Sep 13, 2016

10 Little House on the Prairie Hunks

When I was in high school and college, if I was home on Monday night at all, I was watching a hip sitcom like The Jeffersons or WKRP in Cincinnati, certainly not Little House on the Prairie (1974-83).  But my sister loved it. The historical drama, based on the autobiographical novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder, was about a farm family in frontier Minnesota in the 19th century: Charles and Caroline Ingalls and their daughters Laura, Mary, and Carrie. Other relatives come and go, the daughters grow up, and so on.

I always thought it was a family-friendly drama, like a TGIF sitcom, but my research reveals that it was quite angst-ridden, more "what shall we cry about this week?" than humorous anecdotes about one-room schoolhouses and general stores.  Episodes featured drug addiction, leukemia, child abuse, alcoholism, prejudice, diseases, accidents, murder, robbery, and rape, not to mention an ongoing story arc about Mary's blindness and a series finale that has the whole town of Walnut Grove blowing up!

This was the 1970s, when the top songs on the radio were about people and horses dying and the top "sitcom" was about soldiers being blown to bits in the Korean War.  Still, the pain and anguish seems a bit excessive.

With all the sobbing going on, you wouldn't expect much beefcake and buddy bonding, but apparently producer and star Michael Landon went out of his way to appeal to gay men and boys (and maybe heterosexual girls).  Dozens of 1970s musclemen and androgynous teen idol-types crossed the screen to have accidents, lose loved ones, die of diseases, and take their shirts off.  Here are the top candidates.

1. Michael himself, Charles Ingalls, previously Little Joe on Bonanza, with a famous body and bulge.  Where to begin?  He loses family members and friends, loses houses to fires, loses jobs, deals with infinite pain and sorrow, yet still believes that there is a Divine plan behind all the misery (it's actually the writers, wondering "what horrible thing can happen to the Ingalls this week?")    And he has plenty of time to work out.

2. Jonathan Gilbert as Willie Oleson, the spoiled son of the town shopkeepers (his sister Nellie was the snooty, bullying antagonist to the girls).  He is mostly comedic relief, but he helps out during blizzards, fires, and illnesses.

He grew up, but this is the only shirtless shot I could find.

3. Matthew Laborteaux as Albert, an orphan adopted into the Ingalls family.  Subsequently his girlfriend is raped, he takes to stealing, gets an incurable disease, and becomes addicted to morphine.  He should have stayed in the orphanage.

4. His brother Patrick as Andy, one of Laura's friends whose mother is killed and father (played by Merlin Olsen) becomes an alcoholic.

5. Linwood Boomer (love that name) as Adam Kendall, one of Mary's colleagues at the School for the Blind.  They get married and lose their infant son in a fire.  Eventually he gets his sight back and becomes a lawyer.

6. Jason Bateman (seen here as an adult, pouring lemonade onto his crotch) as James Cooper, who loses his parents in an accident (on camera, naturally) and is adopted by the Ingalls family.  Later he is shot during a bank robbery, but healed by a miracle.

7. Stan Ivar (left) as John Carter, whose wife runs the town newspaper.

8. Dean Butler (right) as Almanzo, who marries Laura and is crippled by a stroke.  Then his house is destroyed, his wife gets sick and almost dies, his brother dies of an incurable disease, his infant son dies....

Just another week in Walnut Grove.

9. Steve Tracy as, I mean Percival Isaac Cohen Dalton, who rejects his Jewish heritage and marries Nellie Oleson.  Perhaps she was attracted to his very blatant bulge.  No angst in his plotlines, but the actor himself died of AIDS in 1986.

10. Radames Pera as John Sanderson Edwards, who dates Mary Ingalls before he moves to Chicago to become a newspaper reporter and is murdered.

Whew!  After all that, M*A*S*H sounds like a lighthearted diversion.