I had the honor of interviewing Dean Butler, Almanzo Wilder on “Little House On The Prairie” – my favorite show growing up – and Moondoggie on “The New Gidget”.
1) Dean, what was the auditioning process like for Little House On The Prairie? Who were some of the other actors up for the role of Almanzo Wilder?
The interview process for Little House was just like any of the other auditions I was doing during the late 1970s. The first time I went into the office there was a stack of actor 8X10s was twelve inches high on Susan Sukman’s desk. To win the role of Almanzo Wilder I went through four different interviews – three with Susan and the fourth with Susan and Michael Landon. Each time I came back for another meeting at MGM the stack of pictures on Susan’s desk was cut in half until the final meeting when there were just 4 pictures on the table – I have no recollection of who any of the actors were.
Before I went into the final audition my agent told me that Susan’s note to me was, “whatever you do, don’t act.” For a young actor who believed getting acting jobs was about acting this was unsettling. If I wasn’t going to act in the audition what was I going to do? Of course what Susan meant was that she didn’t want Michael to see me acting. If Michael could see me acting then the camera would too and that wouldn’t be good. I went into the room to read with Michael with a plan to just “act natural”.
Meeting Michael Landon for the first time was an unforgettable experience. He was every bit the iconic TV star. The famous hair, the Carrera sunglasses, deeply tanned skin, open shirt, tight jeans, snake skin boots and the ever present cigarette clenched in his teeth made a distinct impression. Michael Landon wasn’t the poor dirt farmer he played on TV. He offered me his hand and with a big smile asked, “How you doin?” I have no recollection of what I said in response.
We talked for a few minutes and then the non-acting audition began. The scene I read was the one from Back To School Pt 2 that takes place in Almanzo’s living room after he separates Laura and Nellie from what became their famous mud fight. Laura is sitting in the rocking chair and Almanzo is sitting on the floor listening and trying to help her feel better about failing her teaching exam. It was the perfect scene for me to audition with…it called for empathy and kindness. During the read I could see Michael in my peripheral view raising his hands up to his eyes in order to create a close-up. I’ve never forgotten that…it was pretty cool.
After the reading was over Michael was complimentary and as I said goodbye he asked me “what are you doing the 15 th of May?” It was now about the 15 th of April. I told Michael I would be taking my final exams and going through graduation ceremonies at University of the Pacific up in Stockton (were incidently parts of the Little House pilot had been shot in the spring of 1974). Without missing a beat he said, “I think we can wait another week.” Mind blowing, but this had happened to me before on a Movie of the Week called “Friendly Fire” with Carol Burnett and Ned Beatty – I had essentially been told in the room by the Executive Producer that I had the job, but an hour later they ended up hiring “the other guy”.
Adding to my sense of uncertainty Susan didn’t call my agent to make an offer until two weeks after the audition – needless to say I was having a hard time concentrating on my final weeks of school. When the call happened and it was clear that we would make a deal I remember going out and running five miles and playing two hours of full court basketball and not being a bit tired.
The five years of Little House that began on May 22, 1979 were fantastic and Little House remains a very important part of my life.
2) Had you seen episodes of Little House On The Prairie, or read any of the books, before your audition?
I had never watched the show before auditioning for it, but once I got it I watched it every week. Remember in those days there was no YouTube, no DVD and the show hadn’t gone into syndication yet. My only source was primetime reruns.
3) What was it like working with Michael Landon, Melissa Gilbert, Alison Arngrim, Lucy Lee Flippin, and the rest of the cast of Little House On The Prairie?
I was the new kid on the block but I was made to feel very welcome by the entire cast.
Michael was an actor, writer, director and producer. He did all his jobs as well as anybody can do them. Watching him work was like going to school everyday. I don’t go on set ever without think of Michael and the lessons he taught me during those years. I think everybody on the show felt the same way.
Melissa was and is one of the smartest, gutsiest people I’ve ever known. She was an amazing child actor. Her performances illuminated the innocence of childhood in a way that we’d never seen before. Because of who Michael and Melissa were together they played the Laura/Pa relationship with amazing honesty and sensitivity.
For the Laura/Almanzo relationship Melissa was a bit more challenged because she had no life experience to inform the choices she needed to make, but I never saw her fearful or uncertain. When we shot our first kiss on the show in Sweet Sixteen it might have been Melissa’s first romantic kiss ever…I’ll never forget Melissa’s mom crying off camera as we shot the scene for the first time. Barbara had to be consoled by members of the crew. It was surreal. Despite Barbara’s bizarre outburst we finished the scene and through the next four years, Melissa did an amazing job acting “as if” she was the maturing, married and maternal Laura she was playing.
Alison Arngrim was and always will be Nellie Oleson — smart, sassy, funny and resourceful. She was raised in challenging conditions but she has used her life experience to help make a difference for others. Her 2011 memoir, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, was a really good read.
If I could have an older sister I’d be blessed if she were Lucy Lee Flippen. I loved every minute of working with Lucy. Everyone in the cast loved her too. Michael warmly and affectionately called Lucy “sugar” and loved making her laugh. Lucy’s sweet, gentle fragility and quirky humor made her wonderful on the show.
