She might have played a bratty blonde named Nellie in the TV series “Little House On The Prairie”, but she is anything but the mean blonde pre-Karen we all saw her as. Alison Arngrim is one of the most delightful, sweet, and funny people I have “met” in years. Our conversation was full of laughs, tangents, and inside jokes. She grew up working with and knowing about the LGBTQ+ Community in show business, and everyone was in hiding as being out was taboo. Her co-star Steve Tracy who played her husband was actually gay. They were best friends, and she stayed with him until he died of AIDS in 1986.
Arngrim’s stories are deep, fun, and moving. A lifelong ally, she has all my respect in the world. She recently filmed a movie “Only in Dreams” in Utah, and that is a great story, too. We both speak French are also “Honorary Canadians.” She wrote a book about the whole Little House experience in her book “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch.” She also does an interview show on Facebook while wearing her prairie bonnet. Yep, she is all that and a lot more love than you can imagine.
JH: Well, Alison thanks for taking this time this time around, you said you had been interviewed for Instinct before, but that was before my time.
AA: Yeah, that was when it was a print version, ages ago, but glad to be back, I was doing events for all the gay papers. I mean, I started volunteering at AIDS Project Los Angeles in 1986 on the hotline, so, by the late 80s’ early 90s, being in the parades, being on the speaker’s bureau, that is all way back then.
JH: I wanted to start with going old school, when I was watching Little House on the Prairie when I was like 9, those were all reruns, but they were great, wholesome family entertainment with great moral lessons. These are probably 40 years ago that I saw these episodes. What was great was that your character was a brat, and you did it well, but my parents always said to look for the moral of the story. I knew that every time you came onto the scene there was going to be one great lesson. I mean, your family dynamic was great, your father’s character was the only guy in town with a shred of common sense. And as your character got older, you became more level-headed like your dad’s character.
AA: And that was true in real life too. Richard Bull was voted most like his character. He was “Mr Voice of Sanity and Reason” on the set. But I did like that too, and yes, when my character got older, I liked the episodes when I would flip back and forth when my character was only nice when Percival (Her husband) was in the room. I would get mean, and throw stuff, I thought “Yeah I could do THIS all day”. BUT, they say for every actor, you need to suspend belief and be your character. And people still to this day say “I hated what you did to Laura”, and they felt it was real, it was a real emotional show. And I have to say “Yes, that was almost 50 years ago, and it was A SHOW”.
JH: Malcolm McDowell said something similar about his role in “A Clockwork Orange” he did it as a kid, and he never got free from that character and image of this crazy, violent psychopath, highly intelligent villain. It was so convincing, and he did it so well, but he never really could escape it.
AA: Oh yes, great performances in film history.
JH: And there you are, or at least “WERE”, stuck in that forever, because you were so conniving. What I loved the most about you and the situation, you ushered in so much change and progression in the town. For example, when you were saying “I want Percival” and your mom was really not happy with that, then when he said he was going to stay and marry you, and said “I’m Jewish”, oh the melt down was classic. Though, I didn’t understand the “SCANDAL” about it because I lived in a neighbourhood in Herndon Virginia called “Hebrew Heights” and all my neighbours were Jewish, and I thought they were wonderful people, so I had to have that explained to me.
AA: I did commentary for the DVDs, I was doing Judaism 101 for the Christian viewers. And I learned that in those cases, yes, it did in fact happen. There was a movement in the 1870s, a Jewish man could leave the big city, and move to the frontier on the homestead, not be a banker or a Dr. but go be a shopkeeper, and marry a blonde hair blue eyed “Gentile” girl. The idea was “This is a new country, maybe the pressure and the killing from the old country. Maybe we can go to a town and establish ourselves, and marry non-Jewish women”.
JH: When suffragette came into town, she started the fire about women having no rights or property, and everyone was up in arms. Then she asked your husband if he would sign the petition, and he signed it without a second thought. Then the rest of the women in town went on strike, and you two were oblivious to it all because he was such a rebel in just seeing his wife as his equal.
