From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
The other day Johnny Carson wandered across the Burbank set of Little House on the Prairie to visit his pal and the show's producer-director-star, Michael Landon. En route Carson was intercepted by Melissa Sue Anderson, 15, who plays Landon's eldest daughter, Mary, on the show. How's school? Johnny asked. Before Melissa Sue could open her mouth, Landon bolted over and blurted, "She did very well, thank you. Straight A's. She graduated from high school at 15."

Carson might have been taken aback by Landon's father-protector zeal, but no one on the show is—least of all the remarkable group of young actors who have helped Landon make his homespun hope opera NBC's top-rated show. "Michael is really like another father to us," explains Melissa Gilbert, 14, cast as the other Melissa's pigtailed younger sister Laura. Like the rest of the kids on the series, she has overcome personal upheavals as potentially defeating as any calamity written by the pioneer saga's author, Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Melissa Gilbert never knew her real parents, and her adoptive parents divorced when she was 4. Melissa Sue Anderson's folks also sundered bitterly when she was 12. Patrick Laborteaux, 13, who plays neighbor boy Andy Garvey, was an "unadoptable" child who was pronounced schizophrenic less than a month after birth. Patrick's adopted brother, Matthew, 11, who joins the show this season when the Ingalls clan relocates to the big city of Winoka and takes in a street urchin, was born with a hole in his heart. He was also thought to be autistic for his first five years.

"I chose them because of their appearance and acting talent," explains Landon of his unconventional cast. "But each has a specialness that comes across both in person and on the screen. It's a sensitivity that may be rooted in their early years."

Or his. Landon, 42, who has adopted three and fathered four children in two marriages, possibly feels a special affinity for the group because of his own difficult childhood. As Eugene Orowitz back in Collingswood, N.J., he was the only Jewish boy in his school. Two years ago he risked snickers to write, produce and direct The Loneliest Runner, a made-for-NBC movie about the plight of chronic bedwetters. "Everyone knows it was autobiographical," says Landon's friend Bill Kiley. "That kind of experience makes you self-conscious and withdrawn."

When Melissa Sue Anderson—"Missy" on the set—began stewing last year about losing the best lines to Melissa Gilbert, "Michael picked it up immediately and cleared things up by talking to both the girls and their mothers," reports a crew member. Then when Missy later fretted that her impending blindness on the show was really a way to write her out of the script, "I told her to trust me," Landon says. The result was that last March's blindness segment (rerun this week) was the highest-rated Little House of the year and put Missy up for an Emmy Sept. 17. "Michael called to congratulate me," she remembers. "By the end of the conversation we were both in tears. Michael cares so much about everybody he makes you care about yourself." (Inexplicably, he's never won an Emmy in 14 seasons as Little Joe on Bonanza, four on Little House.)

Landon often looks for ways to break on-set tensions. "He always has a joke, a story or a quip," says makeup man Whitey Snider. "He won't stand for hostility." Though Landon is not above remembering a dead puppy to produce scripted tears from the two girls, he also uses such ploys as pretending to pick lice out of Melissa Gilbert's hair at the end of an emotional scene to make sure she wouldn't take it all too seriously. As for the boys, their mother, Frankie Laborteaux, laments with a smile, "Michael is into bathroom jokes, the worst. They try to out gross one another. There's a lot of kid mixed in with all that genius." "The show is like one big family," summarizes cameraman Ken Hunter, "with Michael as the father figure." Yet it is a family whose strength may be the diversity—and difficulty—of their backgrounds.

Born in Berkeley, Melissa Sue Anderson and her older sister moved frequently before their parents settled in L.A. and broke up. She began dancing lessons at age 7 to strengthen her lungs against asthma and moved on to acting. Commercials (Mattel, Spaghettios) followed, and at 10 she landed her first big role. "I kissed one of the boys on The Brady Bunch. It was the first time, and I decided I would never do it again." (Asked if she's since changed her mind, she smiles coquettishly.) Missy wound up on Little House, Landon says, "because we wanted a pretty face. The funny thing was that she turned into a great actress." Now, having earned her high school equivalency through a combination of private school and on-set tutoring, Missy figures on directing someday. With her Little House loot, she just took the first step toward going Hollywood by buying a flame-red $7,000 Ford sports car.

Melissa Gilbert—"M.G." or "Half-Pint" to her pals—was born in L.A.'s Little French Hospital in 1964 and three days later went home with the parents who adopted her. Is she ever curious about her real family? "Well, I guess it would be nice to know who they were, in case they had something hereditary, like acne," she cracks.

After her adoptive parents split, Melissa's actress mother, Barbara, married Harold Abeles, a showbiz lawyer. Melissa did her first commercial at 2 ("I was the little kid who ran up and down a ship in Carter's underwear"). Then came guest spots on Gunsmoke and Emergency! before she found a home in Little House. "Melissa was chosen because of that kisser," remembers Landon, "and because she's a good little actress."

Despite rumors of jealousy, the two girls are friendly allies who passed notes to each other during school at the studio. "We have arguments sometimes," says M.G., "because we're like any friends." Her 11-year-old brother, Jonathan, also adopted, joined the Little House cast last year as one of the Oleson kids. But Melissa's post-Prairie ambition is not more acting but med school. Weekends she spends time putting on plays, making speeches, doing telethons or cajoling other actors to join her in visits to Children's Village, a treatment center for battered children and their parents.

The two relative newcomers to Little House, Patrick and Matthew Laborteaux, arrived after perhaps the hardest journey of all, aided by their remarkable adoptive parents, Ron and Frankie Laborteaux. He is an interior designer and she a former actress. "Patrick was diagnosed as a schizophrenic at the age of 3 weeks because he was so high-strung he couldn't keep food down," remembers Frankie. "When we got him he was suffering from malnutrition and was exhausted. He would break out in a cold sweat when anyone tried to touch him. With a lot of love and a firm, gentle hand, his symptoms had disappeared in a couple of years. Our success made us want to adopt another child. That was Matthew.

"The adoption agency told us he had been born with a hole in his heart that would heal naturally," Frankie continues, "but they would never acknowledge he was also autistic. He didn't walk until 3 or talk until 5. He slept standing up in his crib, and when anyone would try to pick him up he would scream and try to get away. I spent months on the floor with Matthew screaming and me holding him down telling him that no matter what he did I would love him."

Doctors and psychiatrists held out little hope that Matthew would ever be normal. But brother Patrick had started acting as therapy and by 7 was a veteran of Cheerios and McDonald's commercials. One day Matthew tagged along to a United Way audition. "The lady asked if Matthew wanted to test," Frankie recalls. "I was panicked. He-would throw a tantrum if anyone touched him. But Matthew just got up and followed her into the room. It was like sitting on a powder keg smoking a cigarette." He not only won that part but went on to play Peter Falk's son in the movie A Woman under the Influence. Patrick joined the Little House cast last year, and then Landon remembered a promise he'd made to some friends whose son was killed in a car crash—"that if I ever found a boy who had Albert's qualities I would put him on the show and call him Albert." Matthew, who had already played Landon himself as a boy in flashbacks, debuts this fall as Albert.

Though the Laborteaux family is still in difficulty—Frankie had a stroke four years ago, and Ron suffers from a serious, yet-undiagnosed illness—the success of their boys is cheering. "It's funny," Frankie reflects. "Patrick is blue-eyed and has light hair, and Matthew is brown-eyed with dark hair, but people automatically know they are brothers. Melissa Gilbert said to Patrick one day, 'Don't you two ever fight?' They really don't. They've been through too much to bother with pettiness."