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Retro : Prairie Tales : TBS SALUTES MICHAEL LANDON WITH A WEEKLONG INGALLS VISIT

June 27, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Little House on the Prairie" was not a big favorite of the critics. Cynical TV viewers thought it was cloying, hokey and sentimental. But "Little House," which was based on the classic Laura Ingalls Wilder books, struck a chord with viewers.

This week, TBS presents "Command Performance: The Michael Landon Tribute," a collection of episodes of "Little House." Landon created, starred in and produced the series.

One of the reasons "Little House on the Prairie," which aired from 1974 to '83 on NBC, became a hit can be traced to the charm and appeal of Landon. "Little House" was his first series after his 14-year stint as Little Joe Cartwright on "Bonanza."

"Little House" found Landon off the Ponderosa and playing a mature family man. Charles Ingalls was a stalwart, loving homesteader struggling to make a living for his family in the late 1870s in Walnut Grove, Mich. When the series opened, the Ingalls family had recently moved from the plains of Kansas to Walnut Grove.

Karen Grassle co-starred as his loving wife Caroline and Melissa Sue Anderson played eldest daughter Mary. Melissa Gilbert, who has become one of the busiest TV actresses today, was middle daughter Laura, and Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush alternated as youngest daughter Carrie. Karl Swenson was their good friend Lars Hansen. Richard Bull played Nels Oleson, the owner of the general store, and Victor French was Mr. Edwards, a nearby farmer who, despite a gruff exterior, had a heart of gold.

The series went through numerous changes in 1977. French, who later starred with Landon in "Highway to Heaven," left the show when he got his own series, "Carter Country." Former Rams great Merlin Olsen joined the cast as new neighbor Jonathan Garvey. Daughter Mary lost her eyesight and went to a school for the blind where she fell in love with her instructor Adam Kendall (Linwood Boomer).

Walnut Grove also went into an economic depression, forcing Charles to move his family to the bustling frontier city of Winoka where they adopted a young orphan, Albert (Matthew Laborteaux). But city life didn't sit well with the family and they moved back to Walnut Grove, which had recovered from its depression. In the fall of 1980, Laura became a teacher and married Almanzo Wilder (Dean Butler).

When Landon decided to leave the series in 1982, the title was changed to "Little House: A New Beginning." Laura and Almanzo became the principal stars. The series, though, couldn't survive without Landon and was history after one season.

During "Command Performance" week, TBS will follow each regular morning repeat of "Little House" with a special two-hour episode. On Wednesday, beginning at 5:05 p.m., the network will air more than nine straight hours of "Little House" episodes and movies. Highlights include:

"As Long As We Are Together" (Monday at 7:05 a.m.): Economic conditions force families of Walnut Grove to move to Winoka. The Ingallses adopt Albert.

"There's No Place Like Home" (Wednesday at 7:05 a.m.): Ray Bolger appears as Toby Noe, a bumbling old man who disappoints Charles by not delivering a fireworks display.

"The Last Farewell" (Wednesday at 7:05 p.m.): Charles and Caroline return to Walnut Grove just in time to witness its final hours.

Repeats of "Little House on the Prairie" airs weekdays at 5:35 a.m. on TBS and 11 a.m. on KTLA.

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