AA: I KNOW, I was so proud of that, “MY HUSBAND was the first to sign it” isn’t that marvelous? And he was explaining to his father “This is the new way”. And after a while, people were able to see that nothing was so terrible that happened like they thought they would after these changes came into their lives and community.
JH: I remember reading an article “Where are they now?” about Little House, 25 years ago, and there was the whole rumor that you and Steve Tracy were an item. And then that he came out as gay sometime later, and died of AIDS. It also said that you and he were best friends on and off-screen and that it was him getting sick that got you involved in your activism for the community. When was it that he trusted you enough to tell you he was gay?
AA: Well, they say that when you’re married to someone on TV, you either can’t stand each other, or you are crazy about each other, there seems to be no middle ground. Luckily we hit it off, and we had so much in common. Melissa Gilbert and I quizzed him, “What is your favorite Pizza?” and “What’s your favorite band?”, and early on, Melissa was very nosy, she was asking “Do you have a girlfriend?”. And Melissa came up to me and said “Your husband has pierced ears” and I thought, well, lots of people have pierced ears. And she said “No there is some funny business going on we need to investigate this.” and he was hemming and hawing about it, and said “Well, it was a long time ago”, then she said, “Well they DO grow back you know”. Then he was dodging questions about his dating history, and she said “He is totally gay”. And Melissa and I heard about this secret party at his apartment. I decided I was going to crash the party, so I showed up and it was FULL, just wall to wall with gorgeous guys.
JH: Oh I bet you were THE HIT that night, getting doted on, I learned this with my wife, that EVERY woman needs a gay man for a best friend and you just hit the jackpot.
AA: YES, and he is introducing me to everyone, trying to not say it. Then the next morning at work he said “Ok, so, I guess you figured it out”, now this was still the 70s. But this is the thing, my father was gay, nowadays you would say he was bisexual, but he was gay, and just really liked my mom. My parents met in the theatre in Vancouver, and back in the 50s, you could be out, to your friends in the theatre. And they hit it off and were in love in their own way, and they moved to Toronto and started a career in radio. Nowadays, people can identify, as gay, bi, non-binary, whatever, it wasn’t like that back then, but my parents were happy, and stayed together till death did they part. My father became a manager and ended up managing Liberace.
JH: NO SHIT??
AA: Yeah, my dad was in the 9000 building on Sunset BLVD with Seymour Heller & Associates. And Seymour was Colonel Tom Parker to Elvis, to Liberace. We moved into a house in the hills, around the corner from Liberace, and we would go trick or treat to his house. The butler would come to the door with a silver tray, it was amazing. We would go to his shows, and so it was a “Thing” with Gay actors in the 70s, everyone knew, but you were not really to be “OUT” out, to the public. Your manager knew, publicist, agent, even everyone on the show, but you were never out to the public. But in magazines, you had a constant fiance or hadn’t found the right woman. Seymour Heller KNEW Liberace was gay, but he would have taken a bullet in the head before he would say it publicly. He was sworn to protect Liberace with his life. So “NO! HE IS NOT GAY”, “NO HE DOES NOT HAVE AIDS”, and they always had to get rid of the boyfriend when something goes wrong. Seymour would say “Ok you can have this much money, and one of the cars, and the fur coat, now get out of here”. This was how it was in the 70s, so here is Steve, just broken in on a series, and it’s LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE, the family show, so he is not announcing that he is gay in 1979. So, at this time I was dating a guy who was not interested in being photographed or going to Hollywood parties. So, it was PERFECT, here we were, best friends, and none of us wanted to take our “dates” to the party. So we became each other’s date for every Hollywood part. Our boyfriends would see us off, and everyone was happy. We went to all the parties and red carpets. Then people began to talk, we were very convincing. People said that the kissing scenes, even from the suits, asking if Laura and Almonzo could warm it up a little cause they were supposed to be the great romantic couple, and it is not clicking. We were not supposed to know this but the memo was leaked and it said about Steve and me “Those two look as if they fuck like crazed weasels”, and Steve and I wanted to wear T-shirts that said “Weasel 1” and “Weasel 2”, but we couldn’t, they would have known we saw the leaked memo. BUT, it was all over the set, and even Michael Landon couldn’t figure out what was happening. The inquirer started getting nosy, and there was a meeting where all the managers, and agents, and we are going to do a Valentine day lunch, and you are going to buy each other cards and presents. Then profess your love for each other in front of them. We went to the store to buy each other cards, and we did, and without peeking, one of the cards was the same. So yeah, we were on the same page here, and we could have been on the newlywed game. So we sprung it on them, that we were in love, a couple, and were together. The agents asked us to stay low with our actual boyfriends, and it was great. And the tabloids were satisfied, they had a story they could sell, and we all went on with our lives.
