Must-Know Facts For Every Melissa Gilbert Fan

This article includes references to suicide and alcohol addiction. 

Melissa Gilbert is a television legend. She is best known as "Half Pint," the nickname for her character on "Little House on the Prairie." Gilbert was only nine when she landed the role of Laura Ingalls Wilder on the popular '70s series, which ran for nine seasons and earned her a Golden Globe nomination. From there, she began to transition into more mature roles, ultimately earning the moniker of "The Queen of made-for-TV movies," per Today. 

As Helen Keller in the critically-acclaimed 1980 remake of "The Miracle Worker," Gilbert received an Emmy nod. She then took on the titular role in "The Diary of Anne Frank," another notable TV movie. The following year, she starred in "Splendor in the Grass," playing a role originated by Natalie Wood. Gilbert had top billing in the 1985 film "Sylvester," and she starred alongside Cicely Tyson in the NBC legal drama, "Sweet Justice." The actor has guest-starred on "Babylon 5," "The Night Shift," and "7th Heaven," among others.

While her first major TV character was an innocent young woman in braids, Gilbert's off-screen life has been anything but idyllic. Her family unit was filled with drama, and her relationship history could be fodder for any TV movie-of-the-week. After nearly 50 years of ups and downs in the entertainment business, Melissa Gilbert has learned how to roll with all of it. 

Melissa Gilbert had a difficult childhood

Melissa Gilbert is the daughter of Paul Gilbert, an entertainer, and Barbara Crane, an actor. The couple adopted Melissa as a baby, along with her brother and future "Little House on the Prairie" co-star Jonathan Gilbert. The family soon began to unravel, and the blossoming child star bore the brunt of it, as she explained to Oprah on "Where Are They Now" in 2014. "I had my own familial traumas and difficulties," Melissa began.

"My father died when I was 11. My parents divorced when I was six. My mother remarried a few times. There was sadness and discomfort at home." Barbara and her second husband gave birth to "Roseanne" star Sara Gilbert. In her book, "Prairie Tale," Melissa explained Jonathan walked away from the family altogether. "He turned eighteen and simply disappeared," she wrote. "I have only seen him three times in the last two decades." Following her father's death, Melissa was told he died from a stroke.

As an adult, she learned he actually died by suicide. The "Family Secrets" star had a difficult time digesting this, and she hired a private investigator to find out the truth. "I still sometimes wonder why I wasn't enough to stick around for, and I think that is something that all children whose parents commit suicide [feel]," Melissa shared with Oprah. "But he was in unbearable pain. I understand his decision and I honor that decision."

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Michael Landon was like a father to her

Melissa Gilbert grew up on the set of "Little House of the Prairie," and she bonded with Michael Landon, the charismatic actor who played the patriarch of the family, Charles "Pa" Ingalls. "Our relationship was very close, and it grew even deeper when my father passed away," Gilbert told ABC News in 2014. "Our families got close. We went on vacation to Hawaii together every Easter." In "Prairie Tale," she wrote, "It wasn't a stretch at all to think of Mike as my dad."

After learning of Landon's affair with a young stand-in, Gilbert was conflicted, and her bond with her TV dad took a hit. "I have to work with Mike. I can't take sides," the "Secrets and Lies" actor wrote. "I was put in a horribly uncomfortable position." Gilbert distanced herself from Landon, but they reconciled before he died in 1991 from pancreatic cancer, and she delivered a eulogy at his funeral, per Amomama.

Per People, on the 31st anniversary of his death, Gilbert penned an essay for PanCAN, a cancer research and advocacy organization. In the piece, she remembered the man who had a profound influence on her life and her career. "Today I am missing my mentor, my acting partner, my favorite director, father figure, friend, and boss. Today I am missing my Pa. Today I am missing Michael Landon," the actor wrote in her touching tribute.

Melissa Gilbert's painful breakup with Rob Lowe

Melissa Gilbert was only 17 when she started dating Rob Lowe, and she was quickly smitten with the teen heartthrob. "I fell instantly, hopelessly and stupidly in love," Gilbert wrote in "Prairie Tale." "We went from first date to instant couple. I felt like I was starving for Rob." The "9-1-1 Lone Star" actor proposed in 1986, but both parties cheated on one another: Lowe was linked to Princess Stephanie and Nastassja Kinski, and Gilbert had a liaison with John Cusack. 

