Tragic Details About Melissa Gilbert

This feature discusses suicide, addiction, miscarriage, mental health issues, and allegations of sexual harassment. 

We've watched Hollywood child stars grow up on-screen, many of them going on to build lengthy professional resumes within the industry — and beyond — as adults. While their looks change and their paths in life evolve, the beloved characters they played are fixed in time. While young sitcom stars achieve success at an early age, often times that success comes at a price. A childhood living in the limelight can often also come with an intense amount of pressure. With age comes maturity, but the harsh reality of Hollywood often stays with former child stars later in life.  

No one knows that better than Melissa Gilbert, whose journey as a Hollywood star wasn't linear. The actor got her start as a child star playing the role of Laura Ingalls on the NBC series "Little House on the Prairie" which aired in 1974 and ran for eight years. She continued to act throughout her life, graduating to more adult performance in films "Choices" in 1986 and "Family of Strangers" in 1993. Gilbert also appeared in the film "When We Last Spoke" in 2019 and provided her voice for several episodes of the podcast series "Marvel Wastelanders: Black Widow" three years later. 

Although she still continues to pursue her artistic career, Gilbert has had her fair share of challenges in the limelight. Opting to leave Hollywood for a more secluded life in upstate New York, the former sitcom star has been vocal about her struggles growing up under a microscope. We're breaking down the tragic details about Melissa Gilbert.

Melissa Gilbert says her life was an 'illusion'

Melissa Gilbert had a complicated upbringing. "A large part of my life has been an illusion," she wrote in "Prairie Tale" (via Today). "... There's my mother's version, there's the one in the press, there's the one I lived, and there's the one I'm still trying to figure out." Her story began in 1964 when she was born to parents that couldn't commit to raising her, placing her up for adoption. Barbara Crane and Paul Gilbert adopted Gilbert but shielded the truth about her birth parents' careers. The actor later discovered her mother was a dancer, not a prime ballerina as she had been told, and that her father was a stock car racer, not an esteemed scholar. Gilbert's adoptive parents split when she was eight years old, and her mother re-married. "I was never close to him. I never liked him," she said of her mother's second husband.

Creating more mystery was why her parents had adopted her. Although they had told her they'd had trouble conceiving, the evidence suggested otherwise. "My father had a daughter from a previous marriage. I'd met her once. And my mother was pregnant twice after me, once with a baby she lost at six months and once with my sister Sara," she said. "Both of my parents were fertile ... Obviously more was going on than I knew. Once again, the beginning of my life was defined by a question mark."

She was protected from her dad's death

Melissa Gilbert's childhood was full of twists and turns — including the death of her father Paul. When he unexpectedly died in 1976, Gilbert was under the impression he'd had a stroke — which is what her mother wanted her to believe. However, the actor later found out that he died by suicide and she hired a detective to uncover more details about his life. "Basically what had happened was that he was under the care of the VA — he was a World War II veteran," Gilbert told Closer Weekly. "He was in uncontrolled, excruciating pain and had been threatening suicide."

Several decades later, she discovered the truth about her father's death and Gilbert understandably struggled with the news. "For about six months, I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep," she admitted. She went on to say she felt angry and confused over the death, battling with her own emotions of not feeling good enough for her father to remain in her life. She's gone on to make peace with the incident, telling Closer Weekly, "I will choose to honor his decision and his choice. I choose to 'hear' him and cherish him and keep his memory safe."

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)​.

Melissa Gilbert had a miscarriage

While spending her adolescent years on the big screen, Melissa Gilbert crossed paths with her teenage love Rob Lowe. The actor admitted in her book "Prairie Tale" (via Today), "I fell instantly, hopelessly and stupidly in love. We went from first date to instant couple. I felt like I was starving for Rob." The two got engaged in 1986, but their young romance was filled with ups and downs. Gilbert admitted there was infidelity on both parts, and an unplanned pregnancy ultimately led to their split in 1987. 

