Melissa Gilbert got her dramatic acting start on Gunsmoke before hitting the Prairie
She came out of ''retirement'' to get the role.
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Ah, to retire young. That's the dream, isn't it? But has anyone ever retired at a younger age than Melissa Gilbert?
"She began her TV career at the age of 2 1/2. One of her parents' show business friends asked if they would let her appear in a commercial for a line of baby clothes," a Pittsburgh Press profile of the actress explained in 1974. "Melissa did, then promptly went into retirement."
Not even three and she had retired. Spoiler alert: She came out of retirement at the age of 7.
Before we delve into her early showbiz career, let's first recap her roots. Gilbert's father was comedian Paul Gilbert. His given name was Ed MacMahon — really. (Gilbert's minor acting career included playing the murder victim in Perry Mason's "The Case of the Blonde Bonanza.") Melissa's grandfather, Harry Crane, her mom's pop, was an acclaimed comedy writer for Dean Martin, penning jokes for Martin's classic Celebrity Roasts.
Gilbert was raised around Hollywood. In her first decade of life, she booked more than 30 television commercials. Crest and Kool-Aid featured the precocious kid in their campaigns. Most Seventies children, however, will recall her Alpo dog food ads, which paired her with Lorne Greene.
So, Gilbert was acting with both former Bonanza stars Lorne Greene and Michael Landon at the time.
There was another curious link between Gilbert and her Little House on the Prairie "dad" Landon. Leslie Landon, Michael's real-life daughter, attended school with Gilbert. It was actually Leslie who told Gilbert she had won the role of Laura Ingalls on Little House. She spilled the beans in school. For the Laura role, the producers interviewed 87 kids, had 27 of them read, and just eight filmed a screen test. Gilbert beat them all.
It was easy to see Gilbert in the role. She had already played a young child on the frontier. Little House creators only had to see her Gunsmoke tape.
"The Judgement," an 18th-season episode of Gunsmoke, gave Gilbert her first "real" credited acting gig in a television series. She played the daughter of Katherine Helmond (of Soap and Who's the Boss fame). You can see the two together at the top of the page. Gilbert had just a couple of other small guest sports before landing the Little House gig.
Good thing she came out of retirement.