Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Deeper Dish with Alison Arngrim (aka Nellie Oleson)
Watch out, folks, Nellie Oleson is coming to Chicago this week! Actually actress Alison Arngrim, who played nasty Nellie on the 1974-82 television series, Little House on the Prairie, is a real sweetheart. I had the great pleasure of recently chatting with her about her fabulous career, which has also included appearances on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island as well as such films as the 2006 French movie, Le Deal, and last year's hit gay comedy, Make the Yuletide Gay. And now she's touring the world with her wickedly funny one-woman stage show, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, in which she talks about her life as a child star and startles audiences with shocking celebrity gossip. Alison has also written a book called Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated, which she is coming to Chicago to promote with two shows at Davenport's Piano Bar & Cabaret this Thursday and Friday (September 9 and 10) at 8 pm as well as a book signing at Borders on Clark Street on Saturday at 2 pm. I am so delighted to have this groovy gal here on the Dish to discuss her career and answer a few pop culture questions.
Let's begin with Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. What inspired you to create the show and then turn it into a book?
I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for years – since I was a teenager – but when I first started performing in New York in 2002, I had to come up with a whole new show. So I decided to go with real stories of my real life and just get up and tell them what actually happened. Well, it was such a hit – I’m like “I’m doing this from now on” – so when my friends ask, “Who writes your act?”, I say: “Nobody now. It just writes itself.” It’s now become this sort of multimedia audience interactive show where I actually have video and photos. I talk about the fact that my father managed Liberace and I used to go to his shows when I was eight and how wacky that was. And I have pictures of me and Liberace. And I talk about my ghastly appearance on Fantasy Island as a teenage hooker and being sexually harassed by Hervé Villechaize. We have a question and answer segment for the audience. It’s really, really fabulous. So this thing sort of took off – to the point that I was even doing it in French. In fact, in October I have three shows in France. It’s totally mad. So it kind of developed a life of its own.
I’ve been talking about doing a book for years – even right after Little House. My friends would all say, “You’ve got to write this stuff down. These stories are just off-the-wall.” And so when I was doing the show, I began writing more of the book and then I got a call from a literary agent, who said, “Is there a book to go with the show?” “There is!” and abracadabra, I’m now on the tour without end. The book came out in June and it’s back-to-back show, book signing, show, book signing, show. It’s great!
What has been your most interesting fan experience since you began promoting your book?
I’ve pretty much always had interesting experiences with fans. In the book I talk about the woman who came to the autograph show and just walked up to me and said, “I forgive you!”, and walked away. So they’ve always been a bit keyed-up. We’ve had a few Bonnet Heads come to the show and to the signings – people show up in full Little House drag regalia. I like the grown women with the braids and the dresses who carry the lunch boxes. We had a guy in Vegas who came to the book signing and I don’t know what was wrong with him. He was speaking to some of my friends in the corner and he said, “Why is she being so nice? She’s supposed to be mean.” “Well, yes, she’s an actress.” “When did she become nice?” “She’s always been nice – we’ve known her for years – she’s really a very lovely woman.” “Why are they calling her Alison?” “Well, that’s actually her name, not Nellie.” This guy actually said his illusions were shattered that my name was Alison and that I wasn’t mean. He had to have been 50 years old! He was really perplexed to see me in person. So we do still have some people who are out on Planet Xenon who think the show is real.
The book has really been well-received. I did go to No. 30 on The New York Times best-seller list – and I really like when people tell me, “Well, I sat down to read it and I wound up staying up all night and read it in two days.” And so many fans are coming to me and saying, “I really love this because I read Melissa Gilbert’s book and I liked that one, but she talked a lot about her personal life and only a little bit about the show. And then I read Melissa Sue Anderson’s and it was like an episode guide. She just talked about plotlines of the show and revealed nothing of a personal nature. And I got your book and you do both.” And I do. I give them every possible thing anyone could be curious about the behind-the-scenes of Little House, plus I tell my life story.
What was your most memorable fan encounter back when you were playing Nellie?
Oh gosh, people got really out of control. There was the ill-fated going-out-in-costume attempt. It was an Easter fair for children at a very posh L.A. school. The managers and the publicist convinced them to tell Katherine MacGregor, who played Mrs. Oleson, and I that it would be a smart idea to go in costume. It was a huge disaster. They hated us, children were afraid of us, and two little kids kicked me in the butt and knocked me to the pavement.