The "Little House on the Prairie" star claimed that Lowe told her he couldn't commit to fatherhood or marriage. Shortly after breaking the news, she had a miscarriage. Understandably, the emotional upheaval was hard on the twenty-something star. "It hurt like hell ... It was a very dark and difficult time for me" she wrote in her memoir. "... Now that I have children that are his age — my older boys are 28 and 23, the age he was when we were together — I understand it. But at the time it was devastating." 

Gilbert went on to wed her first husband Bo Brinkman, and Lowe tied the knot with his current wife Sheryl Berkoff in 1991. He told Haute Living that his wife was his first try at a monogamous relationship. Ultimately, it encouraged him to make other adjustments to his lifestyle. "That led me to getting sober, which led me to changing my life — giving me everything I now have," he explained.

She was depressed after losing her co-star

Melissa Gilbert was heartbroken after the loss of her former co-star Michael Landon. The two starred side by side for nearly a decade, with Landon playing her on-screen dad. In 1991, the actor died of pancreatic cancer, aged 54. Not only was he a lead actor in "Little House on the Prairie," but he was also a writer and executive producer of the series. 

Following the sad news of Landon's death, Gilbert fell into a depression. "It seemed everyone in the world wanted a quote," she wrote in "Prairie Tale" (per Showbiz CheatSheet). "Yet I was incapable of communicating." She went on to admit, "I stayed in bed with the shades drawn ... Anytime I got up and tried to move around, it felt as if I was moving through mud. I walked around dazed in my pajamas for days." Gilbert eventually did get up — thanks to the help of her then-husband Bo Brinkman bringing home two puppies to cheer her up. 

In the spirit of giving back, in 2022 Gilbert wrote an essay for the organization PanCAN, which advocates for those with pancreatic cancer and leads research into the disease. Urging people to support the non-profit to help find a way to end the disease, she also described how deep her grief continued to be 31 years after Landon's death, noting, "I am aching for him." Later, she added, "I hate pancreatic cancer with a passion that is volcanic. I want to wipe this disease out completely."

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Melissa Gilbert experienced alcohol addiction

Melissa Gilbert has been open about her experiences with alcohol addiction. After her relationship with Rob Lowe ended, the actor married Bo Brinkman. In her memoir "Prairie Tale" (per Today), she admitted that her first marriage was riddled with alcohol misuse. In the mid-90s, after she and Brinkman divorced, she recalled drinking two bottles of wine a night before going to bed. "When I hit my late thirties ... my grandfather passed away and something in me just triggered, and I started having a hard time falling asleep," she told ET. In 2004, after passing out in a dog bed while hosting a friend for dinner, Gilbert decided to give up alcohol for good, seeking out therapy and attending AA meetings to help guide her journey.

Gilbert has continued her sobriety throughout her career. She even admitted to staying away from painkillers to avoid any potential dependence. The actor told ET that she refused to take pain pills following a back injury as well as a concussion for fear of repeating past mistakes. She champions Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, which is an organization that is dedicated to shielding kids from the potential misuse of prescription drugs. "This problem is so pervasive. But the thing that's at the heart of it that gets me is that when a parent finds out that their child has a drug problem they immediately feel like it's just them," Gilbert told the outlet.

If you or anyone you know needs help 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).

She found her first husband cheating on her

Before Melissa Gilbert found love with her current husband Timothy Busfield, she was married twice before. The "Little House on the Prairie" star tied the knot with Bo Brinkman in 1988, with whom she shares her child Dakota. Their relationship was tumultuous, and she made some shocking claims about her ex-husband in her book "Prairie Tale," writing, "Our marriage was a challenge fueled by alcohol, insecurity, and the unfamiliarity of two people who barely knew each other trying to merge their lives and work." Gilbert also alleged that she discovered her husband cheating on her in their home just two months after she gave birth to their son. Upon being caught, the actor claimed he asked her, "What are you looking at?"

