by Connie Berman
Melissa Sue Anderson has often said that Michael Landon, the man who plays her kindly and protective father on NBC's popular "Little House on the Prairie" series, is almost like a father to her in real life. And a case in point illustrates just that. One day good pal Johnny Carson, the famous "Tonight Show" host himself, strolled over to the set to visit. When he spied Melissa Sue, he immediately greeted her and asked her what her grades were like in school. Before Melissa could utter a word, Mike Landon, with obvious paternal like pride, boomed loudly, "She did very well, thank you. She graduated from high school at fifteen."
Melissa appreciates that fatherly interest in her life, since her own parents divorced when she was twelve-and the split was certainly not an amicable one, but one fraught with bitterness.
Missy, as everyone calls her-especially on the set to distinguish her from that other Melissa, her co-star named Gilbert-was born in Berkeley, California, on September 26, 1962. She and her older sister and their parents moved around the Golden State quite frequently until the foursome finally settled in Los Angeles. It was shortly after that that Missy's parents first broke up, when she was seven. It was a hardship-asthma is another problem she's had to deal with, but she began dancing lessons to toughen up her lungs and her spirit.
As she recalls, "I used to think I wanted to be a dancer," and then smiles. "I had a dancing teacher who was hired by Paramount in the 1930s to be their big dancing star, when every studio had a Donald O'Connor or Gene Kelly. They put him under contract, but he just couldn't act, even after they sent him to all kinds of drama coaches. So they had to release him from his contract. Anyway. he felt I had potential as a dancer and told me to get some acting experience so the same thing wouldn't happen to me."
But even while she was dancing, her astute teacher realized that Melissa was capable of doing more and he suggested to her mother that Melissa find an agent. Soon after she was signed, she began appearing in commercials and making television guest star appearances in such shows as "Shaft" and "The Brady Bunch." One of her memories of those early days is a kissing scene on "The Brady Bunch," the family show.
"I kissed one of the boys on 'The Brady Bunch.' It was the first time and I decided I would never do it again." Since then, however, Melissa has changed her mind. She admits that she wouldn't mind doing the same kind of scene today.
After garnering some experience acting, Missy decided that that really was the field for her. "Now I like acting better than dancing, but you have to be able to do everything," she says.
Shortly after, she won the part of Mary Ingalls on "Little House on the Prairie." Landon took one look at her and decided right on the spot that she was the one for the part.
She was chosen, Landon explains with an appreciative glance toward Melissa, "because we wanted a pretty face. The funny thing was that she turned into a great actress."
How does she like the part of Mary Ingalls, having played it now for so many years? She replies that the part is very nice but that sometimes she might rather play what she calls a "mean kid." That's as opposed to being so sweet on the show. "I'd like to be able to do all different kinds of parts -comedy and drama. Laughing on cue and making it come off as believable is the hardest thing about acting," she confesses.
But no matter what the drawbacks, Melissa says that she really likes her job.
"I love my work. It's hard work but it's fun. We work most of the day. And during the few minutes we have off, there's not much time to play around. On weekends I play. That's my time."
She sings the highest praises for the cast and the crew. " 'Little House' is the greatest show in the world to work on and it's great fun to dress up in all those costumes-even though it means I can never get a tan in summer. I wear makeup all over my face and hands and the rest of me is completely covered with petticoats, pantaloons, long sleeves, and high button shoes."
Since Melissa is still under eighteen (she won't be eighteen until 1980), her mother still has to accompany her to the set every day. That's the way it is under the law. "My mother takes me to the set and stays all day with me," she says. A typical day for Melissa would begin before six in the morning when her alarm goes off. She would spend one hour for lunch and then the rest of the day would be spent before the cameras or on-the-lot school. Now, however, as Mike Landon proudly boasted, she has earned her high school equivalency diploma through both private school and the on-the-set instruction.
Landon recalls that Melissa Sue has really progressed on the show. "She wasn't an actor at first," he says, "but she was a worker!"
But there were times when things were not always quite as smooth as they should have been among the cast members. In 1977, Missy began getting upset at one point about losing the best lines to her television younger sister, played by Melissa Gilbert. Mike straightened things out right away and had long discussions with both girls and their mothers. He was very caring and didn't want anyone to be hurt.
