How Old Was Melissa Gilbert When She Started Playing Laura On Little House On The Prairie?

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Before the hit TV series "Little House on the Prairie" ever aired, many young readers dreamt of being Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

The first "Little House" book in the well-loved series was published in 1932, telling the true childhood stories of author Laura as she, along with her family, traveled across the American frontier (via Britannica). 

The book series later inspired the "Little House on the Prairie" show, which ran from 1974 to 1983 and similarly centered on Laura — feisty and muddy as ever — as she settled near the small town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota, with Ma, Pa, Mary, and her younger sister, Carrie, in the late 1800s, per IMDb.

Together, the Ingalls faced the brutality of the frontier as the show highlighted the extreme challenges American pioneers faced at the time (via Vulture). About a century after the events of their story took place, this fictionalized version of the Ingalls family reached new heights of fame and positive critical reception.

Child actress Melissa Gilbert played the starring role of Laura, inspiring a whole new generation of children to go looking for adventure, just like her.

Melissa Gilbert was quite young when she was cast as Laura

"Little House on the Prairie" star Melissa Gilbert comes from a long line of creatives. Her grandfather, Harry Crane, was a comedy writer and creator of "The Honeymooners" (The New York Times). She remembers her grandfather's famous friends, telling the Television Academy Foundation in a 2011 interview, "I didn't know that any of them were famous until much later in life." 

Crane wrote for the likes of John F. Kennedy and Frank Sinatra, developing connections in the industry and giving Gilbert advice as she rose to stardom in the early 1970s. According to Gilbert, it was her grandfather who encouraged her to stick to performing rather than pursue her other passion, medicine.

At the age of 9, Melissa Gilbert was cast as Laura in "Little House on the Prairie" after going through the audition process with approximately 500 other young actresses (via Biography). 

Allegedly, she developed a special connection with Michael Landon, set to play her on-screen father, during the audition process. Gilbert remembers being blown away by Landon's star power upon their first meeting. "He wasn't talking to me like I was nine, he was talking to me like I was his contemporary," she said, per the Television Academy Foundation.

Though the 9-year-old Gilbert didn't get much direction on set, she was inspired by the original books and her very active imagination, one she had developed playing make-believe with her childhood friend Amy Sherman, now Amy Sherman-Palladino of "Gilmore Girls" fame. 

Filming the pilot, Gilbert was blown away by the many animals brought to the set as well as the period costumes. According to the actress, it was "the greatest dress-up ever." When the series officially premiered on NBC in September 1974, Gilbert was 10 — with nine years of playing Laura ahead of her.

What is Melissa Gilbert doing now?

Though Melissa Gilbert appeared in other acting roles before "Little House on the Prairie," the show made her a household name, according to The New York Times.

Since the series ended in 1983, Gilbert has played other iconic characters (though perhaps none as famous as Laura). Beginning in 1992, she voiced Batgirl in Fox's "Batman: The Animated Series," and, in 2008, she returned to the prairie, playing Ma in the musical adaptation of "Little House on the Prairie" (via Closer Weekly).

In spring 2022, Gilbert published her fourth book, "Back to the Prairie," detailing her transition from busy Hollywood to the rural Catskills during the COVID-19 pandemic. A New York Times best-selling author, Gilbert has used her platform to share recipes, connect with younger audiences, and — much like the real-life Laura Ingalls Wilder — tell stories from her past.

Since 2013, the 58-year-old actress has been happily married to actor and director Tim Busfield (via The New York Times).