Melissa Ellen Gilbert is an American actress, writer, and producer, primarily in movies and television. Gilbert is best known as a child actress who co-starred as Charles Ingalls’s second daughter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, on the dramatic television series Little House on the Prairie. As an adult, she has a very long list of acting, voicework, writing, producing, and directing credits. Melissa also served two terms as President of the Screen Actors Guild. On June 9, 2009, her autobiography Prairie Tale: A Memoir was released.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Gilbert was adopted one day later by actor and comedian Paul Gilbert and his wife, dancer and actress Barbara Crane. Barbara was the daughter of The Honeymooners creator Harry Crane. The couple later adopted a son, Jonathan Gilbert, who co-starred with Melissa as Willie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie. When Melissa was 8, her parents divorced. Barbara then married Harold Abeles, and together they had biological daughter Sara Abeles, born January 29, 1975. On February 12, 1975, while Melissa was at her mother’s home with the flu, Paul Gilbert suffered a stroke and died at the age of 56.
Barbara’s marriage to Abeles also ended in divorce.
With Hollywood connections in her family background and a natural ability for entertaining at a very young age, Gilbert had already done dozens of commercials, including one for Alpo dog food with Lorne Greene. She then tried out for the role of Laura Ingalls, Charles Ingalls’ middle daughter, on NBC’s 2-hour pilot of the book Little House on the Prairie. Michael Landon, who played Charles Ingalls, loved her instantly. Growing up she was unfamiliar with Landon, having never met him or watched “Bonanza.” Gilbert attended school with his daughter, Leslie Landon who guested on Little House as a teen and then played school teacher Etta Plumb during the last season. It was Leslie who informed her that she had won the role of Laura, beating out over 500 child actresses for this part. The pilot was shot in 1973 and was a ratings success. Almost a year later Gilbert began filming the series.