After he put a ring on it, Gilbert learned she was pregnant. When she delivered the news, his reaction was the last thing she wanted to hear. Instead he said, per her memoir, "I can't be a father. ... I can't be a husband. Melissa, I can't be a boyfriend right now either. I'm so sorry. I just can't do it. I can't do any of it. It's over." But that isn't the worst part of this story. Gilbert had a miscarriage after the breakup.

"Now I was completely, totally alone, and it hurt like hell," she wrote. Speaking to "Today" in 2009, Gilbert noted that both of them were still figuring out their lives. "I think we were just too young." As for Lowe, he's apparently grown up. He's been married since 1991 to makeup artist Sheryl Berkoff, and they share two sons. "Family means absolutely everything to Rob," one of his close friends told Closer Weekly in 2017.

She dated a few other celebs

In addition to John Cusack and Rob Lowe, Melissa Gilbert has been linked to Dylan McDermott, Scott Baio, and Tom Cruise. "We went on a couple of dates and made out in my mom's living room," Gilbert revealed about Cruise in her memoir "Prairie Tale." Her review, however, suggests she wasn't head over heels. "He was nice, funny, and sweet. But it wasn't like being hit with an arrow."

When Andy Cohen asked her about her time with the "Mission: Impossible" star on a 2016 episode of "Watch What Happens Live," she insisted things stayed PG. "We made out, but honestly, there was no sex," Gilbert said. She noted Cruise did fine in the kissing department, but she was concerned about the struggling actor's bank account. "I actually bought him his first set of dishes," she shared.

Considering the fact that the "Top Gun: Maverick" star made $100 million from that movie alone, maybe Gilbert should have stuck it out. She also dated bad-boy rocker Billy Idol during her on-and-off-again relationship with Rob Lowe. "He impressed me as a sweet, gentle, and soft-spoken charmer," she wrote in her 2009 memoir. However, the "White Wedding" singer's rock and roll lifestyle ultimately was not for her.

The search for her biological parents was tough

Melissa Gilbert was adopted the day after she was born, per Pop Sugar. In her late 20s, after giving birth to her son Dakota, she began searching for her biological parents. "When the baby came, I looked at this little person and then it hit me (that) this is the only person I know that I am connected to by blood," Gilbert explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1993. Once she tracked down David Darlington, her birth father, she learned that her birth mom, Kathy, had died in 1980.

Gilbert detailed the meeting in her memoir "Prairie Tale." After flying to Las Vegas to meet Darlington, she remembered feeling thrilled at first, only to be overcome by disappointment. "Sadly, it was not the warm, loving, we've-been-waiting-for-you-to-show-up fantasy I had entertained ever since initiating the search for my birth parents," she wrote. Gilbert ultimately left with more questions than answers, and at one point, her birth father said she had been misinformed about her own date of birth. "There wasn't any meaningful discussion about my origins, my first twenty-four hours in this world, or whether, despite giving me up for adoption, either one of my parents had ever wanted me," she wrote.

The actor remains close to her sister Sara Gilbert

Melissa Gilbert and Sara Gilbert are half-sisters. They were raised by the same mother, Barbara Crane, who married Harold Abeles and gave birth to Sara. In 1985, Melissa became the youngest person ever honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, per SAG-AFTRA. Her little sister, only six at the time, was inspired. 

The two child stars have supported each other through thick and thin. On an episode of "The Talk," Sara revealed dating her "Roseanne" co-star Johnny Galecki helped her realize she was gay, per HuffPost. Her older sister claimed she knew all along. When the two siblings appeared on the daytime talk show together, Melissa remembered opening the door for Sara to open up when she was a teen, but at the time, "The Connors" star insisted she wasn't gay. "Years later she called me and we were having a conversation about something and she said, 'You know, what if I just said that I'm gay,' and I went, 'And?' I mean I think always I kinda knew," said Melissa, per People

In 2019, when Sara announced she was leaving "The Talk," her big sis showed her support. "I love my baby sister @THEsaragilbert so much. I am so incredibly proud of her," Melissa tweeted.

