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Melissa Gilbert Believed Her Dad Died of Stroke but Hired Detective to Learn Real Cause at 45

Busayo Ogunjimi
Oct 23, 2021
12:20 A.M.
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Melissa Gilbert was one of America's TV favorites in the early 80s, but her life behind the scenes was a far cry from what fans saw. The actress once believed her dad died of a stroke but later found out the heartbreaking truth.


Gilbert was not even nine years old yet when she auditioned for a part in "Little House on the Prairie." She became famous for playing the character Laura Ingalls.

The TV series was one of the most popular series in the 70s till the early 80s. The show first aired in 1974, when America was in the middle of a recession, an oil crisis, also dealing with the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

A still image of Michael Landon as Charles Philip Ingalls and Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls from an episode of  TV show "Little House on the Prairie" which aired on December 20, 1976 [left]. A picture of Melissa's father, Paul Gilbert [right]  | Photo: Getty Images || youtube.com/OWN

A still image of Michael Landon as Charles Philip Ingalls and Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls from an episode of TV show "Little House on the Prairie" which aired on December 20, 1976 [left]. A picture of Melissa's father, Paul Gilbert [right] | Photo: Getty Images || youtube.com/OWN


Co-starring in the movie with her was actor Todd Bridges who played the child of former slaves Melissa Anderson, Mathew Larborteaux, Dean Butler, and Michael Landon, who played Charles Ingalls, Gilbert's dad on the show.

Landon sadly passed away in 1991 after battling Pancreatic cancer at the age of 54. Landon, who was already famous for his performance on a previous series, "Bonanza," was also one of the show's writers and producers.

Gilbert recalled a particular time on set when she forgot her lines, and Landon cleared the set when she started crying. He proceeded to calm her down and helped her learn her lines after many trials.

Melissa Gilbert on August 14, 2017 in New York City | Photo: Getty Images

Melissa Gilbert on August 14, 2017 in New York City | Photo: Getty Images

Landon and Gilbert had a very close relationship, and it grew deeper when she lost her dad. They went on vacation to Hawaii together every Easter, and Landon's son Mike Jnr. was her prom date.


Recalling her time filming the series, Gilbert said she is the person she is because of her time on the show. She also admitted there were moments she felt awkward, like when she had to kiss Dean Butler, who played "Almanzo" on the show.


Gilbert claimed it was the third time she had ever kissed a boy and that she was kissing a man who had a car, golfed, and also had to shave that morning when she had never shaved her legs.

She said she learned so much without knowing what she was learning — important life lessons about community, family, and tolerance.

When the show's two-hour finale "Little House: The Last Farewell" aired in 1984, Gibert admitted it was sad, and saying goodbye to the cast was not easy. The actress claimed it gave them closure, though.



Melissa Gilbert was adopted a day after her birth by Paul Gilbert and Barbara Cane, both actors. In her memoir "Prairie Tale," she said that her mother explained that they were trying to have a baby and were going through fertility tests, but they had no plans to adopt a child.

She got a call that a baby (Melissa) was available for adoption. She then placed a call through to Paul, who told her to get the baby.

Gilbert was told her birth mother was a prima ballerina and her birth father, a Rhoades scholar, and that she was a product of a loving relationship but with the wrong timing, which was why they gave her up for adoption.


In reality, her birth mother was, in fact, a dancer but not a prima ballerina, as she was told. Her birth father, on the other hand, was a sign painter and stock car racer.

They both had three children and were married to other people. Her birth mother got pregnant when they ran off together. They could not afford a seventh child, and that was why they gave her up.



Just two years after she began starring in the series "Little House on The Prairie'' Gilbert got the news that her father Paul was dead. He was a World War II veteran and also a gifted entertainer.

Gilbert was 11 years old at the time, and her parents had separated five years earlier when she was 6. He had suffered a stroke the previous year, and Gilbert and her brother were told he suffered another during his sleep, proving fatal.

In reality, her father had died by suicide, and she did not learn about this until when she became an adult. She admitted it was not her fault that it was kept a secret, although she would not do that to her kids because she knows how damaging secrets like that can be.


In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Gibert claimed when she learned about this; she went through the grieving process all over again. She said it was a bad time for her and that she could not function at all for a couple of weeks.

She hired a detective when she became desperate to learn the truth because she was not getting any answers. This was when she discovered the painful details.

She got to know that her father was in uncontrollable, deep pain and was making threats he would take his own life. He eventually carried out the threat by shooting himself.


Several years after finding out the details, Gilbert noted she still has unanswered questions. She still wonders why her father did not think she was worth staying alive for.

The actress said she understands he was in excruciating pain and that she respects his decision. She admitted Winfrey was the first person she would tell publicly, explaining she was taking antidepressants for about six months.



Gilbert is currently living in Michigan, and she is married to actor Timothy Busfield. She was previously married to Rob Lowe. She has four children. In her memoir, she wrote that she plans to go back to school to get her Licensed Vocational Nurse Certificate in end-of-life pediatric care.

She admitted to being in a peaceful state of mind most of the time and that she surfs, meditates, and plays drums. She has no real plans, just general dreams.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org.

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