My favorite was being in the Hollywood Christmas Parade and someone actually throwing a McDonald’s cup of orange soda at my head. They had really great aim, too, they got me right in the right temple. And I keep expecting one day to meet some middle-aged person who will say, “I was a teenager. My friends dared me. I was aiming for the car and I never thought I was going to get you in the face.” I was really amazed by that. What nerve did I tap? What button did I push in people’s psyche that they would fling a cup of soda at my head?
How did you handle such a reaction from the public at such a young age?
I’ve always had this weird sort of philosophical out-of-body experience reaction to the bizarre. A lot of people would’ve just reacted immediately and emotionally – “I’ve been hit with a soda!” – which would probably be more normal. I sort of sat there, holding the cup of soda, going, “What does this mean? This means something.” And I was sort of astounded and in shock and I thought, “Wow! I just played somebody else on TV – in a wig no less – and something about my performance caused someone to become so freaked out that they actually did this in public to someone they didn’t know. What would possess someone to do that? And what did I do – clomping around in Simi Valley in front of a camera reading lines – that was so scary that it would cause people to take leave of their senses? And how can I bottle that and make sure I do it again because I’ll be up for an Academy Award if I keep this up.”
To my absolute jaw-dropping amazement, the first time I went to France in 2002, I found out that French people worship Little House on the Prairie. When the show's foreign rights were sold and it went into syndication, France was one of the first countries to start rerunning it – and it never stopped. Little House is in like 140 countries. It’s just freakish. I was just in Provincetown and I met people from Germany, England, Canada, France and Trinidad who had seen every single episode. I’ve met people literally from Bangladesh, Borneo, Sri Lanka, going “Oh, I’ve never missed it.” WHAT?? The French though – they’re like, “Oh, we got The Waltons, it ran for a few months", but they just didn’t get into it. Little House clicked. It was like the late ‘70s – the show hadn’t even finished here – and it started running at noon. And they just kept running it – all the episodes over and over again and people kept watching it. So it’s actually been running continuously for over 20 years on one channel every day at noon. You know when people go into the break room to watch a soap opera – at lunchtime in France you’ve got, “I’ve got to go in back and watch La Petite Maison.” They’re all watching the show! The French love it – there’s men crying, everybody’s hugging and kissing and always in love. They think it’s an intensely emotional romantic show – and they all watch it and sob and cry and go mad and, of course, they don’t think I’m mean – they think I’m French. They’re cuckoo for Nellie and Mrs. Olesen. So now I go there all the time and I’ve retooled a version of my show for the French. It’s completely off-the-charts weird, but they love me there and I love them, so it’s great. In the other countries, they say, “You’ve got a poor family, they live in two rooms, they have a lot of kids, they’re agriculturally-based and depend on the elements, and they never have any money – it’s kind of how most people are living!”
Did this lead to you appearing in the French film, Le Deal?
Yes. After I visited several times and the French found out that I liked them back, I met the director Jean-Pierre Mocky on a talk show. And he thought I was a riot, so we started talking and the next thing I know he agreed to have me in his film. My French agent called him up and said, “Seriously, this would be a press coup. You gotta do it”, and he was like, “You’re right. It would be such killer press for both of us. She’s in the movie.” So I made Le Deal. It’s sort of a comedy send-up of a detective film. It’s really silly and it's French. And I’m in it! So now I have a French film under my belt. Go figure.
In a recent Entertainment Weekly, the books by both you and your former co-star Melissa Sue Anderson were compared. Is it true that you would have liked to have taken a swing at her back in your Little House days?
Wow, she really gave me a hard time. I don’t know what happened. Maybe her mother told her Melissa Gilbert and I were juvenile delinquents or we were diseased. But she just acted like we were the servants and she was the head cheerleader. We were like, “Dude, you’re 12. What’s with the attitude?” She just sort of clumped around like she was the great diva star – and she would actually openly insult me. We had one fight scene scheduled ever on the show and we kind of started trash-talking in make-up. She threatened me and I threatened her back. But they decided to change the scene so we didn’t actually have physical contact. I was kind of bummed because that would’ve been wild. It would’ve been ratings heaven because we would’ve gone to town on each other.
So was she this way throughout the series?
Yes – and apparently to this day. She’s married to a lovely man, she has lovely children, she moved to Canada and renounced her American citizenship. She’s really kind of distanced herself from all things Prairie – but then she puts out this book, which I admit the rest of the cast was like, “Well, you never come to the reunions, you never speak to any of us, you don’t really do interviews anymore, and you never want to talk about the show – but now you’ve written a book. All right.” She’s kind of the Ginger – remember the whole Gilligan’s Island problem with Tina Louise. I’m kind of the Mary Ann, she’s kind of the Ginger of the show.
