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Little House on the Prairie Loses a Beloved Actor

Rest in Peace, Katherine MacGregor

She spread gossip as easily as spreading soft butter on toast. She insinuated herself in everybody’s business. She fiercely defended her daughter, Nellie, even—and especially—when the child was unquestionably wrong. She was the character every fan of Little House on the Prairie hated…and loved…and couldn’t get enough of on every episode. She was Harriet Oleson, the busybody wife of mild-mannered, mercantile owner, Nels Oleson.

On Tuesday, November 13, 2018, Katherine MacGregor, the formidable actor who brought the illustrious Harriet to life, passed away at the age of 93. Born, Dorlee Deane MacGregor on January 12, 1925 in Glendale, California, Ms. MacGregor, lived most of her young years in Fort Collins, Colorado. She attended Denver University and later graduated from Northwestern.

Making her way to New York in 1949, she furthered her studies under renowned acting teachers and mentors, Sanford Meisner, and Stella Adler. Billed as “Scottie” MacGregor, she was cast in the 1958 Broadway production of Handful of Fire. Other stage roles included a national tour of The Seven Year Itch. She was well-regarded as a stage actor, and after moving back to California, film and TV roles followed. But television characters couldn’t compete with the depth of the characters she played on stage, and MacGregor became frustrated, and even considered leaving her chosen career. She took a job in an art gallery, and considered returning to New York.

Fate intervened, when her agent called, and told her to go see Michael Landon, that very day. She had no idea who this Landon guy was, but that meeting changed her life and defined her career, as she was offered the role as Harriet Oleson in a new series about to debut in 1974, Little House on the Prairie.

She found in Harriet, more than the two-dimensional mean-spirited gossip in the script. She brought an inner spirit to Harriet, even creating her own character bio so she could draw on it to bring out the emotional reasons behind Harriet’s behavior, not to mention adding spontaneity and great humor to the part—all to the delight of viewers.

On the small screen, Harriet may have been scheming and manipulative, but as soon as the director called “Cut,” the real Katherine MacGregor emerged, kind, funny and always playing with the kids on the set.

“That woman’s a genius. She’s absolutely hilarious,” Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson, once said of her TV mom.

When Little House on the Prairie concluded, MacGregor appeared in a spin-off of the series, which aired for only a year, but it was time to retire from the spotlight.

We may mourn the loss of this beloved actor, but we can also feel joy knowing Katherine MacGregor’s legacy lives on, as we look forward to Harriet Oleson’s antics in every episode of Little House on the Prairie.

“I look for the humor of Mrs. Oleson. She was originally painted as just black-and-white mean. Anyone that mean has to be a fool. So I began mixing farce into it. I think the audience counts on seeing Mrs. Oleson fall on her fanny.” – Katherine MacGregor