She struggled with body image for years

As Melissa Gilbert matured into adulthood on "Little House on the Prairie," she began to compare herself to her co-star Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson on the long-running series. "There was a huge difference," Gilbert told ABC News in 2015. "I was wearing, like, you know, Speedo one-piece bathing suits. She was wearing all these sort of sexy bikinis and stuff."

At 17, Gilbert starred in the TV remake of "Splendor in the Grass," and her wardrobe was a far cry from what she wore on "Prairie." As she shared on her blog, "[T]hose in charge, put me in a girdle, a corset, a padded bra and even painted cleavage on me!" Looking back on this shift, she told Megyn Kelly on "Today." "They were trying to make me appear like what the image of the glamorous leading lady ingénue was at that time." After the birth of her first son, Gilbert's then-husband made some harsh comments about her breasts. After she divorced him and started dating, she had multiple breast implant surgeries and a nose job.

In 2015, Gilbert had her implants removed, and she couldn't be happier she did. "Not only do I feel healthier and better, but I don't have these inappropriately large breasts that were wrong for my body, kind of getting in the way," she shared with ABC News. And current husband Timothy Busfield was on board with her decision. 

Melissa Gilbert has been divorced twice

After her breakup with Rob Lowe, Melissa Gilbert moved on to actor Bo Brinkman, per Today. The couple married in 1998, stayed together for four years and share a son, Dakota. Their union was marred by addiction and Brinkman's infidelity. In 1995, Gilbert tied the knot with "Babylon 5" actor Bruce Boxleitner (above), and they share a son, Michael. Two years into the relationship, Gilbert confessed she had an "emotional affair” with her co-star on the TV movie, "Seduction in a Small Town."

In "Prairie Tale" (via Showbiz CheatSheet), Gilbert wrote, "I became especially close to my leading man. Inappropriately so. I'd always developed crushes on my leading men, but this was different and it was fueled by alcohol, which allowed me to pour my heart out." Gilbert explained the affair was not a physical one, but the real problem was that she wasn't able to have some of these conversations with her husband.

The straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, for the marriage was when Gilbert broke her spine and needed surgery, as she wrote in her 2022 memoir "Back to the Prairie." The "Stand by Your Man" star asked Boxleitner to drive her home, but he didn't by his woman. Instead, he asked her to find another ride. "I could recover without his support and compassion, but the question I suddenly asked myself was why? ... What makes me feel that I didn't deserve to have that in my life?" she wrote.

She sought help for her addiction to alcohol

Melissa Gilbert was exposed to alcohol use at an early age, by her mentor Michael Landon on the set of "Little House on the Prairie." "I've realized his influence on me extended beyond the set," she wrote in "Prairie Tale." "As a kid, I didn't know he sipped vodka from his coffee mug ... but I'm sure he's one reason why, as a young adult, I almost always picked men who smelled like alcohol."

In 2012, Gilbert told ET that her struggles with addiction began after her grandfather died. "I just started having a hard time falling asleep," she recalled, noting that her alcohol usage increased. Gilbert knew she needed help after she passed out drunk in her dog's bed while entertaining a friend for dinner.

The "The Dancing With the Stars" alum got sober with the help of a therapist and AA meetings. The mother of two added that she has encountered drug and alcohol addiction with her own kids. Gilbert became a spokesperson for The Partnership to End Addiction, an organization devoted to preventing teenage drug and alcohol use. Speaking to MomTrends in 2011, Gilbert said sobriety changed the entire trajectory of her life. "All my good relationships are because I am sober."

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

The Miracle Worker was a turning point in her career

Melissa Gilbert starred in the 1979 TV movie "The Miracle Worker." She played Helen Keller, the celebrated author and activist who was blind and deaf. In rehearsals, the young actor wasn't cutting it, alongside a cast of seasoned pros, including Patty Duke as Helen's teacher Annie Sullivan. In Gilbert's memoir "Prairie Tale" (via Showbiz CheatSheet), she explained that her former acting coach Jeff Corey was brought in for "emergency" acting classes.

One of Gilbert's first lessons was a frightening one. Corey blindfolded the actor, and forced her to stumble around in a dark room, causing her to fall and crash into everything. But the coach's methods were effective. "Besides the black-and-blue marks, I stepped deeper into Helen than I imagined I could," Gilbert wrote. She received an Emmy nomination for her performance, and the teenager started to look at acting in a different light.