Since you’re always asked what your favorite episode of Little House is, I'm curious to know your least favorite episode.
The episode that was the hardest for me to do would be the one where I teased the stuttering girl because that was just nasty. And I couldn’t talk when I was a kid. I couldn’t say the letter “S” – I had a slight speech impediment and talked like Cindy Brady. So I was hanging out with all the stutterers and stammerers and kids who couldn’t say “L” and “W”. So I was hardly in the position to pick on a stutterer – and the idea of making this girl cry gave me the creeps – but I did it very well though.
The stupidest episode is really late in the series when things got weird and it was Little House: A New Beginning. Mrs. Oleson tries to turn what was Nellie’s hotel into a chain restaurant and it’s a disaster. Everyone hates it. So she says, “I’ll never do anything like this again.” And then the stagecoach pulls into town and out gets – so help me God – Colonel Sanders. This is like “jump the shark” – what were you thinking?
What is your fondest memory from your years on Little House?
The people. It was a physically demanding job. It was hotter than hell in Simi Valley – and we wore petticoats and dresses and I had the wig – and then it would be freezing cold. I was constantly being thrown into rivers and lakes. So it could be hard physically and you’d be at the end of the day just saying, “My God, how do I get out of here?” But it was the most fascinating group of people ever assembled for a show. I was just emailing “Miss Beadle” this morning – we’re still talking to each other. So to come in every morning and hear Michael’s high-pitched laughter and have Melissa Gilbert rush up to tell me what terrible thing Melissa Sue Anderson had done now – and then have Katherine come storming in and say, “What are you eating for breakfast? How many times have I told you about proper nutrition?” And just watch everybody bounce off the walls like little atoms – oh, it was fantastic.
Now let’s discuss a few of your other TV and film appearances over the years. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind about:
Your TV debut on Room 222 in 1969?
I was seven or eight years old. I believe I have one line – I asked a guy to help me cross the street, but it got cut. Primarily I stand on the corner and eat an ice cream cone. The premise was one of the teenagers is madly in love with some girl and she’s dating another guy and he’s now stalking them, desperately trying to keep up, but he keeps getting delayed. And I ask him, “Can you please help me cross the street?”, and he goes “Oh God, all right” and he helps me. That was the whole shebang. It was pretty good. I got ice cream, I had a line, it got cut to even less than that, but what the heck.
My horrendous episode of Fantasy Island where I was a hooker. Eve Plumb – and we are the same age – played my mother. She comes to Fantasy Island and she’s got some mysterious TV disease in which she’s pregnant but she’s not to going to live to see her child grow up. So Ricardo Montalban takes her into the future where she sees her daughter as a happy little girl and then as a miserable teenager who runs away from home. So Ricardo then takes Eve into this terrible ghetto neighborhood and she asks, “Mr. Roarke, why are we in this terrible neighborhood?” And he's like, “I’m very sorry but your daughter is a big whore now.” And I’m on the lamppost and there’s a pimp slapping me around. So Eve breaks the rules and runs into the future and dresses up in bad hooker wear to sneak into the brothel to save me from being auctioned off to Lucky Eddie. It’s absolutely the most twisted episode of Fantasy Island ever.
And is this when Hervé Villechaize hit on you?
This is the theory I have deduced. Despite his size and looks and horrendous personality, Hervé did wind up with all these tall, gorgeous models. I believe he dealt in volume, and as I say in my show, he figured if he just asked every single person he saw to have sex with him, someone would say yes. So he would totally hit on everything that moved. I’d just turned 18 and I’m in my little tiny swimsuit that doesn’t cover anything and high heels and Hervé says, “You’ll come to my dressing room!” He would sit in make-up and tell these bizarre sexual stories because he thought it was hot. Oh My God, you’re horrifying! He was the creepiest thing in the world. I kept thinking, “Does somebody go for this line? Are you getting takers with this?” But apparently he did.
The Love Boat (1981), which also starred The Beverly Hillbillies' Nancy Kulp and Toni Tennille?
