The Gilbert family is one that’s spawned a trio of celebrities; Melissa and Jonathan who headed the cast of youngsters in Little House on the Prairie, and Sara, a child actor who got her big break on the comedy Roseanne.
But as the Gilbert siblings got older, only two transformed into adult stars, and one–Jonathon–disappeared from the spotlight.
Melissa Gilbert, now 59, is perhaps best known for her starring role as Laura Ingalls, the little girl with the iconic double-braided, strawberry-colored hair, on Little House on the Prairie, the hit family drama that ran from 1975 to 1983.
The show, which tells the story of prairie farmers living in the late 1800’s, starred the beloved Michael Landon as “Pa,” who in 1991, died at 54 of an aggressive pancreatic cancer, Melissa Sue Anderson as the blind girl Mary Ingalls, and a nine-year-old Shannen Doherty as Jenny Wilder in the final season. Also, playing the Walnut Grove troublemaker, Willie Oleson, was Jonathan, Melissa’s real-life adopted brother.
Born on May 8, 1964, Melisa was adopted by Barbara Crane, an actor and dancer, and Paul Gilbert, an actor and comedian, only a few days after she was born. Exposed to the entertainment industry through her parents, Melissa started acting at a young age–she was three when she landed her first role in the film The Reluctant Astronaut, an uncredited role.
After several appearances in film and TV, Melissa was then selected from a reported 500 girls for the role of Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie, a role she starred in all nine seasons.
In 1985, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and at the time, only 21, she was the youngest to earn that honor, until Britney Spears tied her record in 2003.
“I experienced the Hollywood version while working on Little House on the Prairie,” Melissa said. Referring to her character, who was loving called “Half-Pint” by her on-screen dad Landon, she adds: “There were chickens, cows, I even had my own horse named Peanuts. I loved playing Laura because I wanted to be like her.”
Since leaving Little House, Melissa’s career is mostly made of TV roles, including as a competitor in Dancing with the Stars in 2012.
Meanwhile at the Gilbert home, parents Paul and Barbara were busy caring for two child actors, Melissa and her younger brother Jonathan, who was seven when he joined the Walnut Grove cast with his big sister.
Jonathan had a successful run on the show, and his character of the adorable Willie appeared in all nine seasons.
While working on the series, he had a small role in The Miracle Worker, a 1979 film that starred Melissa as Helen Keller and Patty Duke as her tutor.
It seemed that he, too, would top the credits with future Hollywood roles, but after appearances in Little House: The Years, Little House: Back to Yesterday and Little House: The Last Farewell (1984), he vanished from the screen.
According to CNN, Jonathan earned an MBA in finance and began working as a stockbroker in New York City.
According to Melissa’s book, “Prairie Tale: A Memoir,” Jonathan cut all ties from the family when he turned 18.
Melissa wrote: “He turned eighteen and simply disappeared. Though he would turn up a couple of times over several years, I have only seen him three times in the last two decades. I am at peace with it.” She continued, “Surprisingly, I am at peace with it. Though my heart does ache for my mother.”
As a mother, she understands. The actor, who married Timothy Busfield in 2013, has two children from earlier marriages, Bo Brinkman (1988 to 1989) and actor Bruce Boxleitner (1995 to 2011) of Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Babylon 5.
But, still, Melissa wishes him a happy birthday on her Instagram. On April 29, she posted an old photo of the two playing in a pool. She writes: “Yesterday was my baby brother’s birthday! Love him so much! Happy to say he remains one of the funniest people I know. Love you Brocephus!”
Sara, the youngest of the Gilbert clan, is the biological daughter of Barbara and Harold Abeles, whom the trios’ mom married after her divorce from Paul, when Melissa was eight. Paul died in 1976, the year after Sarah was born.
Sara started her career in commercials and then had her big break in her role as the sarcastic Darlene Conner on Roseanne.
The 48-year-old award-winning star is the creator and former co-host of The Talk, CBS’ answer to The View.
In fact, it was when Melissa was a guest on The Talk, where she lovingly outed her little sister.
Sara, who at the time had been dating now ex-wife Linda Perry of the band 4 Non Blondes, squirmed when Melissa shared a story on the talk show.
“You know what, I’ll put it to you this way. I took her to dinner when she was in her teens and I sat her down and I gave her this long speech about how much I love you and it doesn’t matter and you’re my darling and blah, blah, blah and you can tell me anything. And she looked and me and she said, ‘I’m not gay.’ And I was like, ‘OK, whatever.’” Speaking to a cheering audience, Melissa continued, “Years later she called me and we were having a conversation about something and she said, ‘You know, what if I just said that I’m gay?’ and I went, ‘And?’ I mean I think always I kinda knew.”
Flustered, Sara responded, “Don’t we have a break coming up?”
While with partner Ali Adler, co-creator of Supergirl and The New Normal, had two children, and another with Perry, whom she was married 2014 to 2019.
Today, Melissa, who enjoys the serenity of her 14 acres in New York’s Catskills Mountains, says that she has a “reawakened love for the outdoors,” and for graceful aging.
Explaining that she fell prey to the standards of perfection demanded by the industry, Melissa shared with People, “I grew up in an industry that values the outside considerably more than the inside, and I was caught in that wheel of trying to stay young,” Though she previously got Botox, fillers and plastic surgery, she said she’s embracing a natural lifestyle. “I finally woke up and went, ‘What am I doing? I look like a carrot top, and I’m not happy. My mindset was, ‘You have to stay thin. You have to be seen in the right places, wear the right shoes and drive the right car.’ That was so drilled into me by all the outside forces. But it never sat right.”
She adds, “I cut off all my hair and quit doing Botox and all that stuff.”