Mrs. Oleson

Mrs. Oleson made a career out of being the uppity woman who no one liked, so it’s perhaps not that surprising that she wasn’t that beloved in real life, either. Not only did Katherine MacGregor clash with the actor who played her husband, Nels (Richard Bull), but she also apparently continually irritated Landon as well.

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15. Every meal was canned Dinty Moore

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When it came to dinner time on the prairie, it always looked like Ma Ingalls had slaved over the hot stove, cooking up whatever fresh kill Pa had brought home. But in truth, every meal this clan devoured came from a can. Specifically, a can of Dinty Moore beef stew.

14. Pa’s hair color wasn’t natural

One thing’s for sure about Michael Landon: he had a lustrous mane. But what many don’t know is that his head of hair went gray in his twenties. As a result, then, he used Clairol Medium Ash Brown dye for years to keep his locks looking youthful.

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13. Willie was Laura’s real-life brother

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Many of us know that the real-life sister of Melissa Gilbert – who played Laura Ingalls Wilder in the show – is Sara Gilbert, otherwise known as Darlene from Roseanne. But few people know that her real-life brother, Jonathan Gilbert, also appeared on Little House as the bratty Willie Oleson.

12. Pa had to wear platform shoes

Pa Ingalls may have been larger than life on the show, but he was actually on the smaller side in terms of stature in real life. Standing at only 5’9”, Landon added an extra four inches to his height by wearing lifts in his shoes.

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11. A set of twins played the youngest Ingalls girl

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Carrie Ingalls was the adorable youngest sister on the show, but many don’t know that there were two actresses responsible for her character. Yes, she was played by identical twins, since Californian labor laws would only allow very young children to work for short periods. And so at the age of three, Sidney and Lindsay Greenbush shared the role and alternated their time on the set.

10. Carrie’s tumble in the opening sequence was real

The day the crew were filming the opening sequence, the director awoke one of the twins who played Carrie from a nap and sent her running down the hill. During the shoot, though, the little girl groggily tripped and fell in a truly adorable fashion that was forever immortalized on film.

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9. Pa liked a smoke or two

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Michael Landon was a man of many vices, and smoking was certainly one of them. In fact, Pa carried cigarettes in his work gloves and would chain smoke between takes.

8. Nellie’s actress auditioned for three different roles

As Nellie, Alison Arngrim created a character everyone loved to hate. But what may surprise fans is the fact that Arngrim originally auditioned for the role of Laura and, later, for Mary. It wasn’t until she auditioned for awful Nellie, however, that she closed the deal.

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7. Pa was Jewish

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Fans of the show might have assumed Michael Landon was Christian, as many episodes discussed Christian issues and morals. But Landon was Jewish: his real name was Eugene Maurice Orowitz.

6. Nellie and Laura were best buds

One of the best parts of the show was the ongoing rivalry between nasty Nellie Oleson and sweet Laura Ingalls. But in real life, the two girls were the best of friends and adored each other. They even had slumber parties together!

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5. Sean Penn was on Little House

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We now think of him as the man who was once married to Madonna, who won an Oscar for Milk and who sometimes interviews drug lords on the run. But back in the day, young Sean Penn got his start by playing an extra on Little House.

4. Pa recycled Bonanza scripts

Before he became Pa Ingalls, Michael Landon used to write and act on the TV western Bonanza. And so when he began to do Little House and fell short of ideas, he simply plucked some of the old plotlines from his days as Little Joe.

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3. Laura had to disguise her voluptuous chest

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Melissa Gilbert began to blossom into a woman well before Laura Ingalls did, and it caused a few wardrobe problems. To hide her burgeoning new bod, then, Gilbert had to bind herself to keep things, ahem, under wraps.

2. Pa liked to show off his bod

Let’s face it: Charlie Ingalls was a bit of a babe. And he totally knew it. Actor Landon was proud of his buff bod, in fact, and was happy to show some skin for the show. That’s probably why whenever Pa got hurt, it most often required the removal of his shirt.

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1. The cast and crew drank a lot on set

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It appears that life on even the pretend prairie was hard, as many cast members imbibed during filming. In fact, together they’d plow through at least two cases of Coors beer in 24 hours. Even Pa Ingalls himself – played by Michael Landon – liked a nip of whiskey in the morning and was a known heavy drinker.

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