The couple ultimately split in 1994, but their problems weren't over. Shortly after the split, the actor started dating Bruce Boxleitner. The two were enjoying a vacation in Austria when Gilbert learned Brinkman had called Child Protective Services to report her nanny, accusing the woman of abusing their son. Ultimately, the report was dismissed. "The complaint went away after her investigation, as it should have," Gilbert wrote in her memoir (via Showbiz CheatSheet). "There was no story. It was bullsh*t." Gilbert was interviewed by CPS while recovering from a breast augmentation. "I wanted this woman to think I was normal and my home was a paradigm of well-being. Instead, I looked like the psycho ... actress who got new t*ts for Christmas," she wrote.

Melissa's second divorce was hard on her

Just one year after her divorce from Bo Brinkman, Melissa Gilbert moved on to fellow Hollywood actor Bruce Boxleitner. The two tied the knot in 1995 and welcomed their son Michael together the same year. The two went on to have a 16-year-long marriage, but Gilbert admitted their marriage nearly ended shortly after it began. The former sitcom star wrote in her memoir "Prairie Tale (via Showbiz CheatSheet) that she had an emotional affair with her leading man while starring in "Seduction in a Small Town." Although she didn't name the actor, Dennis McNamara starred as her character's husband in the movie.  

"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 wrote in her memoir. "The problem was, I was pouring my heart out to the wrong person. I should've been sharing all of this with my husband, but I was too afraid."  While she and Boxleitner worked past their distance in couple's therapy, their marriage ended in 2011.

"It was like, I lost my mind," Gilbert told Page Six of the split. The former Screen Actors Guild president admitted she bought a Mustang convertible and got fillers and Botox to ease the pain — along with dating a younger French boyfriend. However, the crisis didn't last long. She went on to meet her current husband, actor Timothy Busfield after he spotted her waiting for friends at a bar in 2012. 

Melissa Gilbert had some severe health issues

Melissa Gilbert's dreams of being a congresswoman in Michigan were cut short due to the actor experiencing some major health issues. The "Little House on the Prairie" star was running for a seat in the 8th district in 2016 before doctors advised her to step down, as per her statement to People

Gilbert's health problems began in 2003 when she underwent her first herniated disk surgery. Nine years later, she sustained a concussion following a performance on "Dancing With The Stars." And just a few months after that, she suffered yet another concussion during an accident in a rental home in Studio City. "I was standing under the back balcony talking to my kids and it detached from the house and it collapsed on my head," she said. Gilbert underwent her fourth spinal surgery in 2020, in which she says she got an artificial disk that made all the difference. "Though I am only one week out it is clear that this surgery for me has been a life-altering experience," she wrote in an Instagram post.

Gilbert's back and neck surgeries over the years weren't the only thing landing her in the hospital. The actor took a trip to the emergency room in 2023 following injuries from a bug bite which caused her entire arm to swell up. "Called my [doctor and] he suggested we hightail it to the ER," she wrote on Instagram. The bite left her with an abscess and cellulitis. Thankfully, with prompt treatment and the right meds, she was quickly on the mend.

She spoke out about alleged harassment

Growing up in Hollywood wasn't always glamorous for Melissa Gilbert. In 2017, the actor opened up to Andy Cohen claiming she was sexually harassed while working in the industry in the early 90s. On "Radio Andy," Gilbert alleged that director Oliver Stone had wilfully humiliated her during her audition for "The Doors." "I'm actually sitting here telling you this story, afraid to say his name, because I'm worried about backlash," she admitted in the interview.

Gilbert claimed that Stone asked her to act out a scene that had her on her knees saying the line, "Do me, baby," and other sexually provocative statements to the male lead. She also claimed that she'd previously embarrassed him in a club. "I had said something and embarrassed him publicly," Gilbert told Cohen. "He wrote this special scene that he wanted me to do for him physically in the casting room, and it was humiliating and horrid ... He got me back and it hurt." She added that she left the room in tears, and the role ultimately went to Meg Ryan. Speaking to Deadline, Stone denied any wrongdoing, and insisted the audition process was a safe environment, stating, "We auditioned dozens of actors for roles in 'The Doors' and it was made clear from the outset that our film was going to be a raunchy, no-holds-barred rock 'n' roll movie."