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'Little House on the Prairie' actor defends age-gap kiss with teen Melissa Gilbert: 'Mothers were concerned'
June 30 2024, 08:00

Dean Butler struggled with anxiety after discovering that he would be giving his co-star, 15-year-old Melissa Gilbert, her first kiss – both on-screen and in real life.

The actor, who played Almanzo Wilder in "Little House on the Prairie," has written a new memoir, "Prairie Man," which details his rise to stardom and the age-gap scene that still raises eyebrows today.

"You just couldn’t do it today," the 68-year-old told Fox News Digital. "There would be way too much blowback. It’s remarkable that we didn’t get more blowback than we did. . . . But I think it was handled so tastefully that people . . . forgot about the age difference."


"I think the audience had been watching Melissa for years and loved her incredibly," Butler shared. "They wanted to see when she, so honestly and innocently, declared her love for this young man. She fell in love from the first time she laid eyes on him. The audience was prepared to go right along with that."

Butler was 23 when he was cast in the popular TV show, which aired from 1974 to 1983. Gilbert, who starred as Laura Ingalls, was "a young 15."

"She was really a little girl," Butler recalled. "She was very sophisticated in the ways of the industry. As an actress, she was very skilled. But as a young woman, she was very inexperienced. And I think that it was much harder for her than it was for me. . . . . [And] I’m not aware of any casting that was like that . . . our casting from an age difference of 15 to 23."

According to Butler, the characters from the original book series were supposed to have a 10-year age difference. He noted that Gilbert had "complete trust" in her TV dad, who carefully supervised the scene.

"That was a very powerful relationship Melissa had in her life, the one she had with Michael Landon," said Butler. "When Michael said, ‘This is the guy for you,’ she was prepared to suspend all of her anxieties and just step into it. And Michael never led anyone wrong in the series. He really had it down. He knew what he was doing. He believed very strongly in his creative instincts. He trusted that it would work."

"I’m just really grateful that I was the guy that he felt he could trust with this," Butler added.


Still, both Butler and Gilbert had to overcome their fears in attempting to bring the scene to life.

"I think a lot of young actresses might’ve folded under the pressure," said Butler. "Melissa had no experience. She’d never been on a date. Never kissed anyone. Never did anything like that. That was still all ahead of her. So to ask her to step into that when she had no real life experience? It does speak to Melissa’s gumption and her courage. She just did it. She put all of her anxieties aside and just stepped in. She knew what she had to do to be the Laura that she was supposed to be."

"My job was to make it as easy for her as possible by really being the gentleman I was raised to be," Butler continued. "There’s been no casting pairing like what they did with us since then. That casting could simply never happen today. Certainly not on a mainstream television show."

The pair smooched in the episode titled "Sweet Sixteen." Butler wrote that nearly 100 people surrounded them on set, but it was one person who burst into tears – Gilbert’s mother, Barbara Abeles.

"I had a sense that Barbara was not fully supportive of my presence in the show," Butler wrote. "Her unhappiness culminated, perhaps, in not being able to bear seeing me kiss her daughter. It was a protective displeasure; Barbara knew her daughter. I didn’t, and in some sense, I’m glad."

While the scene was "beautifully set up," Abeles wouldn’t be the only one who had reservations about the storyline. Butler explained that shortly after he was cast, an August 1979 story in the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain made an "ominous prediction."


"Dean Butler may have the trickiest role of the 1979-80 TV season. He has to convince viewers of that G-rated hit, ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ that it’s OK for a grown man to fall in love with a pubescent girl."

Butler attempted to clear the air, telling one reporter, "I think it’s going to be handled very carefully." Still, he was aware that the network was "venturing into risky territory."

Viewers took notice. Butler described how, after the episode aired, an upset mother wrote to a Midwest newspaper, calling for casting director Susan Sukman to be "burned at the stake" for pairing Gilbert with "a grown man." The horrified matriarch asked how she could still convince her daughter to wait for the right time when such "dating depravity" was taking place at "Little House."

"There were some letters . . . and comments about this age difference," Butler told Fox News Digital. "Mothers were concerned . . . Seeing an obviously young Melissa Gilbert with someone significantly older than she was in this romantic relationship was challenging for some people. But, I think . . . people got the spirit of the program. They understood where this was coming from. And people who knew the material well, who read the books, knew there was a 10-year difference between Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder when they got married. He was 28 and she was 18."

In her memoir, Gilbert wrote that after meeting Butler, she was met with "a perfect storm of disappointment, fear, anger and even nausea." She later told Butler in a phone call, "How was I going to do this? You were a man, a grown-up man with a car and an apartment. I was a really young teenager. I wasn’t allowed to wear heels. I was still wearing Mary Janes. I couldn’t pierce my ears. I wasn’t allowed to shave my legs, and I’d never even been on a date."

"The biggest problem I had during all of that, was the physical space thing," said Gilbert, as quoted by Butler in his book. "I just wasn’t ready to have that kind of physical contact with anybody. When it came to sex and physicality and all that, I was basically being raised by a Puritan. . . . She was a total Puritan in talking to me about sex and intimacy. I would try and have these conversations with her, and it would just inevitably boil down to, ‘Good girls don’t.’"

Despite the discomfort the kiss brought the pair, Butler stressed there are no hard feelings today.

"I think we are very respectful colleagues of each other now," he explained. "We know we are a part of something. We are bonded together by this experience, by having done this. . . . She knows that I’m respectful of this special moment in her life and career. . . . We will always be connected by that experience."

"Melissa is a very accomplished woman," said Butler. "I’ve always had a very high level of respect for her and what she achieved. . . . She gets that respect from all of us who were a part of ‘Little House.’ The relationship I have with Melissa today is an important one in my life because of the work we did and how much it means to so many people. She’s good, I’m good, we’re good."

Today, Butler is receiving a different kind of feedback – from fans who are now admitting he was their first crush.

"It’s incredibly flattering," he said. "It’s also humbling. I take that very seriously, to be the guy they fell in love with. . . . I am still that person. I will always be that person. And I’m happy about that."