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Melissa Sue Anderson: A Look Back at Mary Ingalls From ‘Little House on the Prairie’

Did you know she was in a slasher movie after the show?


Little House on the Prairie, which ran over 200 episodes from 1974 to 1983, was one of the most popular shows of its day, drawing viewers in with its nostalgic heartland drama and charming cast of characters. The show was, of course, based on Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s beloved series of books, and it brought to life many memorable characters from Ingalls Wilder’s family and social circle. One of the most beloved of these Little House on the Prairie characters was Mary Ingalls, Laura’s kindhearted older sister. Mary was played by Melissa Sue Anderson, who was 11 when the show began.

Anderson starred in the show for seven out of its nine seasons, and we watched her grow up, going from a soft spoken girl to a strong young woman who faced much tragedy along the way, from going blind in season four to losing her baby in a fire in season six. In 1978, she became the only member of the show’s large cast to be nominated for an Emmy Award.

MUST-READ: See the Beloved ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Cast Then and Now

Left to right: Melissa Sue Anderson, Lindsay Greenbush and Melissa Gilbert in 'Little House on the Prairie' '70s
Left to right: Melissa Sue Anderson, Lindsay Greenbush and Melissa Gilbert in Little House on the Prairie in the ’70sNBC/MovieStillsDB

Here’s a look at how Melissa Sue Anderson became our favorite prairie girl — and what she’s been up to in the decades since the show ended.

Read on for more ’70s favorites!

Before the prairie

With her classic blonde-haired and blue-eyed beauty, Melissa Sue Anderson was destined for stardom. After a chance meeting with an agent as a kid, she began appearing in commercials, and TV roles soon followed.

She made fleeting, uncredited appearances in episodes of Bewitched and Shaft starting in 1972, and had a memorable role as Millicent, a girl who gives Bobby a kiss, in a 1973 episode of The Brady Bunch.

MUST-READ: 12 ‘Brady Bunch’ Behind-the-Scenes Facts You Probably Never Knew

Melissa Sue Anderson on the prairie

In 1974, Anderson was cast in Little House on the Prairie. The show developed a huge fanbase and Anderson and her onscreen sister, Melissa Gilbert, became stars. In the Little House on the Prairie books, Mary wasn’t one of the main characters, but as the young actress proved her talents, her character became more prominent than she ever was on the page.

As Anderson described in an interview, the writers “weren’t going to write me something to do until I showed them what I could do. Eventually, I was able to prove myself in the first year, and then I got some really great meaty episodes.”

MUST-READ: The ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Kids Are All Grown Up — And Have Children of Their Own!

Left to right: Michael Landon, Melissa Sue Anderson and Jonathan Gilbert in 'Little House on the Prairie' 1977
Left to right: Michael Landon, Melissa Sue Anderson and Jonathan Gilbert in Little House on the Prairie (1977)FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty

As the series progressed, so too did the drama. While the show was beloved for its escapism and wholesome depiction of family life, it didn’t hold back on the intense situations as it grew more and more popular.

The burden was often on Anderson. Her character may have been beautiful and kindhearted, but that didn’t mean her life was easy, and after a while the teen actress became fed up, saying that after season four, “I was blind and boring. Either I was just there not doing much or going through some tragedy. I couldn’t take it anymore. It became too soap opera-ish.”

Melissa Sue Anderson and Lindsay Greenbush in 'Little House on the Prairie' 1977
Melissa Sue Anderson and Lindsay Greenbush in Little House on the Prairie (1977)FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty

Little House on the Prairie will forever be Anderson’s defining role, but after being on the show from age 11 to 19, she left after her seven-season contract was up, only returning for a handful of episodes in the penultimate season.

Anderson developed mixed feelings about her signature role, but she still has plenty of fond memories of playing it, and in 2010, she wrote a memoir about her time on the prairie, The Way I See It: A Look Back at My Life on Little House.

Melissa Sue Anderson in 1980
Melissa Sue Anderson in 1980Betty Galella/Getty

Post-prairie life

The late ’70s and early ’80s saw Anderson acting in many TV movies. She also appeared in Afterschool Specials and episodes of Fantasy Island, The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote.

Like many TV actresses of her day, Anderson’s crossover into movies didn’t bring her the same level of success. Her first movie was the 1981 slasher Happy Birthday to Me, in which, as People described at the time, “she gets to booze, toke, strut around in bra and panties and shove a beef brochette — barbecue fork and all — down the throat of an over-amorous boyfriend” — which was quite the change from being Mary Ingalls!

Melissa Sue Anderson in the '80s
Melissa Sue Anderson in the ’80sMichael Ochs Archive/Getty

Anderson then appeared in movies like Chattanooga Choo Choo (1984) and Dead Men Don’t Die (1990). From 1987 to 1988, she had a four-episode arc on the thriller series The Equalizer, which was created by her husband, Michael Sloan.

She called her role on the show one of her biggest achievements, saying, “I’m usually so hard on myself, but I was really proud of my work here. I was happy with what I did in those episodes.” After that, she appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In the ’90s, Anderson took some time off to raise her two children. She appeared in the short-lived 1999 series Partners and played the First Lady in the 2006 miniseries 10.5: Apocalypse. Her final two appearances were uncredited roles in the 2014 Veronica Mars movie and the 2018 comedy The Con Is On.

Melissa Sue Anderson in 2022
Melissa Sue Anderson in 2022Stephane Cardinale – Corbis/Corbis via Getty

Anderson has kept a low profile in recent years, and in a 2022 interview, she said she didn’t plan to return to acting anytime soon. Even if she’s no longer on our screens, we’ll always have the coziness of the prairie.

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