That was a fun show to do. I didn’t get to go out on the boat – they take the boat out twice a year with Charo. We were in the studio, and I was the rotten, evil Becky Daniels, the favorite TV star of the captain’s daughter who shows up to film her show on the boat. The daughter is all excited to be my stand-in so, of course, she gets hit with pies and buckets of water thrown on her – and I turn out to be a complete bitch. It was fun because I got to work with Nancy, who played my aunt, and she was fabulous! I loved her – a brilliant woman. Toni was a doll, and she would invite people to her dressing room and tell very funny stories about the Captain, who was apparently quite nuts. Then we had Anthony Andrews, the hot English guy who had just been in Danger UXB and Brideshead Revisited. I was 19 and madly in love with him. The only problem was because I was playing this weird kid actor character, I was dressed kind of like Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed – I had little teeny braids and I even had a yellow rain slicker and hat. So I’m sure this poor guy thought I was about 13 or 14 – if that – 12 maybe. So I kept trying to chat him up at lunch and he’s like, “Hello, little girl.” Crap! I’m trying to date this guy, who’s wondering, “Why is a 12-year-old hitting on me?”
Make the Yuletide Gay?
It was so fun. I loved it – lots of leopard prints – sort of Mrs. Oleson 2010. I thought it was great. It had to play Outfest twice because they couldn’t fit everyone in the room. People were even saying, “Okay, gay independent film, traditionally something sad and depressing happens – someone dies, they get rejected. Now here’s a coming out story with a happy ending. A funny, cute, accessible Christmas story with a positive upbeat ending.” And I said, “Guys, you made a film where the lead character comes out to his parents – and it’s okay. This is more revolutionary than half the stuff made.” And I have been told that it was such a hit with the distributors and the producers that they insist there be a sequel and they are writing it. I don’t know if the sequel is going to be Easter or Halloween, but I’ve been asked to be in it.
Is it true that actress Brenda Vaccaro threw fun Christmas parties?
She threw fabulous parties! I met Brenda Vaccaro in the Bahamas. This is a story I gotta put in the second book – it’s totally demented. In the early ‘80s when Paradise Island Casino had just opened in Nassau, they were having a grand opening so they flew in celebrities and just paid us to hang out and eat and drink and gamble and take pictures. It was the weirdest collection of celebrities. We had Dorian Harewood, which kind of made sense ‘cause he’s like the blackjack champion – Brenda Vaccaro, who brought her mother and her husband – Laura Dern, who was way too young to be there – she was like 15 – and she brought her mom – and then me and I brought my dad. And it was the most weird, bizarre party of people. And Brenda was so funny – she was worried that we were going to go into the Bermuda Triangle. Every kind of crook on the beach was selling her stuff – she actually bought a giant bag of sand that she was told had special properties and she believed them. She was great fun – but her soon-to-be ex-husband was very weird. He was sort of hitting on me and chasing other women down the beach – but they were divorced shortly thereafter.
Brenda threw the biggest Christmas parties with the best eggnog in town – and it was really quite fabulous. There were all these ‘80s celebrities so it looked like an episode of Love Boat or Fantasy Island. And I was standing there in some cute little Christmas miniskirt when Dan Haggerty – friggin’ Grizzly Adams – came up to me and actually said, “Let’s just get out of here. Do you want to go?” I was sort of stunned and said, “Oh no no, I’m here with some other people. Gee, thanks.” And it wasn’t even like a long conversation. It was like “My car’s outside. You wanna blow this pop stand, let’s go.” The idea that Dan Haggerty would just walk up to you and go “Let’s go” and that people would jump in the car with him – maybe it works,I don’t know. I was floored.
If you could go back and give your 19-year-old self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
Wear a longer skirt to parties. No, probably I would say know when to say “No”. I wouldn’t say no – clearly – to projects very often during my late teens and twenties. It took years before I figured out what it was I really liked to do and didn’t like to do and what kinds of things just made my skin crawl and would make me uncomfortable later to watch. Even today I probably say yes to more things than most 48-year-old women. I will agree to all sorts of wacky projects because sometimes I do have these great adventures. Yuletide was a teeny little film and I said, “It’s a Christmas movie. Three days out of my life. How bad could it be?” Turned out to be fabulous with really great people and then the bloody thing is a hit and plays every festival on earth. Go figure. And when I first went to France and they said, “How about we do your show in French”, and everyone said, “That’s a terrible idea” – and, of course, it’s been a smash and I go twice a year now. So I do say yes to the damndest things, but at least now sometimes I go, “No, actually I’m going to hate myself in the morning if I do that.”
