When Michael Landon launched Little House on the Prairie in 1974, he also took on the responsibilities of executive producer, frequent director, and star of the show. Playing family man and farmer Charles Ingalls, Landon cast many child actors for the series based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
With Melissa Sue Anderson and Melissa Gilbert in the roles of Mary and Laura Ingalls, Landon decided to add another prominent family member as a tribute to dear friends.
Matthew Laborteaux joined the cast as Albert
Patrick Laborteaux signed on to the Little House cast in 1977 as Andrew Garvey, a family friend of the Ingalls’. His brother Matthew also ended up landing a role, first as a young Charles in a flashback episode, and later as a series regular. Joining the Ingalls family as the adopted son Albert of Charles and Caroline (Karen Grassle) in season 5, Matthew had overcome many health obstacles by the time he became part of the cast. Ron and Frankie Laborteaux had adopted both boys, and his mom recalled the struggles Matthew initially endured.
“The adoption agency told us he had been born with a hole in his heart that would heal naturally,” Frankie told People in 1978. “But they would never acknowledge he was also autistic. He didn’t walk until 3 or talk until 5. He slept standing up in his crib, and when anyone would try to pick him up he would scream and try to get away. I spent months on the floor with Matthew screaming and me holding him down telling him that no matter what he did I would love him.”
When Patrick started acting, Matthew would come along on auditions and was soon asked to try out for parts.
“The lady asked if Matthew wanted to test,” Frankie recalled. “I was panicked. He would throw a tantrum if anyone touched him. But Matthew just got up and followed her into the room. It was like sitting on a powder keg smoking a cigarette.”
Acting turned out to be right up Matthew’s alley, which led him to his Little House role. “I just adored him,” Grassle said of the child actor. “I thought he was a great kid.”
‘Little House’ character Albert was created for a special reason
The character of Albert was introduced as a boy living on the streets in the big city when the Ingalls’ family relocated from Walnut Grove. Albert quickly formed a bond with Charles, and was adopted into the Ingalls family when they moved back to their home town.
“When he wrote the character of Albert, that was not in the books,” Matthew recalled in an interview in 2012. “It was an added character because Michael wanted to have a son on the show.”
Gilbert revealed the back story on why the character of Albert was created, which dealt with a matter close to Landon’s heart.
“Albert was the result of a very personal tragedy for Michael and his family,” Gilbert explained. “They had very very close friends… Eleanor and Ray, and their firstborn son, his name was Albert. … Apparently Albert, who was about 18 or 19 at the time, had been riding home in the evening on his bicycle and been hit by a car and killed. As a tribute to Albert Muscatele, Michael created the character of Albert Ingalls.”
Landon had been planning adding the role as a tribute to his friend’s family. “If I ever found a boy who had Albert’s qualities, I would put him on the show and call him Albert,” Landon told People in 1978 of the promise he made to his friends.
Melissa Gilbert and Matthew Laborteaux were instant siblings
Apparently, Matthew fit in to the Little House ensemble right off the bat. He also considered his cast mates to be more like family members, especially Gilbert, who played his sister.
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“When I think about Melissa Gilbert, it’s interesting because we grew up together,” he said. “So on one hand it was someone I was an actor with, and it was about going to work and doing a job and going home. And on the other hand, it was someone not only who I grew up, with but someone who was my sister for a good portion of my life.”
The sentiment was mutual. “Matthew was a welcomed part of the group from the get-go,” Gilbert shared. “[He] Instantly was my brother, as far as I was concerned.”
Little House on the Prairie aired its last episode in March 1983.
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