'Little House on the Prairie': The Sad Reason Melissa Gilbert and Patricia Neal Connected on Set

Award-winning actor Patricia Neal guest-starred on Little House on the Prairie in 1975. She played a terminally ill widowed mother in search of a home for her three children. At the time, the young actor who played Laura Ingalls, Melissa Gilbert, didn’t know who Neal was. But the two became fast friends upon meeting.

How Melissa Gilbert knew Patricia Neal was ‘important’ when she guest-starred on ‘Little House on the Prairie’

In her memoir, Prairie Tale, Gilbert wrote that, when Neal guest-starred on Little House on the Prairie, she had no idea who she was.

“I wasn’t aware she had won a Best Actress Oscar for the 1963 movie Hud, received another nomination five years later, and appeared in such memorable films as The Fountainhead, A Face in the Crowd, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” wrote Gilbert. “If someone told me, and someone probably did, the information didn’t stick.”

But the young actor knew Neal “was important” because of how all the “adults” acted about having the seasoned veteran on set. Plus, Neal’s trailer was a Winnebago (the rest of the Little House cast relaxed in honey wagons between takes).  

Patricia Neal had a series of strokes in 1965

Gilbert learned that Neal received the Winnebago treatment because she’d had a series of strokes prior to appearing on Little House on the Prairie. Additionally, Neal used a teleprompter to help her with her lines.

“We kids were told not to distract her, to be respectful, and keep our distance. That just made tenacious me more intrigued,” wrote Gilbert.

Melissa Gilbert and Patricia Neal shared a special connection on the set of ‘Little House on the Prairie’

“Early on the first day Patricia was on set, she and I had a fun exchange and she took me under her wing,” wrote Gilbert. “I was allowed to go in her Winnebago and spent a lot of time with her. She made me feel comfortable, and as we chatted, she opened the door for me to ask her anything. So, being kind of guileless, I asked her why she needed a teleprompter and how come she couldn’t remember her lines.” 

“It’s difficult for me because I only recently learned to walk again,” Neal told Gilbert. “I still have to think right-left-right-left. And when my brain is busy thinking right-left-right-left, it forgets everything else.”

Just like Neal, Gilbert’s father had had a stroke.

“I remember being profoundly moved and almost a little confused by her openness,” she wrote in her memoir. “We didn’t discuss anything that openly at my house. My father’s stroke wasn’t mentioned. It had been bad, but he’d recovered, and now that he was back on the road we didn’t have to think about it.”

Neal answered a lot of questions Gilbert had. Their conversations helped the young actor learn more about what her father had gone through, and helped her to not be so scared for him.  

“I still think about the way Patricia’s honesty cast a light on life, ridding it of some of my deeper and darker fears,” she wrote. “I loved her for it.”

Still, today, Gilbert believes that “the universe sent Patricia into [her] life when [she] needed her.” 

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