"My eyes opened to the possibility that this thing I was doing as a hobby was something I could actually learn about and develop into a serious craft," Gilbert wrote. The film was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Gilbert and Duke, that latter of whom won an Oscar for playing Helen Keller in the 1962 film, per The Observer. "What we have most in common is the actual work experience," Duke told UPI in 1993 about working with Gilbert. "It gave us a certain shorthand on the set because we're both old war horses, even though we're not so old."

Why she is finding great roles on stage

Melissa Gilbert is no stranger to the stage. In 1987, she made her off-Broadway debut in "A Shayna Maidel," and received an Outer Critic's Circle Award, per SAG-AFTRA. She also played Caroline "Ma" Ingalls in the national tour of the 'Little House on the Prairie" musical. Over the last few years, Gilbert's TV and film credits have been sparse, and she is finding some of her best roles in the theater.

In 2017, she starred in "If Only," an off-Broadway play about an ill-fated romance between a former slave and a New York socialite. "It is very rare for me to just be able to play a love story at my age," Gilbert shared with The Observer. 2018's "A Brilliant Divorce" was the Actors Studio member's third off-Broadway show in a year, who plans to continue honing her craft. "It certainly keeps me young and on my toes," she told Parade.

It was also one of the reasons why she made the move from Los Angeles to New York. "In New York I have the opportunity to do theater, film and television," Gilbert told The Observer, noting that Hollywood puts too much pressure on women to look young. As she said in Parade, "I feel more centered and valuable now than I did when I was in my 20s. To have the chance to play a different range of roles and continue working is a joy."

Melissa Gilbert met her husband in a nearly empty bar

When Melissa Gilbert first met Timothy Busfield, neither one of them was looking for romance. "The West Wing" actor stopped by his usual haunt for a slice of pizza and to watch some sports before the bar got crowded. She was there to meet a friend before going out dancing. They struck up a conversation, and ended up talking all night. "I knew she was the one," Busfield told People. "It felt so real."

Busfield, like Gilbert, was married twice before. The couple tied the knot in 2013 in an intimate ceremony in Santa Barbara, California. Speaking to "Good Morning America" in 2022, Gilbert shared why the third time was a charm for both of them. "I think we were both craving just a more peaceful partnership or [to] be alone," she said. "We're just very much equals and we treat each other that way, and I think that's what makes the difference."

In 2020, the "Thirtysomething" actor, known for his dry humor, told Page Six he's "the luckiest man on earth" that Gilbert married him. At the premiere for his ABC series, "For Life," Busfield explained he and his friend John McNamara ("The Magicians”) pitched a film to her years ago, and she blew the project and both of them off. "Luckily time went by and I started to look good to her I guess," Busfield quipped. "I couldn't compete with Rob Lowe or Bruce Boxleitner for God's sake. Those guys have chins!"

Melissa Gilbert ditched the Hollywood life

Following Melissa Gilbert's second marriage, she was desperately trying to hold on to her youth. "I had Botox, fillers, recolored my hair, and bought a Mustang convertible at the urging of the slightly younger but wildly inappropriate French dude I began dating," she wrote in her 2022 memoir "Back to the Prairie." When she met Timothy Busfield, he had relocated to his home state of Michigan, following his contentious divorce.

Gilbert wanted to move to a place where she could move her forehead (sans Botox). The couple settled in Michigan, where she ran for Congress before dropping out due to her health. They eventually purchased a fixer-upper farmhouse in the Catskills as a weekend getaway, which is now their primary residence. During the pandemic, Gilbert discovered the quiet, peaceful life agrees with her. "I've really embraced this lovely stillness in my existence ... And I am not chasing after some elusive thing, whether it's a success or a job or money or things," she told Page Six.

"I'm really just enjoying the sweet simplicity of my life," Gilbert added. She spends some of her time raising chickens, preparing meals, growing vegetables, and honing her carpentry skills. As she noted in her memoir, she is comfortable in her own skin, and liking what she sees in the mirror. "No fillers or Botox, no implants, no hair color. Just me," the "Nip Tuck" alum wrote. "This is happy. This is healthy. This is strong. This is rooted."