THE TABLE AND CHAIRS IN THE COZY breakfast nook are country kitchen style. The old wooden wall phone looks like an Alexander Graham Bell edition. And as the resident mom hugs her 3-year-old son, who toddles toward a San Fernando Valley backyard shared with the family horse, dogs and bunnies, she offers a wry self-appraisal. "I wear ankle boots and gingham dresses. I live on an acre of land. I have animals. I bake bread," says Melissa Gilbert-Brinkman. "I guess I've evolved back to Little House on the Prairie."

In the almost decade since that beloved show took its final bow. the actress, now 28, has come full circle by a rocky route. It included the finish to a tempestuous six-year relationship with bad-boy actor Rob Lowe, a shaky start to her four-year marriage to writer-actor Bo Brinkman and last July the death of her Little House dad and real-life surrogate father, actor Michael Landon.

But in the intervening years, Gilbert-Brinkman also formed her own production company, appeared in a dozen TV movies, dropped 25 lbs. through diet and exercise and managed to salvage both her psyche and her marriage—all of which brings her to her current costarring role as a dim New Jersey housewife in Fox's promising Sunday-night sitcom Stand by Your Man. Says Leslie Matthews. Landon's daughter and Gilbert-Brinkman's friend of 20 years: "I've never seen her as happy as she is now."

Just 9 when she was cast as the well-scrubbed Laura Ingalls Wilder, Gilbert-Brinkman broke out with a vengeance following Little House's demise and garnered headlines with her 1987 engagement to Lowe. "I was worried about that relationship. It was not very stable," says Matthews. "She called to ask me to be a bridesmaid in the wedding, and I remember hanging up the phone and feeling very sad."

A short time later Melissa and Lowe split for good. "I was an incredibly insecure person, very uncomfortable in my skin," Gilbert-Brinkman says of those days. "I never felt pretty enough or thin enough or tall enough. I really didn't know who I was."

In 1987 she moved to Manhattan and landed the lead in the of-Broadway play A Shayna Maidel. She met Brinkman on a blind date at a dance club. "I turned around, there was this guy, and everyone else in the room disappeared," she says.

After just two months the couple married; their son, Dakota, arrived a year later. Yet there were fissures in the relationship, exacerbated by Brinkman's heavy drinking. He spent three weeks in a rehab center, and the couple separated for three months, giving them both a chance to "stand back and look at our options," Melissa says. "That's when we knew we were really in love."

Now, after joint counseling, Gilbert-Brinkman counts her husband, 34, as "the first person I've ever been totally honest with." He, in turn, terms their marriage "a safe haven. We can go home to a nourishing place." Gilbert-Brinkman has also decided to forgo long hours on location for the less taxing demands of a sitcom because, she says, "I have a family who needs me here."

Hollywood failed to provide Gilbert-Brinkman (whose parents divorced when she was 6 and whose father died when she was 11) with a blueprint for domestic bliss. Nor was Landon a flawless role model. "Any man who leaves his wife of 18 years for someone who worked on his show is not a perfect person," says Gilbert-Brinkman, referring to Landon's second divorce during the Little House days. "His [had been] my weekend family, and I didn't have them anymore. Now that I know what it's like to be in love, I understand, but at the time I felt totally rejected."

Though Gilbert-Brinkman lost touch with Landon after Little House ended, they reconnected at Matthews's wedding in October 1990 and again when Gilbert visited Landon a couple of months after he revealed he had pancreatic cancer. "He lay on the couch with a morphine drip," she remembers. "But he was also lucid and bright and funny. We had a great time."

A week later "I was at home watching TV, and they interrupted to say that he died," she says. "I didn't expect to be affected that badly, but it was horrifying to me."

Yet it was painful experiences such as these, Gilbert-Brinkman knows, that make her appreciate all the more her hard-won happiness—and maturity. Not long ago she was in a suburban shopping mall when a teenage girl and her mother walked by. "The girl said, 'Look, there's that lady from Little House on the Prairie,' " an amused Gilbert-Brinkman recalls. "And it hit me that if I'm a lady to a teenager, I guess I must have grown up."

SUSAN SCHINDEHETTE
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Tomashoff.