Although it’s been over 30 years since Dean Butler played Almanzo Wilder on NBC’s mega hit Little House on the Prairie, he still remembers the impact his presence made on female viewers of the series. From the moment he arrived at the Walnut Grove School in his buckboard to pick up his sister Eliza Jane, his dashing figure could not only cause a prairie girl’s heart to skip a beat, but a few of ours as well.
I spoke with Butler recently to celebrate the re-release of Season Six of Little House (his first season on the show), find out what it was like to work on the wildly popular series and play the love interest of not only an iconic character, but America’s Sweetheart, Melissa Gilbert.
Q: When you were cast on Little House in the spring of 1979 it was already a very successful show with a solid following. Did you feel a huge sense of responsibility coming into it knowing you would be the guy to “court” and marry Laura Ingalls?
A: “Because I hadn’t read the books at the time, I wasn’t imbued with the underlying literature and didn’t know what was going to happen. Melissa Gilbert was America’s Sweetheart at the time and when you introduce this type of character there is definitely a huge level of responsibility to it. I credit Michael Landon’s casting instincts because he knew what he wanted visually and tonally from the character. I’d been cast in this kind of light before as well and I think that helped.”
Q: Were you the recipient of a lot of fan mail from female admirers?
A: “Yes. It really has been a tremendous to have women of all ages give me this gift of acceptance, affection, crushes or whatever you want to call it. It’s all been so positive. Little girls, grandmothers they all had a reaction to this character and I was blessed to be that guy.”
Q: It’s no secret that during your first season on the show, you were 23 while Melissa Gilbert was 15. Did that make for awkward situations, especially as the relationship between Laura and Almanzo progressed?
A: “Melissa was very gutsy in the way that she stepped into this. She put all of her anxiety aside and she had enormous faith in Michael Landon and that he would never put her in a compromising situation. It was a very large age gap but we were always very careful when approaching that aspect of the Laura/Almanzo relationship. We always wanted the audience to feel like Laura was in control of the situation. It was a lot to put on Melissa, but she did an exceptional job with it.”
Q: Do you have a favorite episode?
A: “’Sweet Sixteen’ is one of those episodes in the series where the direction changed big time. It is the book These Happy Golden Years all wrapped up into one episode and it changes the dynamic of the show. Until then, the Pa/Laura relationship had been so central, but now Laura is a young woman and she’s falling in love and it forced Michael to go into other directions. Another episode I like is ‘Days of Sunshine/Days of Shadow’ because I got to do so much as an actor. “
Q: Lastly, what is the correct pronunciation of Almanzo’s name?
A: “This is a bit of a controversy because it was Lucy Lee Flippen, who played Eliza Jane, who said ‘Al-mahn-zo’ when she’s introducing me to Laura and Michael never said anything about it…but right away we heard from book aficionados who were quick to tell me we were saying it wrong. Eventually I heard a brief recording of the real Laura talking and she referred to him as ‘Al-man-zo’ so that ended the debate for me.
Follow Dean Butler on Twitter @callmemanly and @deanmbutler
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