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Karen Grassle Endured 3 Failed Marriages & Fertility Issues — She Is a Mom Now & Still Friends with Kid’s Dad

Titi Dokubo
Jan 17, 2022
12:20 P.M.
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Karen Grassle is popularly known as Caroline "Ma" Ingalls on "Little House on the Prairie." She was a mother of five on the show, even though she did not have any biological children.


After eight seasons on the show, Karen Grassle married for a second time and finally fulfilled her dreams of becoming a mother despite her fertility struggles.

Her marriages did not work out, but she believes she's living a blessed life as she gets to spend time with her son, which has enhanced her life immeasurably.

Karen Grassle as Caroline Quiner Holbrook Ingalls in season one of "Little House on the Prairie" [left]. Karen Grassle on the San Francisco Bay in 2014 [right] | Photo: Getty Images,



Grassle played her role in "Little House on the Prairie" from 1974 to 1982, where she appeared in over 180 episodes. After the show ended, she toured the country performing in numerous plays while featuring as a guest star on various television shows.

Before the show, Grassle had spent a year in England where she worked with a Shakespeare company and was teaching. She was flat broke on her return to the United States and was asked to fly to Los Angeles to play the lead in an independent movie.

After her struggle, which included writing a bad check at the airport to get a ticket, the movie fell through when she got to Los Angeles. Her agent then sent her on an audition for a series with Michael Landon.


Grassle was the only one at the interview because they had auditioned everyone in Hollywood for the role and needed to pick one as soon as possible.

After she read her second scene with Landon, he knew she was right for the part but had to wait for NBC's approval. Grassle beat 47 other actresses who had auditioned for the role.

With the show's success, Grassle wanted to renegotiate her contract for higher pay in the second season, but Landon tried his best to get her to give in.


She said he didn't want to pay her, which was difficult. At some point, he told her that her character was not a favorite, and so the network didn't want to give her more money.

Once she became victorious, she noticed that her character had fewer scenes, and Landon started acting up around her. Also, she felt humiliated by his filthy jokes on set.

Years after the show ended, Grassle and Landon reconnected, putting their past behind them. After Landon died in 1991, Grassle was glad they ended things on a positive note.



Between 1966 and 1991, Grassle was married and divorced three times. In 1966, she was married to fellow actor Leon Russom, till 1970 when they divorced.

In 1982, she married the businessman, James Allen Radford, but their union lasted only five years, leaving her with one child. In 1991, Grassle and Dr. Scott Sutherland married but divorced in 1997.

While she was married to Russom, he requested that they live separately, and his request hurt her. She felt her resentment from carrying their financial load may have caused it.


Leon Russom in "TV 101" on November 1, 1988, in Los Angeles, | Photo: Getty Images

Being tired from the struggle to make their relationship work, she didn't fight him to stay. Grassle thought of divorcing Russom for the first time when he emptied their joint bank account of her savings.


It was the second time he had emptied their joint account. The first time it happened, Grassle thought it was a mistake. However, she did not ask for divorce until he stood her up one night.

She had thought he would spend the evening with her as the theatres were closed. When she waited for him without him coming or calling, something snapped inside her, and she wrote to him asking for a divorce.


Years later, she attended a "successful singles" party with her writer pal in Santa Monica, and that was when she met her second husband.

Radford was a friend of the hostess, and she found his enthusiasm disarming. He already had three kids, and when she asked him if he would want more kids, he replied that he wouldn't mind if his wife wanted.

That was not the response Grassle had hoped for, but she knew he was open to the idea of more kids, and so she decided to see him again.


Months later, they got married in the presence of family and friends in their friend's garden. Before they took off for their honeymoon in Italy, they celebrated at the Riviera Country Club with their wider circle.

After their wedding, Radford and his kids moved into her house on Hollywood Boulevard. Unfortunately, their marriage did not work out, and they divorced in 1987. Very little is known about her third husband and their relationship except that their marriage lasted only six years.



Irrespective of how her relationships with her husbands went, Grassle was glad one of her dreams came to pass. When Grassle wanted to start having kids, she and Radford had some difficulties. 

They were on the verge of beginning fertility treatment before a friend referred them to an adoption attorney. The attorney already had a woman who wanted to give up her baby.

For Grassle, it felt like destiny, and they named him Zachary. Even after their divorce, she had remained in contact with Radford and checked up on him when she heard he wasn't feeling well.



Zach, Grassle's adopted son, grew up to be an IT guy by trade, and years after she moved to her house across the bay from San Francisco, he moved around her area to spend more time with her.

While he's around, they go hiking in the hills and the redwoods, go tide pooling by the Pacific and meet to eat and visit. She calls the feeling it gives her a blessed life.

Karen Grassle at The Cable Show on April 30, 2014, in Los Angeles | Photo: Getty Images


When she became a mother, she knew her life would be different forever because she now had someone who relied on her. She said,

"I had been quite selfish really. [It taught me] patience. This was huge. I learned to wait in a whole new way. Peacefully. Belonging to this baby."

However, she knew she couldn't compare herself as a mother to Caroline "Ma" Ingalls on "Little House on the Prairie" because she would fall short as the show was an idealized version of family life.

Melissa Gilbert, Matthew Laborteaux, Melisssa Sue Anderson, Linwood Boomer, (front row l-r) Michael Landon, Lindsay or Sydney Greenbush, and Karen Grassle on the set of "Little House on the Prairie" | Photo: Getty Images


After her stint on the "Little House on the Prairie," Grassle has had to stand in on Broadway for Lynn Redgrave and Mary Tyler Moore. She spent six years at the Actors Theatre of Louisville before moving to theatres near her home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Grassle has also spent time in theatres around the U.S. and Canada. In 2021, she starred in "Not to Forget," a movie revolving around the issue of dementia and family.