Making the Yuletide 'Nellie' with Alison Arngrim
Go ahead — call her “Nellie”! Alison Arngrim doesn’t mind. After playing America’s original “mean girl” on the hit series Little House on the Prairie from the ’70s and ’80s, she’s completely at peace with her notorious TV past.
“I think that everyone knows someone like Nellie,” she says. “Everyone has someone like that who drives them crazy. So knowing that she always ‘gets hers’ at the end of every episode, I think people find very satisfying.”
She likewise notes that the program’s popularity spans a broad range of different people, going so far as to call it “the ultimate ‘red state-blue-state’ show.”
“Everybody — from Baptist preachers to drag queens — loves their Little House on the Prairie,” she says. “And equally. I mean, with the same kind of passion!”
This is a woman who seemed destined for fame practically from conception, considering that her father was Liberace’s manager and her mother was a top voice-over artist responsible for such classic characters as Gumby, Davey Hansen of Davey and Goliath fame, and Casper the Friendly Ghost.
“And don’t forget Sweet Polly Purebred,” Arngrim adds, referring to Underdog’s girlfriend. “That was her personal favorite!”
As a small child, she says, she was eager to perform anywhere a camera might be found, including the local grocery store.
“Back in the early ’70s, it was a novelty that we had a security camera in the supermarket,” she says. “It was in the cheese aisle, and when I discovered they had that one, I took to going to that aisle and doing my tap routine for the cameras when I was, like, 6 or 7 years old.”
Also from the start, her parents taught her to be open-minded.
“I always knew that there were gay people,” she says. “I mean, my parents hung out on Fire Island and around West Hollywood, so it wasn’t really unusual. I was a teenager before I even found out people had a problem with it.”
She even visited the very first Gay Pride Festival in Los Angeles history at just 8 years old.
“It was in Griffith Park. We were coming from the zoo and went to take a look,” Arngrim recalls. “They were selling balloons, and I had my mother buy me a Gay Pride balloon! So, yeah, I go all the way back.”
Such compassionate understanding served her especially well when Steve Tracy, who played Nellie’s husband, Percival, came forward publicly with his diagnosis of AIDS in 1986.
“This was when people didn’t do that,” explains Arngrim. “Rock Hudson really was on his death bed before he admitted he had it. Liberace was still claiming to be on the Watermelon Diet, and here was Steve going on talk shows and newspapers, saying ‘Yes, I have AIDS!’ ”
Almost immediately, his on-screen spouse found herself in what she refers to as the “Linda Evans position” (“you know, because she kissed Rock Hudson on TV!”). Given the state of public perception then, this meant a barrage of calls from the press asking whether she, too, was infected simply for sharing the screen with him.
“All this idiotic stuff,” she says. “I mean, we didn’t exchange bodily fluids on Little House on the Prairie. It wasn’t that kind of a show!”
In the media storm that followed, TV’s favorite villainess proved to be quite heroic. Resolving to find out more about this mysterious ailment, she has since become a uniquely powerful ally to the LGBT community in the ongoing fight for HIV and AIDS education and prevention.
Volunteering with AIDS Project Los Angeles, she received rigorous training that quickly had her up-to-date on the latest information regarding treatment and where to get tested. This led to speaking engagements all over the country.
“Because of the Little House connection, I was allowed into certain venues to speak about AIDS, where other people were not,” the performer-turned-advocate says. “Remember, people were completely in a state of terror — like they thought they’d catch it from just hearing about it or something. But since I was ‘the girl from Little House on the Prairie, well, that sort of made it OK then.”
Now, 20 years later, she’s still as fervent about getting the word out.
“The message hasn’t changed,” Arngrim stresses. “The virus has NOT changed how it is spread and is still doing what it’s always done. What it boils down to is, you have to believe you are worth taking precautions. You have to believe that your life is worth saving.”
Through it all, this awesome individual continues to act, now appearing in Make the Yuletide Gay, newly released on DVD from TLA Video (www.TLAvideo.com). In what may be the first “family-holiday-coming-out film” ever, Arngrim plays Heather Mancuso, whom she calls “this fabulous busy-body neighbor” of a couple whose not-quite-out son returns from college over winter break.
“She’s kind of like if Mrs. Oleson was alive today and a bit of a cougar,” says the TV Land Award winner. “I thought at any minute I was gonna announce ‘eggs were three cents less for brown.’ I mean, I actually yell ‘yoo-hoo’ at one point!”
Seeing how the characters have such similar dispositions, casting Walnut Grove’s answer to The Bad Seed seemed a perfect fit.
“Director Rob Williams told me they talked about getting someone like Nellie, and then said, ‘Why get someone like her when we could get the real deal?!’ After all,” the actress says with a laugh, “I do bring an enormous amount of experience bullying the neighbors. Having the ability to drive people crazy on film, apparently, is my field of expertise.”
Still, isn’t a gay coming-out comedy a far cry from a drama like Little House which practically epitomizes conservative family values? Not in the least.
“One of the reasons I love this movie is because it’s so sweet. I mean, my husband keeps saying it’s like a Hallmark film — but gay.”
She even suggests that watching it together might ease the way for those faced with having to reveal their sexual identity to relatives this season.
“I have a feeling that this DVD is gonna get shown at a lot of houses this Dec. 25,” she says with a wink. “There’s a lot of families where you could bring this home, show it to your parents, then when your mom is in a really good mood, say ‘guess what?’ It may be the coming out film of the century!”