Melissa Gilbert did not get to meet her birth parents, and when her adoptive dad died, her screen boss, Michael Landon, became her "surrogate dad." It was thus a devastating time for Gilbert when she learned that Landon had an affair, and they did not speak for years until shortly before the legendary actor's death.
Melissa Gilbert wears many hats. Many know her as an actress, television director, producer, politician, and former president of the Screen Actors Guild. She is also the winner of numerous accolades and a nominee for many more.
However, her life has not always been as pompous. Despite growing up in a loving home, her childhood was riddled with uncertainty about her heritage. She always knew she was adopted, but the story behind the adoption remained a mystery.
Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls Wilder, Michael Landon as Charles Philip Ingalls on the "At the End of the Rainbow" aired on October 12 1975 | Source: Getty Images
She always wanted to know her birth parents, so her adoptive parents cooked up a story, telling her that her mother was a beautiful prima ballerina and her father, a Rhodes Scholar.
And while her birth parents loved her, the timing was off, and they could not keep her, so they gave her up for adoption. The story spun for years, and Gilbert believed them until the truth could no longer stay hidden.
When Gilbert turned 18, tragedy struck her family when her adoptive father passed. Close family and friends came to grieve at her mother's house. That was when Gilbert's adoption story came to light.
Matthew Laborteaux as Albert Quinn Ingalls, Michael Landon as Charles Philip Ingalls, Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls Wilder on "Little House on the Prairie" in 1983 | Source: Getty Images
She discovered that her adoptive parents were not looking to adopt but gave it a shot as they had struggled with fertility issues for a long while. She also found that her birth mother was a dancer but not a ballerina. Not surprisingly, her scholar father was anything but a scholar; he was a sign painter and a stock car racer.
As the story unfolded, Gilbert discovered that her parents had three children each at the time of her birth. They had eloped and got pregnant, eventually moving in with their six children. However, they decided they could not afford a seventh and thus, gave Gilbert up for adoption.
MICHAEL LANDON STEPPED UP AS HER DAD
Gilbert began her career as a child star, playing Laura Ingalls on "Little House on the Prairie." She always considered her work on the show a fantasy where she could be a happy-go-lucky kid with a larger-than-life surrogate father, Michael Landon.
Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon Jr. during the 3rd Annual Media Awards on January 22 1981 | Source: Getty Images
She had people she could talk to and count on, which gave her an escape from her real life and the story behind her mysterious birth. It was thus not a surprise that Gilbert became extremely close to the Landon family.
Their families were also close, and the "Family Secrets" actress recalls they went on vacation to Hawaii together every Easter. She cultivated friendships with Landon's children and even went to prom with Landon's son Mike Jr.
Because of this special bond, Gilbert became heartbroken when she discovered that Landon had an affair with the show's make-up artist and stand-in girl, Cindy Clerico. When her mother broke the news to her, she was devastated.
Michael Landon as Charles Philip Ingalls, Melissa Gilbert as Laura Ingalls Wilder on the "Look Back to Yesterday" episode og "The Little House on the Prairie" aired on December 12, 1983 | Source: Getty Images
The developments made it awkward for her as she had to interact with Landon at work and then play with his children on weekends. Those close to her chose sides — some supported Landon while others supported his wife, Lynn.
Gilbert was concerned for her friends, Landon's kids Mike Jr, Leslie, and the little ones Shawna and Christopher because they were going through tough times, but how could she talk to them about their feelings?
For the longest time, Landon had been a pillar of morality and family values, and news of his affair hit tabloids, magazines, and fans hard. He began losing lucrative commercial endorsements and gradually started pulling out of the show. His parts got smaller, and he directed fewer episodes.
Actor Michael Landon and wife Lynn Noe attend 16th Annual International Broadcasting Awards on March 4, 1976 at Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, California. | Source: Getty Images
He was creating a new life for himself, and a divorce from Lynn was imminent. Eventually, he moved from his Beverly Hills mansion to a house in the Malibu Colony.
He and Lynn divorced, and even though he left her the $3.5 million, 35-room Beverly Hills mansion, the divorce was devastating for Lynn, who considered her husband her angel.
Following Landon's divorce and the eventual cancelation of "Little House on the Prairie" in 1983, Gilbert lost all touch with her surrogate father until devastating news reunited them.
LANDON'S CANCER DIAGNOSIS
American actor Michael Landon in Hollywood, California, circa 1990. | Source: Getty Images
On April 2, 1991, Landon began experiencing severe headaches while on a skiing vacation in Utah. Days later, he was diagnosed with an inoperable and terminal cancer called exocrine adenocarcinoma.
The diagnosis caught the "Us" actor by surprise, and he would joke about it, saying he felt terrific with his only problem being digesting food. He said, as People reports:
"At first, you just don't believe it. Right after I heard there was a possibility, I began doing push-ups, just to make sure I was as strong as the day before."
Actor Michael Landon attends his wedding reception on February 14, 1983 at La Scala Restaurant in Beverly Hills, California. | Source: Getty Images
After learning about Landon's diagnosis, Gilbert, who had long moved on with her life, reluctantly called Landon and later went to his home. She became his caregiver until his death on July 1, 1991.
A week after Landon's unfortunate demise, Kent McCray, an executive producer on "Little House on the Prairie," asked if Gilbert would do one of the eulogies, to which she agreed.
Actress Melissa Gilbert onstage at the Atlanta Ultimate Women's Expo at Georgia World Congress Center on May 3, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. | Source: Getty Images
While she had been close to the actor only years earlier, she struggled with writing a eulogy that could articulate her relationship with him. Finally, on the night before the service, her playwright husband helped her gather her thoughts into a concise form.
She delivered a heartfelt eulogy on the day of the service, which his second wife did not attend. According to what Lynn told her children, the divorce had already been like a death to her.
ACHING FOR LANDON
After feuding with Landon for decades, his illness eventually brought him and Gilbert back together. And in the short time he was ill, they rebuilt their connection.
Years after his demise, Gilbert still mourns and celebrates him equally. During his 31st death anniversary, the actress shared a heartfelt message. She wrote that while she did not grieve for him much on his 30th anniversary, she ached for him on his 31st:
"Grief and loss don't care about landmark numbers. In my experience, they creep up and hit you when you least expect it."
In 2021, she shared a tear-jerking message on her Instagram, saying she had dreamed that she was back on the set working alongside the phenomenal Landon. She added that she'd like to believe what folks say; when one dreams of a loved one that has passed, it was their way of visiting us.
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