If there’s one iconic family that nearly everyone’s childhood has in common, it’s the Ingalls. Whether you read the books or watched the drama series, Little House on the Prairie likely takes up permanent residence somewhere in your memory. One member of the homesteading clan, Mary Ingalls, was best remembered for her tragic contraction of Scarlet fever, which left her blind.
The character behind Mary, the eldest daughter of Charles and Caroline Ingalls, was Melissa Sue Anderson. Her breakout role as a child actress held promise for a lucrative career, but after her long run on the prairie, she seemed to go off the grid. Whatever happened to Melissa Sue Anderson?
Melissa Sue Anderson was born in Berkeley, California, on September 26, 1962. Her parents, James and Marion Anderson, had another daughter, Maureen, who is twelve years older. When Anderson was seven, the family picked up and moved to Los Angeles. Six years later, her parents divorced, and her mother raised her.
Initially, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Anderson was only interested in dance. Still, at the urging of one of her studio teachers, Anderson’s mother began signing her up for auditions and looking for an agent. After appearing in a few television commercials, requests for her to audition for television roles skyrocketed. The quintessential all-American girl, Anderson was in demand at age ten.
Her first official television appearance was on an episode of Bewitched in 1972, called "Tabitha’s First Day of School." Anderson also appeared in The Brady Bunch as a girl named Millicent who kissed Bobby and as Cathy in Shaft, both in 1973.
Little House on the Prairie
Just two short years after her first on-screen role, Anderson would win the most significant part of her career – Mary Ingalls. Her character was the eldest daughter of the Ingalls clan. This family lived and farmed land in the American Midwest. The American Western historical drama detailed their trials and tribulations, and successes. Anderson’s character Mary is known for being shy and quiet and having a life riddle with tragedies. Her most significant story arc was becoming blind and eventually finding happiness again as a wife and teacher.
Anderson starred in the NBC television series for seven seasons and returned for guest roles in season eight. In all, taking up the part of Mary from 1974 to 1981. By the time Little House on the Prairie was over, Anderson was nineteen years old. During that time, she had become an iconic character and proven her acting skills. She was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Best Leading Actress in a Drama Series in 1978.
Unfortunately, there are rumors that Anderson didn’t entirely enjoy her time on the show. She has stated that she is eternally grateful for the role, but by the seventh season, she "couldn’t take it anymore" and had to get out. Claiming that the show got too "soap opera-ish" and that her character, in particular, faced tragedy after tragedy. Her co-stars recall her as being aloof and cold.
Post Prairie Career
Nevertheless, as a young adult, Anderson still received plenty of roles. In Michael Landon’s autobiographical film The Loneliest Runner, she was asked to play Nancy Rizzi, John Curtis’s (played by Lance Kerwin) first girlfriend. She then went on to play a love interest to co-star Lance Kerwin once again in the television film James at 15.
In 1979 Anderson won the Emmy Award for her role in the for-television film Which Mother is Mine? Three years later, another nomination came her way due to her part in Happy Birthday to Me, a Canadian Slasher film. Along with film roles, Anderson played numerous guest parts in television series, including CHiPs, Murder She Wrote, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Into the early 2000s, Anderson continued to appear here and there in both television and film. Once, she even associate-produced a film. Throughout her diverse career, Anderson has continued accepting awards for her Mary Ingalls role, such as the TP de Oro Award, Spain’s most prestigious television award for Best Foreign Actress, and an induction in the Western Performers Hall of Fame.
What is Melissa Sue Anderson doing now?
Despite her numerous roles and recognitions, Anderson never reached the same fame in adulthood as she did in her early years.
However, she may have wanted it that way. In 1990, Anderson married television writer and producer Michael Sloan. The pair have two children, a daughter Piper and a son Griffin. In 2002, the family moved to Montreal, Canada, officially becoming naturalized Canadians in 2007. Anderson claims her early retirement was because she wanted her children to live a more regular and quiet life, allowing them to find their own identities outside of being the children of a famous actress.
In 2010 Anderson released her autobiography, which predominantly discussed her years on Little House on the Prairie. Neither of her children has followed in her footsteps. Since they have grown up, Anderson has returned to occasionally accepting guest roles. Her most recent was The Con is On in 2018. Still, it seems that Anderson shares similar sentiments about the limelight as with Little House On the Prairie; she "couldn’t take it anymore," as today she lives a relatively quiet and secluded life, rarely making headlines.