The last good book I read was:
Mine. No, actually I just finally read Running with Scissors – and I liked it. But right now I’m kind of obsessed with my favorite book which I keep going back and rereading – Marc Acito’s Attack of the Theater People. I died of laughter because it sounded like the kind of adventures I would get into in real life. It’s still my favorite book this year that I’ve read.
My favorite comfort food is:
Macaroni and cheese – but it’s much too high in sodium so I’m switching to Trader Joe’s O’s, their organic version of SpaghettiOs. They’re supposed to be much better for you. But I do love Kraft Deluxe Mac and Cheese.
When I was growing up, I never missed a television episode of:
The Addams Family. I later read an article in TV Guide, in which some psychologists said that Gomez and Morticia were actually the best parents on TV. They said the parents on Leave It to Beaver were constantly yelling at their children and punishing them unfairly, but Gomez and Morticia were really supportive and into their kids’ education. Yeah, they dressed funny, but they were the best parents on TV. Must be why I couldn’t resist.
Today I never miss a television episode of:
I miss a lot of episodes because I’m too busy, but it’s a tie between The Simpsons and Burn Notice. I will drop what I’m doing to watch either of those shows.
If I was stranded on a desert island for a year, I would want to listen to:
David Bowie and probably some of my favorite French music like the Notre Dame de Paris, the French musical of The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Garou. I listen to that constantly for some weird reason. I love Garou.
Three of my favorite movies are:
Silence of the Lambs – my cats are named Hannibal and Clarice – Rocky and Harold and Maude. I gotta admit in newer movies I’d have to throw in The Fifth Element – maybe that’s ‘cause there’s a cable channel that constantly runs it over and over again.
If I was asked to choose the Sexiest Man Alive, it would be:
I still like Sylvester Stallone – he’s looking better and finally letting himself age a little. He really should look like the way he did at the end of F.I.S.T. about now. I like the dude on House – he does a great American accent, too. I guess Sean Connery still sort of has it. And the guy who does The Transporter movies – Jason Statham – he’s hot.
If I could have anyone in the world – living or dead – be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following four people:
Beatrice Lillie because I haven’t seen her really since my fifth birthday party. She lived at the Chateau Marmont, and it was the time while she was in L.A. doing Thoroughly Modern Millie. She was wandering the halls of the hotel and I was, too – it was back in the ‘60s when people just let their kids wander about – and I found her. She was just this dotty old woman and I thought she was funny. So I brought her home like a kitten and asked, “Can I keep her?” And my parents said, “I think she has an apartment, dear.” But she became my friend – and she wound up coming to my fifth birthday party. She was hoot and a holler. So I would bring back Bea Lillie – and I would invite Sylvester Stallone to hear about his new career with The Expendables – talk about someone who's been permanently freakin’ typecast. And I'd bring back Eartha Kitt and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’d like to know what Laura thinks about all of this pop culture and comedy and weirdness around her books – and would she have liked the TV show.
What’s next for Alison Arngrim?
I’m going to a crazy staged reading of a very Southern wacky play on Sunday. I do like to do theater. I met this guy in Las Vegas – this friend of friend – who wrote a strange play about some people who try to fake an alien invasion and everyone thinks it’s the second coming of Jesus. Okay, that’s a plot – I’ll come to that. Then I’m off to Chicago next week and I have two shows at Davenport’s and a book signing on Saturday at Borders on North Clark Street. Chicago’s going to be fun because I also work with PROTECT, the National Association to Protect Children. We’ve got a big base in Chicago so I’m actually going to be meeting with some PROTECT people and visiting with law enforcement who specifically target child trafficking. We’ve been able to change laws in seven states, and we’ve gone into Washington, D.C., and gotten more funding for law enforcement. It’s an actual political group, Protect.org, and we go and harass politicians and make them do the right thing. So it’s going to be quite the week in Chicago. I’ve never been there – I’ve passed through, but I’ve never hung out there.
It’s a lovely city. I think you’ll like it. And Davenport’s is a nice, intimate space.
Oh good, so the Q&A section will go well - maybe I’ll let people try on the wig.
Thank you, Alison, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. To learn more about Alison Arngrim, check out her website, www.hgd.com/alison. You can also become a fan on Facebook.
For reservations to Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, call Davenport's (1383 N. Milwaukee Ave) at (773) 278-1830 or go online at davenportspianobar.com. She'll be performing this Thursday, September 9, and Friday, September 10, at 8 pm. Tickets are $20, and there is a two-drink minimum. Alison will also be signing her book at Borders (2817 N. Clark) on Saturday, September 11, at 2 pm.