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As the bright and spunky Laura "Half Pint" Ingalls on "Little House on the Prairie" (NBC, 1974-1983), Melissa Gilbert was one of the most loved child actors of the 1970s, and remained a viewer favorite in subsequent decades through a substantial list of dramatic made-for-TV movies that traded on her can-do screen image. Though her personal life was frequently the stuff of TV drama - adopted at birth, the loss of a beloved father, romantic heartbreak and apparent true love - Gilbert found her niche both on and off the screen. In the former, she was a go-to for sudsy romances or reality-based melodramas like "Cries from the Heart" (CBS, 1994) or "Zoya" (NBC, 1995), while in the latter, she was the third and longest-running female president of the Screen Actors Guild, where she served two terms. The enduring status of "Little House" in reruns, combined with her active television career, ensured that the beloved Gilbert would remain a fixture on the small screen for years to come.Gilbert was adopted a day after her birth on May 8, 1964. Her biological parents were a dancer and a sign painter-stock car racer who had six children and could not afford to add another member to their brood. Her adoptive...
As the bright and spunky Laura "Half Pint" Ingalls on "Little House on the Prairie" (NBC, 1974-1983), Melissa Gilbert was one of the most loved child actors of the 1970s, and remained a viewer favorite in subsequent decades through a substantial list of dramatic made-for-TV movies that traded on her can-do screen image. Though her personal life was frequently the stuff of TV drama - adopted at birth, the loss of a beloved father, romantic heartbreak and apparent true love - Gilbert found her niche both on and off the screen. In the former, she was a go-to for sudsy romances or reality-based melodramas like "Cries from the Heart" (CBS, 1994) or "Zoya" (NBC, 1995), while in the latter, she was the third and longest-running female president of the Screen Actors Guild, where she served two terms. The enduring status of "Little House" in reruns, combined with her active television career, ensured that the beloved Gilbert would remain a fixture on the small screen for years to come.
Gilbert was adopted a day after her birth on May 8, 1964. Her biological parents were a dancer and a sign painter-stock car racer who had six children and could not afford to add another member to their brood. Her adoptive parents, who named her Melissa Ellen Gilbert were actor and comedian Paul Gilbert and dancer-actress Barbara Crane, whose father was "The Honeymooners" (CBS, 1955-56) creator Harry Crane. The couple later adopted a son, Jonathan, who would go on to co-star with his sister on "Little House" as the unpleasant Willie Oleson. Gilbert showed an aptitude for performing at an early age. She received her start in show business before her fifth birthday by walking on stage during one of her parents' performances and launching into a song-and-dance routine. Her mother was reticent to allow her daughter to dive headlong into the entertainment business, and at first, allowed her and brother Jonathan to audition only for commercials. Gilbert's natural spunk and charm won over casting agents, and by the time she was 11, she had a long list of advertising spots to her name, as well as guest shots on "Gunsmoke" (NBC, 1955-1975), among other series. In the midst of this busy time, Gilbert's personal life was experiencing ups and downs; her parents divorced when she was eight, resulting in Crane marrying Harold Abeles, with whom she had Gilbert's half-sister, actress Sara Gilbert later of "Roseanne" (ABC, 1988-1997) fame. She would later lose her adopted father in 1975 to a stroke.
Prior to his death, Paul Gilbert consoled his daughter over the loss of the Natalie Wood role in a TV remake of "Miracle on 34th Street" (CBS, 1973) by telling her that another great role was in the works for her. His words came true that same year when she was cast as Laura Ingalls in the pilot for "Little House on the Prairie" (NBC, 1973). She immediately won over star and onscreen patriarch Michael Landon, whose daughter, Leslie, was a classmate of Gilbert's and it was Leslie who informed her she had landed the role as they stood in line in the school cafeteria. In 1974, "Prairie" began filming as a series and ran for nearly a decade. Its simple but dramatic stories of family life in the late 19th century American West won over viewers seeking wholesome but watchable family fare. A Top 30 series until its cancellation in 1983, it was reportedly a favorite of President Ronald Reagan. Known as "Half Pint" - Landon's nickname for his precocious onscreen daughter - Gilbert grew up before viewers on the series, which took her from a pig-tailed age 10 through her early twenties. Onscreen, she was the embodiment of strong, brave young women who could rise above any predicament, and served as a role model for many of her female fans. She played similar roles in several well-regarded TV movies during her "Little House" run, including an Emmy-nominated performance as Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker" (NBC, 1979) and Anne Frank in "The Diary of Anne Frank" (NBC, 1980). In 1985, she became the youngest person to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Off-screen, she sought stability in her emotional relationships. She was unable to find it within her own family. Gilbert's relationship with her mother was best described as contentious, while a divorce removed Abeles from her household. She found a surrogate father in Landon, who brought Gilbert into his home as his own daughter; she also dated his son, Michael Landon, Jr., who took her to her 1981 senior prom. However, the senior Landon's affair with "Little House" makeup artist Cindy Clerico, which ended his second marriage in a bitter and very public divorce, put a rift in his relationship with Gilbert that lasted until his death from pancreatic cancer in 1991. Gilbert also struggled to find stable romantic relationships in her personal life. As a teen and young woman, she was linked to several budding stars, including Tom Cruise and Scott Baio. One of her longest-running and most troubled relationships was with actor Rob Lowe, whom she met when both were 14. The duo became an official couple in 1981, but their time together was marked by near-constant infidelity; while Lowe carried on with his "Hotel New Hampshire" (1984) co-star Nastassja Kinski, Gilbert bedded his best friend, actor John Cusack. They later repaired the fracture, only to split again after Lowe began pursuing Monaco's Princess Stephanie in 1986. When that affair came to an end, Gilbert and Lowe decided to make their reunion permanent by planning a massive wedding. However, Gilbert discovered she was pregnant in 1987, and upon hearing the news, Lowe split with her for good, which resulted in a miscarriage. The relationship ended up breaking Gilbert's heart many times over.
