Children raised by entertainers don’t always follow in their parents’ footsteps. But Alison Arngrim did, finding fame overnight at the age of 11 playing bratty Nellie Oleson in the hit NBC TV series “Little House on the Prairie.”
Arngrim’s parents were captivated by the entertainment industry in their native Canada. Her father, Thor Arngrim (1928–2009), began working in theater and later became a Hollywood manager to entertainers such as Liberace and Debbie Reynolds, while her mother, Norma Macmillan (1921–2001), was best known as a voice actor. She was, according to Alison Arngrim, delightfully eccentric.
“They were both crazy show business folk,” said Alison Arngrim, from Los Angeles, laughing loudly.
“She was the voice of Casper the Friendly Ghost (in the 1963 series 'The New Casper Cartoon Show'), Gumby in 'The Gumby Show' and Davey in 'Davey and Goliath,'" she said. "And she was Sweet Polly Purebred in 112 episodes of 'Underdog.’”
Those voices and others often made it home when young Alison Arngrim asked for a bedtime story, and the tales were never conventional.
“She didn’t know any of the usual ones," her daughter said. "Instead, she tended to retell plots of movies or historical dramas. I remember a favorite about Czar Nicholas, Alexandra, their hemophiliac son and their friend Rasputin – which was a hell of a bedtime story for a 6-year-old. Another featured a cowgirl with crazy friends. It was years before I realized she’d been describing the movie plot to ‘Cat Ballou.’”
While young children of actors can initially find it confusing to see a parent on television, Alison Arngrim readily accepted it.
“My mother took me to the studio a few times when I was very little, so I saw what she did and she explained it," Alison Arngrim said. "She was in all the Saturday morning cartoons which I thought was great. She had a very distinctive almost childlike, high-pitched voice which was perfect for cartoons.”
Mother’s Day gifts were also a little unusual for Alison Arngrim.
“I had the weirdest Mother’s Day gift list," Alison Arngrim said. "She loved the opera, so there I was, a 10-year-old in a record store, asking for specific opera company recordings of 'Die Fledermaus' or 'Der Rosenkavalier' – it was hysterical.”
Not surprisingly, even her mother’s funeral was unique.
“She left pages of explicit, handwritten instructions for her funeral which were so hilarious that the priest actually read them during the eulogy,” Alison Arngrim recalled. “She was an Episcopalian and they would usually sing 'Abide with Me,' but her instructions read: 'I cannot abide "Abide with Me"' and she left a list of acceptable hymns.”
Norma Arngrim’s death from an intestinal blockage was sudden and devastating to the family.
“True to form, she had not complained but was obviously much sicker than we knew,” her daughter said.
Her wish was to be cremated and the ashes scattered in the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the coast of Canada, a region her mother would often travel to by seaplane and tugboat to stay in remote island cabins doing research for a book, “The Maquinna Line," published after her death.
“We had tickets to fly up to Vancouver on Sept. 12, 2001," Alison Arngrim said. "We were half packed, and the morning of Sept. 11 comes and all flights are grounded. So my mother remained in a box until next June when we took a yacht to the area with friends, a priest and a bagpipe player. It was a fabulous ceremony.”
Alison Arngrim acknowledges her mother's unconventional behavior.
“She didn’t do many of the normal mother things," Alison Arngrim said. "But she was still a loving, kind and good mom – exciting and different, like having a fascinating, historical character as your mother. She may have been Norma Macmillan professionally, but when she’d pick me up from school, she was always Norma Arngrim.”
Alison Arngrim is author of a best-selling biography, “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch,” and currently tours with a presentation of storytelling and stand-up. She will appear on Mother’s Day at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York City, with details at her official website at www.howiegreen.com/alison.
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns and interviews for more than 700 magazines and newspapers. To learn more, visit www.tinseltowntalks.com.