Never mind that Melissa Gilbert hasn't worn her Little House on the Prairie bonnet for 19 years; these days she definitely has a bee in it. "You know what bothers me?" she asks. "Borrowed jewels. Can you imagine back in the '40s, '50s, somebody saying to Elizabeth Taylor or Lauren Bacall, 'Whose jewelry are you wearing?' " So when it's her turn to strut the red carpet at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on March 9, says Gilbert, "I'm going to wear my own pitiful jewelry, thank you very much." Then, recalling who gave her said jewelry, she notes, "Now my husband is going to kill me."
It wouldn't be the first time Gilbert's outspokenness has landed her in hot water. Elected president of SAG—an unpaid gig—in '01 after a bitter race against Rhoda's Valerie Harper, the actress, who played Laura Ingalls from '74 to '83, has endured enough slings and arrows to stock Prairie's general store. After two elections (Harper's camp cited ballot irregularities and there was a redo in March '02), Gilbert says that the nastiness of the race proved oddly validating. "I felt like I finally arrived at adulthood," she says. "People hate me. I'm a grown-up."
Seated at the large desk in her Los Angeles SAG office—"President Mom" spelled out in building blocks behind her—Gilbert, 38, certainly looks the part. Married to actor Bruce Boxleitner, 52, since 1995, she's the mother of two boys, Michael, 7, her son with Boxleitner, and Dakota, 13, whose dad is her former husband, actor Bo Brinkman. Juggling mom-hood with her job as union chief has been a challenge, but "I wanted to try to effect some change for the better," says Gilbert, whose term ends this November. She admits that some colleagues who only know her as Prairie's Half-Pint don't anticipate her thick skin and intelligence. "Oftentimes I will walk into a room and people will expect a mild, meek, quiet person, and that's not who I am by a long shot," she says. "I use it to my advantage for shock value to get my point across." Notes SAG board member Mike Farrell (M*A*S*H): "She has surprised a lot of people."
Working in an office environment for the first time (her post-Prairie work has included TV movies), "I brought as much of my home with me as I could," she says—including her King Charles spaniel William. She says that when she brings work home, Boxleitner is there to "let me know when I'm getting too consumed. He's very good at saying, 'Okay, no more computer right now.' " And she's still acting. Last fall she filmed a western-theme ABC pilot on the old Little House ranch. "It was like going back home," she says. Only this time around—as a union boss—"people look at me differently," she observes. When a stuntman dislocated a toe, "the producers all looked at me," she recalls, "like, 'Holy smokes, we're in deep trouble now!' "
Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles
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