In 1983, "Little House" ended its lengthy tenure on NBC by literally blowing up the town of Walnut Grove to great ratings. Gilbert, then 19, immediately embarked on a mission to carve out her own acting identity outside of Laura Ingalls. Most of her post-series work hewed towards variations on her "Little House" image: bright, upstanding young women who faced adversity with pluck and determination. She was slain missionary Jean Donovan in "Choices in the Heart" (NBC, 1983), an unwed teen mother in "Choices" (ABC, 1986) with George C. Scott and Jacqueline Bisset, and a psychiatrist struggling to reach her unbalanced teen patient in "Killer Instinct" (NBC, 1988). She was soon a TV movie fixture, with only two feature films to her credit during this period: the little-seen "Sylvester" (1985), about a girl's love for her horse, and 1989's "Ice House," an indie drama which earned her brickbats from the film and television community because of its non-union status.
The latter was written and produced by actor Bo Brinkman, whom Gilbert met in 1988 shortly after splitting with Lowe. The couple was married that same year, with a son, Dakota, arrived a year later. However, marital trouble almost immediately reared its head, and the couple split in 1992. Weeks after filing for divorce from Brinkman, she was set up on a date with actor Bruce Boxleitner by his ex-wife, Kathryn Holcomb. They soon became a couple, but again, the path to happiness was a rocky one. They were engaged twice before finally marrying in 1995; a son, Michael - named for Landon - was born two months premature.
During this period, Gilbert was remarkably active in television features. As before, most were reality-based dramas like "Shattered Trust: The Shari Karney Story" (NBC, 1993), with Gilbert as an attorney trying an incest case who discovers that she was also a victim as a child, or as the mother of an autistic son in "Cries from the Heart" (CBS, 1994), which reunited her with her "Miracle Worker" co-star Patty Duke. Gilbert also returned briefly to network series work with "Stand By Your Man" (Fox, 1992), a hapless sitcom about two sisters (Gilbert and Rosie O'Donnell) who live together while awaiting their husband's release from prison, and "Sweet Justice" (NBC, 1994-95), a legal drama co-starring Cicely Tyson. It lasted less than one season. More successful was her long-running stint as the voice of Batgirl on "Batman: The Animated Series" (Fox, 1992-95). She also made her directorial debut with a 1996 episode of the "ABC Afterschool Specials" (ABC, 1972-2005) titled "Me and My Hormones," which featured performances by Boxleitner and half-sister Sara Gilbert. She later teamed with fellow former child star Tony Dow of "Leave It to Beaver" (CBS/ABC, 1957-1963) fame to co-direct "Child Stars" (2000), a documentary that featured a vast array of one-time young performers from past and present.
In 2001, Gilbert was at the center of one of the most heated races for the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild. After William Daniels decided to not run for a second term, Gilbert threw her hat in the ring against actress Valerie Harper. After narrowly defeating her by a margin of just 1,600 votes, Gilbert's claim to the presidency was challenged by SAG members, who alleged issues regarding voting deadlines. A second vote was taken, with Gilbert winning by a landslide. She won a second term in 2003 over contender Kent McCord, defeating him by 41 percent of the vote. Gilbert's tenure in office was marked by her concern for performers' rights and working conditions, as well as discussions with then-First Lady Laura Bush about copyright protection and runaway production. She did not seek a third term, citing tensions within the Guild board of directors, and was succeeded by Alan Rosenberg.
While serving as Guild president, Gilbert maintained her busy acting schedule in addition to raising her sons by Brinkman and Boxleitner, as well as Boxleitner's two sons by his previous marriage. Such a punishing schedule took its toll on Gilbert, who began drinking in the late 1990s to contend with stress. After tackling her problems, Gilbert became sober and detailed her struggles in a 2009 memoir, Prairie Tale, which recounted in sometimes shocking detail her troubled family life, addiction issues and the ups and downs of her work and personal lives. Gilbert remained active on television in the new millennium, again maintaining a steady schedule of widely viewed TV movies on the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime Networks. Among these were "Sacrifices of the Heart" (Hallmark Channel, 2007), which beat airings of theatrical features on the major network in its time slot. Gilbert did venture far afield from her screen persona in a 2006 episode of "Nip/Tuck" (FX, 2003-2010) that cast her as a woman seeking plastic surgery after being mutilated by her pet dog during a bout of zoophilia. But her "Little House" heritage was never far away. From 2008 to 2009, she toured as "Ma" Ingalls in a musical version of "Little House."
The following year, the actress was forced to take a break from the "Little House" stage production after discovering that she had broken her back during a performance months earlier. In July 2010 she underwent surgery to replace a disc and fuse a vertebra in her lower spine. The TV personality later shocked longtime fans in March 2011 when she announced her separation from husband Boxleitner. By August of that same year, Gilbert filed for divorce, effectively ending her marriage of 16 years. The newly-single mother of four took on a new challenge in 2012, when she was announced as one of the celebrity contestants on the 14th season of the reality dance competition "Dancing with the Stars" (ABC, 2005- ), paired with the always combustible pro and self-proclaimed "bad boy of the dance floor," Maksim Chmerkovskiy.
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