TV Mirror - November, 1978
"I Know What I Want and How to Get It"
by Ike Montgomery
According to Melissa Sue Anderson, 1978 has fulfilled all her expectations.
In fact, she's hard pressed to determine whether she's more excited about the developments in her acting career or the celebration of her coveted 16th birthday. Both are important to her, for both carry their own special significance.
As Mary Ingalls on Little House On the Prairie, Melissa becomes a young woman in love this new TV season, experiencing the affections of a young man who happens to be blind.
"It's not a suggestion that young people should run off and get married," she explains in earnest. "You have to remember that in the era of the early West women did marry young and were better prepared for marriage because they grew up learning how to survive off the land, how to care for a home and family. "
As the private person away from the attention of her thriving career, Melissa turned 16 on September 26. While the birthday may not have brought her the freedoms of her TV counterpart, it's obvious just from talking to her that Melissa is, in her own right, well-prepared to handle whatever evolves in her life.
"It's fun being sixteen," she acknowledges, "but I've felt more mature than my years I guess ever since I started the show. Most of the time I do feel older than my peers because of all the time I spend with adults.
"I've been on an allowance ever since I got this role," she explains, "with the bulk of my income going into trusts and savings and a few investments my mother's made for me. That's been very good for me because I've had to learn to budget my money according to my needs, and when it's possible I babysit for a neighbor and that gives me all I need."
For the record, her babysitting fee is 75 cents an hour. Melissa is delighted to earn the extra money for it allows her to add to her collections of gold jewelry, antiques, and bells of assorted nature.
"I guess I have more than one hundred bells," she explains. "All kinds. Little bells, cow bells, dinner bells. They're all in my room and I've collected them from everywhere. A lot of friends have brought me some from their travels. Some of them are such miniatures they're fragile and I like things like that.
"I'm really very fond of skirts and dresses," she says in almost a whisper. "I used to wear overalls to clean up my room but in the summer I like to wear shorts and a matching top for casual times and maybe a skirt and blouse if I'm going to a movie or something. I'm not really an avid fan of blue jeans."
Nor is she wrapped up in the excitement and glamour of Hollywood's social whirl. Instead, she can be found swimming, reading or playing tennis when she's not devoting her time to her school work.
"I had asthma when I was much younger and the doctor said to develop my lungs as much as possible," she explains, "and he suggested dancing and swimming. So I entered a dance class and I began swimming, and to this day I'll spend a long time in the pool swimming laps back and forth. I've done as many as sixty to eighty laps in the pool. I also play tennis and Ping-Pong.
"But back to the dancing," she suggests, "it was my dance instructor who suggested I pursue acting. By that time my lungs had become pretty sturdy, not only because of the exercises but I was on special shots for seven-and-a-half years. Twice a week, every other week for over seven years, I got an injection in my right arm to build up my immunity to allergies that might affect my respiratory system and thus my lungs."
Like so many youngsters, Melissa began her theatrical career appearing in television commercials before graduating to TV guest appearances on such shows as The Brady Bunch and Shaft before being cast as Michael Landon's eldest daughter.
"It's fun," she exclaims when asked what her life is like today, five years after she got the role. "It's a job but it's not work, and that's fun to have a job that's not work. I really like it a lot, and my mom's accepted what I do now, sure. Of course, I don't have that much spare time but I'd rather be doing this than something else. "
Still, Melissa is quick to acknowledge that her job has retained her interest and continued to be fun because of her parent's insistence that she have a life away from the set.
"I think my mother's reluctance at the outset helped me keep all of it in prospective," Melissa says honestly. "It was fun and different and all, but I learned what being responsible for myself really meant at a fairly young age, and in the past five years, as example, I've grown to appreciate my time away from the show.
"Acting is definitely what I'm going to do with a big part of my life ahead," she says, choosing her words carefully, "but I'd also like to get into directing and writing as well. However, this year I'm just focusing my attention on the changes my role is going through, and on school. I'm an honor student at school-I attend a private school-and while college still seems a long way off it's important to me that I keep my grades up so I won't have any trouble gaining admission."
Naturally, if there's a conflict in combining her career with her higher education it'll come if Little House is still on the air when she's ready to enter college.
I'm not sure it would be possible to do both," she says honestly, "but I'm not worrying too much about that right now. I'll face that when it comes. But if that situation exists I'll probably try to go to school at least part-time because I think the discipline of schoolwork' is very advantageous. Of course acting lends itself to concentrating on your class work so the two really compliment each other. I don't want to lose the continuity of that."
Her comments are obviously the result of careful consideration of her future.
"I'm really grateful that my character has grown as much as she has, and that the story of her blindness and all, which is in the books from which the show is based, has been included in the show. I learned so much about acting in doing that I can't tell you," she exclaims with an appreciative smile.
"Before, about all Mary Ingalls and I had in common was the fact that we were both straight A students.
"I guess I really am not a disco person," she agrees when it's suggested. "I mean, I was never into the Fonzie craze and some of the shows that are really popular with most kids are ones I don't watch that much. It's not that I'm not interested or anything, it's just that my lifestyle isn't directed that way, I guess. I mean, I really like James Garner and Paul Newman and I enjoy going to the movies more than watching TV.
I don't want that to sound like I'm not aware or not in tune with what's popular or anything like that," she adds with concern. "It's just that as I've gotten older my attention has been directed toward my work, both here with the show and at home with school and my other interests."
Such a lifestyle should not be interpreted as restrictive or too disciplined, but rather that of a 16-year-old who pretty well knows what she wants out of her life and how to get it. Melissa Sue Anderson knows what makes her happy, both for today and for the future. That in itself makes her quite a young lady, regardless of her age.