And that was not the only problem that flared up during the show. A blindness segment was written into the script for Melissa Sue and she was again worried that it might be a way to write her out of the show. Again, Mike calmed her ruffled feathers and urged her to trust him. The final result was that the show with the blindness story wound up being the highest-rated "Little House" episode of the season. Not only that, Melissa was nominated for a television Emmy Award because of it.
True to form, Mike, in his characteristic paternal way, called Melissa Sue up to congratulate her on the nomination. As she recalls, the conversation became so emotional that when they were ready to hang up, "we were both in tears." It's just an indication of how close Michael Landon is to everyone on the show and how much he cares about each and every member as though they were his own family. More than one performer has commented that because of Mike's great wealth of caring, he makes them care about and respect themselves more.
Melissa couldn't be more enthusiastic about working with Mike. "He's wonderful, he's fantastic, a really nice guy. He's very easygoing, never gets upset, and he tells you exactly what he wants and if another director is directing and you don't understand what he means, Mike will cue you in. He's super nice."
Seeing how well Mike has adapted to the many roles he plays on "Little House on the Prairie" has made Melissa branch out, or at least think of branching out, in other directions besides acting. She's got quite a few heady ambitions and she's bound and determined that nothing is going to stop her from doing what she wants.
"I want to be a director. I guess it's because a lot of times you'll read the script and you'll wonder how they will do it-you imagine how it would look really neat-then they shoot it a different way. It may be better or at least as good as your idea, but still it wasn't the way you would have done it and you're let down. I know I'd like directing better than acting. Acting is pretending-pretending you're somebody else."
In many ways, Melissa claims that she's really an old-fashioned girl-despite the fame and her acting career. She is just a bit quiet and shy and would much rather read a book than climb a tree. And when it comes to reading books, she does that very well-since she's always gotten good grades.
She's also very traditional in her views on marriage and a family. "I'd like to have four or six kids -I like big families. Maybe because there are only two of us. You always want what you don't have. I'll probably want a big family and probably have a little one. What do 1 look for in a man? What everybody else wants, 1 guess-someone really nice and lovable."
One thing for sure-Melissa is very critical of herself as an actress and as a person. She's very demanding of herself and always makes a big effort. Like with her weight. "If 1 gain a pound, 1 know it," she says modestly. "The first thing every morning I step on the scale and if I am over 102 pounds 1 try to exercise more and eat less that day."
Her height is just 5' 4", so that may be why Melissa is so careful. Melissa's favorite meal when she is calorie conscious is nonfat milk and a salad for lunch, broiled fish and a green vegetable for dinner. But breakfast is something she just can't stomach at the hour she arises for "Little House on the Prairie"-4:30 in the morning.
"I see no reason for eating when I do not have an appetite. Some who go in for snacks-food they don't need which doesn't mean a thing nutritionally-wonder why they have a weight problem."
Melissa says it sort of bothers her when people tell her that she is lucky to be thin. She doesn't feel like she is lucky-just disciplined and always watchful of what she puts in her mouth.
She does have one key way to check if her figure is getting out of hand or showing a few inches she doesn't want it to. And that's with her jeans. If they fit right but not too tight, she knows she is on the right track.
She also has a super exercise for keeping her thighs slim. What she does is sit on the floor, raise her knees so that her heels are close to her buttocks, and then lie back but not touch the floor. Then she crosses her hands over her chest, sits up again and then lets her back go down again, but not all the way. It's a strenuous exercise and one that really works for Melissa. And also one that is really quite effective so that she's become so proficient at it, she can do it 100 times.
Aside from imparting little exercise hints and other matters, Melissa feels that she doesn't want to play the part of star. She remains as unaffected and simple as she did the day she first stepped on the set. She is well aware that there are drawbacks to being. famous-like the constant recognition, which at times she finds annoying. "When 1 go to Disneyland or someplace, I always wear sunglasses and a hat and all. When I'm with my friends 1 don't want to get stuck and stopped there with them having to stand there waiting feeling, 'Oh, brother,' while 1 have to sign autographs. It's hard to get out of it gracefully."