JH: I just read that you two were best friends, and you were with him in that capacity when he came out, and stayed with him until he died.
AA: Yeah, then AIDS hit, it was like COVID actually. People started getting sick, we would hear a friend, say “I am selling everything in my apartment” and go home to live with their mothers, sometimes just saying “I’m not well”. And then they would be dead within the year. Then in I think it was 1980, a friend of my mom’s son was in the hospital, and everyone just said “He is just playing sick, it’s not that bad, he is always sick” kind of thing, then my mom visited him, and she came home and was in shock. She said “He is dying”, we asked “What’s he got?”, she said she didn’t know, and the Doctors didn’t know either. And he died, and it was AIDS, so it was like this beginning of a horror movie. Then it becomes publicly known as “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome”, nobody knew what it meant, but we were learning what it was. And people started dying from it. Then one day I got a message from Steve, that sounded like a hostage or something, saying he needed to talk, but very unclear about anything. He first said “I have cancer” then he called me a few weeks later and said “I have AIDS”, and that he had Kaposi’s Sarcoma. And there wasn’t even AZT, there was NOTHING. He was going down to UCLA, and there was nothing. It took him a long time to get diagnosed, he had to go to 4 doctors till they tested him. So he told me that he was going on a talk show, and he goes on TV and tells people he has AIDS, this was late 85. Now remember Rock Hudson never went public, he just went quiet and was on his death bed before anyone really knew.
JH: Yeah Hudson died in Paris, I remember that, they still talk about that over there.
AA: Yeah, no one went public about any of it, I mean, Liberace was saying he was on the “Watermelon Diet” and that’s why he lost so much weight. And Poor Seymour, he felt terrible, he said he felt silly telling people that “Watermelon Diet”. So Steve goes public, when NO one was going public, this was when there were no ribbons, nothing about the cause even. He made a deal with the Enquirer (People Magazine didn’t want to run the story), and he made a deal that he got the cover, he picked the photo, everything.
JH: So, he did this for the story, to raise awareness cause he knew he was dying, not for the fame.
AA: Yes, he took that opportunity to make the statement, he sat down for a long interview, and told them everything. And he got the cover of the National Enquirer. “Little House Star has AIDS, Fights Dreaded Disease”. It was a very big deal, remember when Linda Evans had been kissing Rock Hudson on Dynasty, and everyone was freaking out thinking she had AIDS. Then reporters were saying “Well, you were married to him on TV, and…”, it was then that I realized these people knew NOTHING. I thought how terrifying that the journalists were asking me about it, they were asking a blonde actress medical questions. That was when I decided to volunteer for the southern California AIDS hotline. And it took a hundred hours of training over several weeks, and you had to pass a 5-page exam. Then I would go to hospitals, schools, and stores, and explain how the virus spreads, and here is how you don’t get it from mosquitos. Then I am working the hotline, and talking people off the ledge. They would call me saying “I think I have it, what do I do? I am going to kill myself.” It was a scary time.
