Melissa Ellen Gilbert (born May 8, 1964) is an American actress, writer, and producer, primarily in movies and television. Gilbert is best known as a child actress who co-starred as Charles Ingalls's (played by Michael Landon) second daughter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, on the dramatic television series Little House on the Prairie (1974–1984). As an adult, she has a very long list of acting, voicework, writing, producing, and directing credits. Melissa also served two terms as President of the Screen Actors Guild. On June 9, 2009, her autobiography Prairie Tale: A Memoir was released.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Gilbert was adopted one day later by actor and comedian Paul Gilbert (born Ed MacMahon, he changed his name to Paul Gilbert to get a Screen Actors Guild card)and his wife, dancer and actress Barbara Crane, the daughter of The Honeymooners creator Harry Crane. The couple later adopted a son, Jonathan Gilbert, who co-starred with Melissa as Willie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie. When Melissa was 8, her parents divorced. Barbara then married Harold Abeles, and together they had biological daughter Sara Rebecca Abeles (the actress known professionally as Sara Gilbert), born on January 29, 1975. On February 12, 1975, Paul Gilbert suffered a stroke and died at the age of 56. Barbara and Harold Abeles' marriage later ended in divorce.
With Hollywood connections in her family background and a natural ability for entertaining at a very young age, Gilbert had already done dozens of commercials, including one for Alpo dog food with Lorne Greene (Michael Landon's television father on Bonanza). She tried out for the role of Laura Ingalls, Charles Ingalls' middle daughter, on NBC's 2-hour pilot of the book Little House on the Prairie. Growing up she was unfamiliar with Landon, having never met him or watched Bonanza. She attended school with his daughter, Leslie Landon who guested on Little House as a teen and then played school teacher Etta Plumb during the last season. It was Leslie who informed her that she had won the role of Laura, beating out over 500 child actresses for this part. The pilot was shot in 1973 and was a ratings success. Almost a year later Gilbert began filming the series. Gilbert became extremely close to the Landon family after her adoptive father died. A rift, however, developed between Michael Landon and Gilbert after the revelation of Landon's affair with Little House's young makeup artist, Cindy Clerico.