Karen Grassle knocked me out week after week…her luminous beauty and quiet strength made her one of the most beloved TV moms of all time.
Matthew Labyorteux played a couple of parts of the show…first he was young Charles. Later Michael created the part of Albert just for him. Matt’s simplicity and honesty made him magical to watch. I never saw him make a false move…he never pushed…he was really extraordinary. I think Michael saw a lot of himself in Matt.
Katherine MacGregor, who played the unforgettable Mrs. Oleson was really masterful on the show. Every moment of her work was a terrific surprise for the cast and for the audience. Like all good actors working in series television, Katherine created her part by giving Michael and the other writers glimpses of her range and capabilities in every scene she played. Through nine seasons she was unrelenting in the demands she placed on herself to deliver outstanding work day after day after day. I’ve stayed close to Katherine through the years and she is exactly the same as she was all those years ago. I adore her.
I don’t think Katherine MacGregor or Richard Bull, who played the long-suffering Mr. Oleson, got the credit they deserved for their contributions to the success of the show, but those of us who were there know the score.
4) What were your three favorite episodes that you filmed?
Days of Sunshine, Days of Shadow
5)How much was filmed on location, and how much was filmed on a soundstage?
We worked 50/50 on stage and on location. That said our location work was divided between Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley, the Disney Ranch, the Warner Brothers backlot, the gold rush country of northern California and Tucson, Arizona. It was always great going on the road with Little House. During the first five years of the show interiors where shot at Paramount were Michael had shot Bonanza. But in season 6 the show moved to MGM and set up on stage 15, which at the time was one of the biggest sound stages in the world. We had 14 standing sets on this stage and if you looked carefully at the floor you could see the fading remains of the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz. Talk about some cinema history.
6)What was your auditioning process like for The New Gidget?
I came into The New Gidget much the same way I auditioned for Little House. There were probably four or five meetings with the final audition being with Caryn Richman in front of Columbia Pictures TV executives. I remember doing the scene from our MOW pilot where Jeff was hitting a karate bag. I remember taking a big fall during during the scene and it obviously worked. I knew if I got this job that Caryn (who’d already been hired) and I would have a great time working together. We did.
7)How was your experience on The New Gidget compared to that of Little House On The Prairie?
Little House was an established hit. The New Gidget was first run syndication. Little House is a timeless television classic based on the Laura Ingalls Wilder novels and The New Gidget was a continuation of another television classic based on the Gidget books written by Fredrick Kohner. I went from Manly to Moondoggie — if I ever wrote a memoir that would be a great title. Being Manly and Moondoggie paired me with two iconic characters – Laura Ingalls and Gidget. I was flattered to be thought of as the right man for two of America’s sweethearts.
8)Did you have to learn how to surf for The New Gidget?
I was a good swimmer and I was a good body surfer, but I could make no sense of a surfboard. Don Stroud, who played Kahuna on our show was a great surfer.
9) What challenges did you have to deal with on Little House On The Prairie?
The challenge for me was stepping in with a cast and crew that had been working successfully together for five years – they’d created a big hit and they worked together like a fine Swiss watch.
The fact that Almanzo was eventually going to marry Laura meant that I would get right to the center of the show and I felt a lot of responsibility not to screw it up. Whether I did or didn’t is a judgment for others to make.
10) What challenges did you have to deal with on The New Gidget?
Can a show like The New Gidget have challenges? We were making cotton candy every day. Actually the biggest challenge was finding a structural convention that would keep Caryn in the center of every show and once that was found the show really worked. It was sometimes sillier than I would’ve liked, but it was Gidget so what’s the problem? Another challenge was to not work over the top but our scripts seemed to demand a bigger than life approach so that’s what I did. Before we started the series I studied improvisational comedy for a year with The Groundlings in Los Angeles. That experience helped me a lot when we started shooting.
I loved working with Caryn. She is a wonderful actress and singer – cute, sexy, smart and funny and she continues to reveal her talent in new and different ways today. Caryn remains a good friend to this day.
11) Dean, what are you doing today?
Today I work as a producer. I’m just getting ready to start my fourth season producing Feherty for Golf Channel. I don’t play golf, but I love collaborating on the creation of this special interview show. David Feherty is one of the most talented people with whom I’ve ever worked. Check him out: www.golfchannel.com/feherty
I’ve also produced over 5 hours of bonus content for the Little House on the Prairie series DVDs and two other Little House related documentaries, Little House on the Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura. The Almanzo documentary is available on DVD at www.legacydocumentaries.com as well as on iTunes and soon on Amazon.
In 2012 I co-executive produced Pa’s Fiddle: The Music of America for PBS. The show featured a selection of the 127 songs written about by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House books. We shot in Nashville with a cast that featured Randy Travis, Ronny Milsap, Rodney Atkins, Natalie Grant, Ashton Shepherd, The Roys and Committed. Seeing it happen after such hard work by so many people was thrilling. In 2014 we’re developing a new program about the music Laura loved. I’m excited.