Melissa Gilbert. Prairie Talk: A Memoir. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2009.
Gilbert was adopted a day after her birth by her parents. Her factor was actor Paul Gilbert, who had to change his name from his real name because the Screen Actors Guild already had someone registered as Ed McMahon. Her father was married 13 times, a fact incorporated in his act by stating “it’s true I have a number of wives. I don’t believe in premarital sex.” Her mother was engaged to Don Rickles when her father broke up that engagement. When her mother informed her father, comic Harry Crane, she had married Paul Gilbert, Crane responded “take a sweater”.
Gilbert began acting as a child. She observed that many children would audition, but the job usually went to herself, Jodie Foster, Kristy McNichol, or Dawn Lynn. Gilbert’s first TV show was a Dean Martin Christmas special. This was followed by an episode of “Emergency”.
At the age of 9, she auditioned for an NBC movie “Little House on the Prairie”. She got the part. She worked for four weeks of shooting.
A TV series sprang from the movie. Gilbert went to school on set with the same teacher from 4th grade through high school.
Actor Michael Landon taught Gilbert “not to settle for anything less than my best.”
When Gilbert filmed the movie “The Christmas Coal Mine Miracle”, costar Kurt Russell pulled a prank on costar Andy Prine. Russell wired Prine’s van and hired a woman to fool around with Prine. He then hired people to pretend they were local police enter the van with the woman pretending she was only 16.
To prepare for playing Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker”, Gilbert’s acting coast blindfolded her in a dark room for 45 minutes and let her trip, fall, and experience frustration.
14 year old Rob Lowe made a point of meeting Gilbert. Several years later they would meet when their cars were at the same traffic stop. They shouted at each other to meet later. He stood her up, but he returned her call. They began dating.
Shannon Doherty, at age 12, told Gilbert she wanted to be just like her. Gilbert notes that, years later, this included Doherty having a one night stand with her husband.
Martin Sheen told Gilbert that, while filming “Apocalypse Now”, director Francis Coppola told Sheen “you know, I could cut that opening footage and make you look like Mickey Mouse” to which Sheen replied “well, that would make you Walt Disney, wouldn’t it?”
“Little House on the Prairie” was canceled. Three TV movies were filmed and the series was over. Landon was upset at how the network handled not telling him the series was over. He had the entire set, except the church, blown up.
Gilbert caught Rob Lowe cheating on her with Nastassja Kinski. She went up to Lowe, announced to him that “you don’t fuck with America’s sweetheart” and she left him. Later Gilbert found it ironic that Lowe’s trailer was next to a church with a sign reading ‘Hollywood is the devil’s toilet.”
Gilbert and Lowe reconciled. He proposed marriage, she accepted, they moved in together, and she became pregnant. Lowe, though, stated he didn’t want to be a father. They broke up. She miscarried.
Gilbert sued the National Enquirer for libel. Richard Masur, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) President, was working for a privacy law that would restrict tabloid journalism and the paparazzi in what they could do. Masur offered Gilbert help for the lawsuit from the SAG. The lawsuit cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They settled out of court.
Gilbert felt the 2000 SAG strike lasted too long and that SAG’s reputation had been diminished. Gilbert was elected to the SAG Board of Directors. Gilbert found the first six hour meeting to be out of control and a waste of time.
SAG had two divisions. Bill Daniels was then SAG President, whose Performers Alliance, later called Membership First, had led the strike. Others, like Gilbert, thought the strike had been a mistake.
Gilbert was perplexed by the arguing over rules. She felt little was being accomplished. Richard Masur and members of the alternative faction, United Screen Actors Nationwide, asked Gilbert to run for SAG President.
To run for SAG President, one either went before a Nominations Committee or obtained a petition from sufficient SAG members. The nomination committee was composed mostly of William Daniels proponents. Gilbert petitioned to run.
Gilbert ran on the Restore Respect ticket against Valerie Harper and the Membership First group. Gilbert proposed to Harper they run SAG together. She offered Harper could pick whether she wanted to be President or Vice President. Harper declined. Harper stated she was committed to her group of supporters.
Gilbert asked Mike Farrell to run for the Board with the intention of being her First Vice President. He agreed.
Gilbert ran on a platform of using negotiations first and striking as a last resort. She was supported by Debra Messing, Rob Lowe, and Toby Maguire. Harper was supported by Sarah Jessica Parker, Martin Sheen, and Gregory Peck.
Harper accused Gilbert of having violated SAG rules in the past. Gilbert admitted it was true, that she hadn’t been aware of the rules and had been sanctioned, and she had formed a Young Performers Committee to see that other actors turning 17 were aware of the rules.
Gilbert was also accused of owning a Canadian production company named for her daughter. Gilbert denied owning such a company or even having a daughter with that name.
Gilbert received 45% of the vote to Harper’s 39%. Harper claimed there were voting irregularities. New York ballots had different signature lines. A new election was called.
Gilbert operated as President through the new election. In the second election, Gilbert received 56.6% to Harper’s 33.4%.
Under Gilbert, meetings that once ran from six hours to two days took less than two hours.
Gilbert tried to merge SAG and AFTRA. 58% of SAG voters approved the merger, yet it required 60% to be approved. Gilbert ran for a second term as SAG President because she wanted to keep working on the merger. She won reelection.
Gilbert worked on a three year contract with the studios. SAG and AFTRA members both approved the deal. Gilbert considers the deal the most important thing she accomplished as SAG President.