Doing things with friends is one of Melissa's favorite off-the-set activities. She also enjoys going to movies and could see a double feature without squirming in her seat one bit. Cooking is another of her great pastimes. "My specialty is dessert-I make a good avocado pie. . . . 1 also collect bells. I have about 130 (maybe more) from all over the world. "
She's also got a brand new, flame-red $7000 Ford sports car-it's one of the first things she bought to celebrate the success she's found with "Little House on the Prairie." Otherwise, there isn't any way that Melissa has really gone Hollywood.
She is extremely close with her mother, with whom she lives in a nicely furnished condominium in Burbank. There she's always willing to pitch in and help and get ready with all the chores. When she's home, she's not treated as Melissa Sue Anderson, the star, nor is she willing to act like that. She's just folks. She even babysits occasionally for some of the neighborhood kids. And she's living within a weekly allowance so she learns to budget her money, as opposed to just spending in a free fashion. Being the true dyed-in-the-wool California girl she is, Melissa says, "I love the beach! I don't get to go much because there isn't much time during the summer. When I'm rich and successful and famous, I'm going to have a mansion on the beach and I'm going to have a home in the mountains, too. I like to have a lot of space. . . you're not cramped in the mountains or at the beach. Look around and there's all that space. It may be crowded but you have all that water ahead of you. And I love skiing."
Melissa is also fond of dancing-especially in a disco-and she enjoys swimming and ice skating. And one of her big ambitions is to take flying lessons. She really hates doing homework, though. That was never one of her favorite things and she's glad that she finally has graduated so schoolwork no longer hangs over her head.
Although she loves acting and wants to make a lifelong career out of it, Melissa confesses that there are still things that make her uncomfortable about the demands of the profession. For example, as she says about on-screen romances, "It's embarrassing! I don't like to kiss boys I don't know. Everyone is watching and everyone teases me about it. Even my friends at school teased me-after they saw me kissing this boy on television."
Even though she was never all that crazy about homework, Missy was always into reading lots of books. She would devour everything she could get 'her hands on. "I read everything," she says with a wide smile. "Short stories, novels, mysteries. I like light things." Melissa always makes it a point to be nice to the other members of the crew and cast of "Little House on the Prairie." She always is grateful for the way that Mike Landon treats her and she's especially nice to the newcomers. For example, she says that she tries to be supportive and helpful to twins Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush, who alternate playing the same role of Carrie Ingalls on "Little House on the Prairie."
Missy loves the "one big happy family" feeling of it all and says that it's wonderful to work in an atmosphere like that. Even the show's cameraman notices the warmth and excitement among the members of the show. "The show is like one big happy family," says the cameraman, Ken Hunter. "With Michael as the father figure."
One thing for sure, Melissa has surprised everyone with the amount of her acting talent. Aside from a few commercials, like for Mattel toys and Spaghettios, and a few appearances on some nighttime shows, she hardly had any credits that were lengthy. But now she's really grown as an actress and everyone, including Melissa herself, is overwhelmed by the development.She's really pleased at how she's changed and emerged from somewhat of an amateur into a full-fledged professional.
Her growth in acting is what has propelled Melissa to think about other areas of show business. She wants to write, and as she has said before, to direct. And she wants to get married but keep a career going as long as she can. Surely, with the amount of talent she has shown as an actress, she can get all the roles she wants. And her beauty has been compared to that of a young Grace Kelly, so that's a help too.
One thing for sure-Melissa has her feet planted firmly on the ground. No matter what happens, no matter what kinds of roles are offered her way, no matter what kinds of awards and recognition she gets in the future, she's not going to change. She's always been somewhat of an old-fashioned girl and that's something she has vowed to remain.
She has been called sweet, sincere, unspoiled, and disarmingly natural. People have said that they're surprised that she is actually in show business, But perhaps that is all part of Melissa's charm. And her talent. After all, she couldn't have that shining talent showing so well in her role on "Little House on the Prairie" if she didn't really have some of that pioneer spirit-as well as some old-fashioned good behavior-deep inside her. It not only makes Melissa a wonderful actress but also the kind of person everyone wants to have as a friend.