Back in the 1970s and 80s, Melissa Gilbert was one of the most recognizable young stars on television, best known for playing the plucky Laura Ingalls on the hit show Little House on the Prairie. With her trademark brown braids and plaid dresses, Gilbert charmed audiences as the spirited middle daughter of the Ingalls family.
Now, over 40 years after Little House went off the air, whatever happened to Melissa Gilbert?
Adopted Into Fame
Born in Los Angeles, California in 1964 and immediately given up for adoption by her young parents, Melissa was adopted almost immediately by Hollywood power couple Paul Gilbert and Barbara Crane. Through adoption, she would also gain brother Jonathan and later a half-sister on her mother’s side, actress Sara Gilbert, after her parent’s divorce and mother’s remarriage to attorney Harold Abeles.
Melissa Gilbert would start acting early, popping up in commercials for every possible brand in the United States in the late 60s. Eventually, she would land a guest role in Western staple Gunsmoke in 1972, the same year she would audition for a role in Little House on the Prairie, a television adaptation of the beloved book series. Out of over five hundred girls who auditioned for the part of the series author and main character Laura Ingalls, Melissa won.
Little House on the Prairie
Shooting the pilot episode went by smoothly and saw her continue the role when it was picked up for series. Melissa Gilbert would star alongside greats like Michael Landon, who became her surrogate father on the set and mentored her as an actor. Her Little House family would become a second family for the actress, being there for her during personal tragedy early on in the series when Melissa’s adopted father, Paul Gilbert, tragically passed away.
His death would have a profound impact on Melissa, who would only find out the truth later that he committed suicide as opposed to the story she was told of a massive stroke. It would lead Melissa to advocate for veterans’ healthcare in the future, as chronic pain and mistreatment by VA clinics were cited as the reason for his death.
Despite all, Melissa Gilbert would soldier on and continue her role as Laura Ingalls throughout the series and various specials until its end in 1984, somehow finding time to film multiple television specials in the ten years as well. Unfortunately, her relationship with Michael Landon became strained in later years due to his affair with a makeup artist, making their communication tense. They would eventually reconcile before Landon’s death in 1991, with Melissa naming her first child after her idol.
Escaping Child Stardom
Not long after Little House ended, Melissa started trying to break out of the child actress role she had been backed into for the last decade. With more risque roles in television films that can best be termed as “Lifetime-core”, she slowly peeled back the image of Laura Ingalls Wilder and replaced it with Melissa Gilbert, the actress. Taking more varied roles across television kept her afloat, with the television movies being broken up by guest starring in shows like Babylon 5 and Batman: The Animated Series.
While she would attempt to make a lead comeback with Sweet Justice on television, the show only lasted through the 1994-95 season. She would go back on the rotation again between life-sploitation (one of these terms will stick) and guest roles while going through her rollercoaster of a love life.
Love is Complicated
While Melissa would be in a very public relationship with Rob Lowe not long after Little House, the two would call it quits in 1998 with Gilbert meeting her first husband Bo Brinkman not long after. They would marry in 1988, have a son in 1989, and divorce in 1991. That’s not too bad in Hollywood time, especially considering she would meet and date future husband Bruce Boxleitner not long after, marrying in 1995.
Coincidentally they welcomed Melissa’s second son and Boxleitners third only nine months later. While Melissa Gilbert would file for divorce near the end of 2011, she would find love again by 2013, marrying her boyfriend Timothy Busfield in April of that year. Currently, the couple is still together and happy.
Melissa Gilbert would try other avenues than acting for a while in the early 2000s, running and winning the election for Screen Actors Guild President in 2001. She would serve in the position until 2005, being replaced by actor Alan Rosenberg. She would attempt to translate this experience into a congressional run ten years later in her then-home of Michigan. She would drop out before securing the nomination, only giving the reason as “health issues”.
Which makes sense, considering she broke her back at some point and performed with it like that for months in the early part of the 2010s, coincidentally playing the mother of Laura Ingalls in a traveling stage play. Gilbert has also cited struggles with drugs and alcohol throughout her career, certifying her as a former child star. Though all that seems to be behind her nowadays, with the actress seemingly settled in with her husband in upstate New York.
What is Melissa Gilbert Doing Now?
Melissa Gilbert is still active in Hollywood as well, pulling through the 2000s and 2010s with more of the same, housewife-core (that one sounds bad) Lifetime movies dotted with television guest spots. Though she would also start to dabble in the destination of all pretty Hollywood women who want to only work in winter and otherwise live in peace- Hallmark Christmas specials.
In May of 2022 she released her memoir entitled, Back to the Prairie: A Home Remade, A Life Rediscovered, which chronicles her journey through Hollywood and into the Catskills, where she currently lives.
While Melissa Gilbert did say she had quit the business in 2022, she has made a couple of exceptions for voice acting roles in Marvel podcasts, which can usually be done from a closet in your home. The ultimate stay-at-home job. She currently just intends to enjoy her retirement and fix up the couple’s home in the New York mountains.