JH: We are in the thick of that right now in Utah, telling young gay kids not to kill themselves.
AA: I can’t believe that in the 2020s and we are still talking about gay people being possessed by the devil and god knows what else.
JH: Well, Donald Trump’s favourite physician was going around saying that infertile women were dreaming of having sex with demons, and had Alien DNA. So, if the president can quote someone like that, anything can happen, we have not progressed that far, unfortunately.
AA: Yeah, I thought we were going forward. But I am amazed to see with Covid, people acting as they did with AIDS. People coming up with crazy theories, people not trusting medical science. People saying “I’m not going to get vaccinated”, I mean, I at least give it to Ronald Regan, he didn’t say “Hey everyone! Go out and have promiscuous sex, and whatever you do, don’t use a condom”. That is the equivalent of what we had. Then you had the other side, people were washing their canned goods and doorknobs. It’s airborne, and like AIDS, it does NOT transmit from surfaces. So, back then, the standard scenario was a young man had AIDS, their family disowns them, and their friends and partner take care of them. Steve was completely the opposite, his boyfriend thought he just caught it and had been cheating on him, and just bailed. But his Mom and sister were on the first plane out asking “What can we do?”. And Melissa Gilbert invited the whole cast to her house and said if anyone makes cracks about Steve or whatever about “staying away” from him, I will personally punch them in the face. Everyone was loving and supportive of him, till the end. He went back to Tampa and he died on Thanksgiving day.
JH: So, let’s plug for your new movie. I found you in that Utah film facebook group, cause you filmed that movie here in Utah, and some of the people I’ve acted with were in the same film.
AA: Yes, It’s called “Even In Dreams”, and I got to choose the name of my character, “Debbie”, it was a totally independent film, and I was asked to do it when I met the director at a comic, sci-fi, whatever convention in Snake River Idaho. It’s about two girls who make a band and chase their dreams. She had made a movie already, and she asked me to be in it. And it’s about the surviving member of the band who makes it to Nashville and queues the backstabbing manipulative human being. And I said, “This sounds fabulous”. So, I play Debora the evil manager. And they flew me out to Utah, I was the only real famous person in it. We were tested for covid before we got there when we arrived, and every two days. We will be distanced, and the extras come in, masks off, then back on. We did it, and then they would lock me in my hotel. We followed all the protocols, and no one got sick. IT looks like it will be out in August.
JH: Hey, I’ll shoot your red carpet event when you premiere it.
AA: Yes, I think you ARE coming to the premiere. (Laughing)
JH: On, one last question here. What would your message be to the young gay kid in the closet, afraid, and in a vulnerable state?
AA: You might not be in a safe place, but things change, when you grow up, you move out, you find someone who can help you. You have an enormous advantage now of so many people who want to help you. There are people who care about you, HANG IN THERE, stay in, it’s like waiting to see the end of the movie. I was abused as a child and thought there was no way out. I did stay in, I did get out when I had the chance, I did have a life, a career, and it did work out ok. Stay with us, keep reaching out.
JH: Well, you have done well for yourself, thank you for all of your support over the years.
I will post the release of “Even In Dreams” when the date gets closer.
Please consider helping in her campaign to help protect children.
2 thoughts on “Before ‘Karen’, There Was Nellie – Alison Arngrim, Love In Plain Sight”
I read Alison’s memoir, Portrait of a Prairie Bitch and LOVED it. Naturally, I had to see her when she toured in her show based on the book. I received another copy of the book at the show and Alison autographed it. It is one of my “prized possessions.” Her show was brilliant. I hope she does it again, someday. Alison, my dog chewed the corner of your book and I tell friends that even she thinks you’re a bitch!
I have to say, my time with her on the phone, very touching, but also, man that girl is hilarious. I can’t imagine anyone staying straight faced on the set. She has a huge heart, and could make a statue laugh.