09/07/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
First she went blind. Then she had a miscarriage, only to lose another child in a fire. She even briefly went insane. "Those were the good years," says Melissa Anderson, laughing. "The angstridden years."
That's Anderson the actress speaking, of course. As unlucky Mary Ingalls, Michael Landon's oldest daughter on NBC's hit frontier drama Little House on the Prairie, she wallowed in woes. Real life, happily, has not imitated TV. Except for a costarring role in the Fox Family Channel's disaster thriller Earthquake in New York, airing Oct. 11, Anderson, 35, has all but retired from show business and lives contentedly in Southern California's quiet Topanga Canyon with her husband, Michael Sloan, 51, a TV producer, and their children Piper, 7, and Griffin, 2. "It's nice just being a regular person," says Anderson. "It's good to get to know what I'm like without the acting."
And having bucked the odds to become that Hollywood rarity—a well-adjusted former child star—she currently has no plans to return to full-time acting. "I really don't feel like I'm missing anything," says Anderson, who accepts only projects involving her husband (Earthquake's executive producer) or friends. "It's a lot of work just taking care of the kids." Anderson is so deeply into her role as a mother that preparing to leave her children with helpers for a six-day Earthquake shoot proved stressful. "I was writing notes for days, like, 'Remember Griff's earplugs when he takes a bath,' " she says. "There were these Post-Its stuck everywhere."
But that's as close to stuck-up as Anderson gets. "She's got a really wonderful personality, very bright and funny," says Sloan. "And she's wonderful with the kids. She's constantly driving Piper to tennis lessons and piano lessons." Always serious and mature beyond her years, Anderson—raised in Berkeley, Calif., by James Anderson, a salesman, and Marion, a homemaker—was led to acting by a dance teacher. After her family settled in Los Angeles, Anderson made her TV debut at age 9 as the girl who gave Bobby Brady his first kiss. "I was so excited to do that," she recalls. "The only thing better would have been doing The Partridge Family."
In 1974 she landed the Little House role. Anderson was "a real professional," says Lindwood Boomer, 41, who played her TV husband, Adam. "Here was this 15-year-old, and I recall thinking, 'She's so much better at this than me.' "
But while the Ingallses survived cruel poverty and harsh winters by banding together, the show's cast was not quite so cozy. "It was a happy set, but you were happy to go home at night," explains Anderson, who admits she sometimes resented the extra screen time and sweetheart status awarded her costar Melissa Gilbert. "She had those freckles, and she was so cute," Anderson says. "She did a toothpaste commercial, and her teeth were crooked. I never got one—and mine were straight!" Anderson has rarely visited with castmates in recent years, though she did see them at a memorial service for Landon, who died of cancer in 1991.
Off the set Anderson was socializing with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Kirk Douglas, thanks to her romance with Frank Sinatra Jr., whom she met while appearing on The Love Boat in 1979 (she was 17, he 35). "It was exciting," she admits. "But it was never really wild. That's just not me." After Little House, Anderson acted in "umpteen Movies of the Week," she says, as well as TV programs such as 1987's Alfred Hitchcock Presents, on which she met Sloan, her future husband and the show's executive producer. They were married three years later, and Anderson began turning down roles.
That's when things got really busy, with no letup in sight. In the market for part-time help—"to help me do the baths so I can make the dinners"—Anderson doesn't have a lot of time for TV, much less Little House reruns. Indeed, visitors to her sun-filled, ranch-style home, which boasts a big front porch and is surrounded by fields, find few reminders of her Hollywood days. Except—to her chagrin—for the rustic spread itself. "Everybody always says, 'Oh, you couldn't leave the prairie, huh, Mary?' " she says with a grin. "It's so embarrassing!"
Amy Brooks in Topanga Canyon