'Little House on the Prairie' actor defends age-gap kiss with teen Melissa Gilbert: 'The moms were worried'


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Dean Butler was worried when he discovered he was about to give his co-star, 15-year-old Melissa Gilbert, her first kiss – on screen and in real life.

The actor who played Almanzo Wilder on “Little House on the Prairie” has written a new memoir, “Prairie Man,” that details his journey to stardom and an age difference that still shocks people today.

“You couldn't do that today,” the 68-year-old told Fox News Digital. “There would have been a lot of backlash. It's remarkable that we didn't get more backlash than we did. . . . But I think it was handled so brilliantly that people . . . forgot about the age difference.”

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Dean Butler and Melissa Gilbert hugging each other.

Dean Butler was 23 when he was cast to play Melissa Gilbert's boyfriend. Melissa Gilbert was 15. (NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

“I think the audience had been watching Melissa for years and loved her,” Butler said. “They wanted to see her express her love for this young man so honestly and innocently. She fell in love with him the first time she saw him. The audience was ready to believe that.”

Butler was 23 when she was cast in the popular TV show, which aired from 1974 to 1983. Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls, was “a young 15.”

Melissa Gilbert kissing Dean Butler.

Dean Butler gives Melissa Gilbert his first real, on-screen kiss. (NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

“She was a real young kid,” Butler recalls. “She was very well versed in the ways of the industry. She was very skilled as an actress. But as a young woman, she was very inexperienced. And I think it was harder for her than it was for me. . . . . [And] I am not aware of any such casting… there was an age gap of 15 to 23 years in our casting.”

Cover of Dean Butler's book Prairie Man

Dean Butler wrote a memoir titled “Prairie Man: My Little House Life and Beyond.” (Fort)

According to Butler, there should have been a 10-year age difference between the characters in the original book series. He said Gilbert had “complete trust” in her TV father, who carefully supervised the scene.

“Melissa's relationship with Michael Landon was a very powerful one in her life,” Butler said. “When Michael said, 'This is the right guy for you,' she was ready to put aside all her concerns and just step into it. And Michael never steered anybody wrong on the series. He was really a master at it. He knew what he was doing. He believed very strongly in his creative instincts. He trusted that it would work.”

“I’m really thankful that I was someone he could trust,” Butler said.

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Michael Landon is directing Dean Butler, with Melissa Gilbert observing.

Dean Butler (center) told Fox News Digital that Michael Landon (left) carefully inspected the set. (NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Still, both Butler and Gilbert had to overcome their fears in an effort to make the scene come alive.

“I think a lot of young actresses would have buckled under the pressure,” said Butler. “Melissa had no experience. She'd never been on a date. Never kissed someone. Never done anything like that. It was all still in front of her. So to ask her to take on this job when she had no real-life experience? It shows Melissa's guts and courage. She did just that. She put all her worries aside and just went ahead. She knew what she had to do to become the Laura she was meant to be.”

Dean Butler is pointing at something and Melissa Gilbert is looking on.

Dean Butler said he was determined to be a gentleman and make Melissa Gilbert feel comfortable. (NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images)

“My job was to make it as easy as possible for them and be a real gentleman,” Butler added. “There's been no casting match like the one we've been paired with since then. Casting like that would never happen today, certainly not on a mainstream television show.”

Melissa Gilbert looks admiringly at Dean Butler on the field

Melissa Gilbert and Dean Butler experienced anxiety on set before their kiss. (NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

The pair kissed in the episode titled “Sweet Sixteen.” Butler wrote that about 100 people surrounded them on set, but there was one person who burst into tears — Gilbert's mother, Barbara Abeles.

“I felt that Barbara was not entirely supportive of my presence on the show,” Butler wrote. “Perhaps the pinnacle of her unhappiness was that she could not see me kissing her daughter. It was a protective resentment; Barbara knew her daughter. I did not, and in some ways, I am glad.”

Although the scene was “beautifully crafted”, Abeles was not the only one who had doubts about the story. Butler explained that shortly after she was cast, an August 1979 story in the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain carried an “ominous prophecy”.

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Melissa Gilbert smiles as Dean Butler gives her a hug.

Several “concerned” mothers wrote in expressing their outrage at the age-gap casting. (NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

“Dean Butler has the toughest role of the 1979-80 TV season. He has to convince viewers of the G-rated hit 'Little House on the Prairie' that it's all right for a grown man to love a young girl.”

Butler attempted to clarify the situation, telling a reporter, “I think it will be handled very carefully.” Still, he knew the network was “entering risky territory.”

Viewers took notice. Butler recounted how, after the episode aired, an upset mother wrote to a Midwest newspaper saying casting director Susan Suchman should be “burned at the stake” for hooking Gilbert up with “a grown man.” The horrified mother asked how she could convince her daughter to wait for the right time when such “dating depravity” was happening on “Little House.”

Melissa Gilbert sits in a field in a blue and white floral dress, looking at Dean Butler.

Dean Butler wrote in his memoir that Melissa Gilbert's mother expressed her feelings about the pairing well on set. (NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

“There were some letters… and comments about the age difference,” Butler told Fox News Digital. “Moms were concerned… It was challenging for some people to see a clearly young Melissa Gilbert in this romantic relationship with someone much older than her. But, I think… people got the spirit of the show. They understood where it was coming from. And people who knew the material well, who had read the books, knew that there was a 10-year age difference between Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder when they were married. He was 28 and she was 18.”

In her memoir, Gilbert wrote that after meeting Butler, she experienced “a perfect storm of disappointment, fear, anger, and even nausea.” She later told Butler over the phone, “How could I do that? You were a man, a grown man with a car and an apartment. I was literally a young teenager. I wasn't allowed to wear heels. I still wore Mary Janes. I couldn't get my ears pierced. I wasn't allowed to shave my legs, and I never even went on a date.”

Dean Butler, smiling next to Melissa Gilbert in a white and black polka dot dress.

Dean Butler's character proposes to Laura Ingalls (Gilbert). However, she refuses, saying her father wishes she should wait until she is 18. (Courtesy of NBC Television/Getty Images)

“My biggest problem during this time was physical distance,” Gilbert said, as quoted by Butler in her book. “I was not ready for that kind of physical contact with someone. I was basically being raised by a Puritan when it came to sex and physicality and other things like that. . . . She was completely Puritan in talking to me about sex and intimacy. I would try to have those kinds of conversations with her, and it would inevitably come to the conclusion, 'Good girls don't do that.'”

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Despite the discomfort the kiss caused, Butler insists there are no hard feelings today.

Dean Butler and Melissa Gilbert "Little house" Hugging each other in costume.

Melissa Gilbert wrote the foreword to Dean Butler's book. (NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

“I think we're very respectful colleagues now,” he explained. “We know we're part of something. We're connected by this experience, by doing this. . . . She knows I respect this special moment in her life and career. . . . We'll always be connected by that experience.”

Melissa Gilbert smiles as she holds a baby in her arms as Dean Butler, standing above her, also smiles.

Almanzo Wilder (Dean Butler) and Laura Ingalls (Melissa Gilbert) married and had children. (NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

“Melissa is a very successful woman,” Butler said. “I've always had a lot of respect for her and her accomplishments. . . . 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 relationship in my life because of the work we did and how much it meant to so many people. She's good, I'm good, we're good.”

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

Dean Butler wears a blue and white plaid shirt and a black vest.

Dean Butler today. (Bobby Banks/Getty Images)

“It's incredibly flattering,” he said. “It's also humbling. I take it very seriously, to be the person that they fell in love with … I'm still the same person. I'll always be the same person. And I'm happy for that.”


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