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Interview With Dean Butler - Little House On The Prairie

 Hey y'all! As I've mentioned before, I am a huge fan of classic television.

I recently had the chance to interview Dean Butler who portrayed Almanzo (Manly) Wilder in the popular tv show Little House On The Prairie!  This show is a personal favorite of my family's, so it was such an honor to have the opportunity to chat with Dean.

So without further ado, let's get started!

Mercy: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to start acting?
Dean: Let me give you some deep biographical information, Mercy.  Let's go way back.  I was born in Prince George, British Columbia Canada in 1956.  My father was a member of the United States Air Force at that point and he was stationed there.  I was raised for the majority of my young life in the San Francisco Bay area.  When I started pursuing acting, I moved to Los Angeles and I spent the vast majority of my acting life in Los Angeles, and some time in New York. Now in my producing life, I've worked all over the world.  
Jumping back to the start of acting: it really begin in high school.  I went to a high school production of My Fair Lady and was just knocked out by the young actor playing Henry Higgins. And as I watched this, I thought to myself, "I can do that and I'd like to do that."  That was exciting to me.  So that was the beginning of my acting journey.  It was probably in my sophomore year of high school that I saw this.  Stepping into my junior year, I became more actively involved in high school drama, and then senior year even more involved.  Then I went off to college, University of the Pacific, which is in Stockton, California (which is California's central valley) and studied acting, drama, and communications there.  I had an interest in the radio, being on the radio, learning how to edit, make programs, and so on.  I spent a lot of time doing these things during my 5 years on the UOP campus.  

After my junior year, I was cast in a CBS movie of the week called Forever, which was based on a Judy Blume novel (also called Forever) which some years ago was a very popular coming of age story primarily aimed at young women, teenage girls.  I did that little movie with Stephanie Zimbalist who went on to great fame in Remington Steele and many other things.

And then Little House happened!  I spent 5 years on Little House, and after Little House I did 3 seasons on a show called The New Gidget  (I was MoonDoggie). I played Buffy's dad on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I spent some time on Broadway doing a Steven Sondheim-James Lapine musical called Into The Woods, which was a fantastic experience!  I toured internationally in a production of West Side Story playing Tony.  I was also involved in a nice regional production of Company, which is another Steven Sondheim musical, with Carol Burnett.  Those are sort of the broad strokes of the acting career.
In the late 1990s I started transitioning to producing and that's what I do now.  I produce video and currently I'm in my 8th season of producing a show for Golf Channel which is part of the NBC sports group called Feherty. Feherty is a man - David Feherty - who is a wonderful golf commentator and interviewer, and I've been doing this show as I said for 8 years.  Well, this is the start of the 8th year.
There you go, Mercy! You've got the broad strokes of my career in a large nutshell. What can I tell you now?

Mercy: :) What was your favorite part about your role as Almanzo (Manly) Wilder?
Dean: I think the favorite part of that experience was to be involved in a program that was so loved by so many people not only in our country but all over the world.
Having the opportunity to work with a guy as talented as Michael Landon was a huge, huge benefit to me. He was a very, very talented guy.  It was quite wonderful to have a chance to watch him work!  He was a wonderful actor, a terrific director, great writer, and he was a very good producer, too!  He really did it all.  And being able to work so closely and watch someone who's THAT good at what they do was really a great opportunity.  The lessons learned watching Michael Landon work are many and unforgettable.  It was special.
Then, of course, it was fun to work with a young Melissa Gilbert as well.  Although, we are 8 years apart in age so when we first started working together, I was 23 and she was 15.  You know, you really can't have much of a relationship other than a cordial working relationship. But you really can't have any relationship when there's that kind of age difference.  I think, if we're going to talk about the hard parts of Little House, that was probably the toughest part.  Because we had to be so careful about the way we played this relationship. And she was great! She was just as gutsy as she could be, but she was a kid. So we had to be careful about the way we worked together.  I think if we'd had the opportunity to work together 10 years later, it would have been a very different kind of relationship that we could have projected on screen.  Maybe a more nuanced relationship. But as it was looking back on it, people loved it and it had a real sweetness to it and an innocence to it which was inevitable because it was played so innocently.  It was good and it was sweet, and the audience enjoyed it.  
So Michael Landon and the sweetness of working with Melissa Gilbert and the challenges of working with Melissa Gilbert are the most memorable parts of the Little House experience.

Mercy: Is there a specific episode of Little House that comes to mind when you think back on filming?
Dean: Well, obviously the episodes that I was featured in are among my favorites.
Ones that always stand out for me are Sweet Sixteen in season 6 where the relationship really came alive at that point.  An episode called Days of Sunshine, Days of Shadow in season 8 is a two-part episode.  It was a wonderful opportunity to play a lot of different kinds of emotional life.  That was really terrific!
What was nice about those 2 episodes is those 2 episodes corresponded very much with the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  Sweet Sixteen was really a condensed telling of The Happy Golden Years, and Days of Sunshine, Days Of Shadow kind of a version of The First Four Years which was Laura's book that was published after her death.  And I don't think it was really a book she ever intended to publish but it got published.  A little darker than the others, so a different tone, but really wonderful episodes to act in.  
And there were the funny episodes.  The In-laws, The Nephews, and Divorce: Walnut Grove Style were fun episodes to do.  There were lots of great experiences!  Mercy, it was a nice group of people to work with.  That 5 years has been the greatest gift in my professional life!  It led to everything else that followed. And it was that kind of a program.  What's interesting is Michael knew that that would be the case.  He said, "Because of this, there will always be work for all of you who were a part of it." I think that's true for a great many of us, and it's certainly been true for me.  I couldn't have been more grateful to have had the opportunity to work on ANY episodes with Michael Landon.  I think I did somewhere between 60 and 70 episodes.  It was a really nice run!

Mercy: What is something most people don't know about you?
Dean:  Well, if I told you, people would know! :)  
I think people have an impression of me that because of the part that I played - (I think I'm fundamentally a decent, good person) - but I think I have a bit more of a temper than people might think.  Its a pretty benign temper.  I can get a little hot and then 5 minutes later it's like it never happened. That's just one of those things.  But I think when you play a character like I played on Little House, it's a very idealized character.  The character was there to be the object of Laura's affections.  That sort of tells you what had to be played.  We had some fun little nuance moments in the playing of it. I'm going to go with that, Mercy, that I'm a little more complicated than maybe the character might have appeared.

Mercy: What do you like to do in your free time?
Dean: I work a lot!  And I've always worked a lot.  But when I'm not working, I really just shut it down.  I'm not a big traveler because I do so much for work.  My wife doesn't really like to travel so we're not jumping on airplanes and running around the world.  I'm pretty much a homebody!  I like being home, being quiet.  So downtime is really quiet time for me.  It's always been that way and I really like it.  

Mercy: How did you and your wife meet?
 Dean: That's a good story!  Katherine and I met when she was auditioning for the role of Mae Woodward on Michael's spinoff series for Little House called Father Murphy.  I met Katherine when she came out to Simi Valley, which is where we shot all the exteriors for Little House.  We just chatted for a few minutes, a little light flirtation. She was married at the time, and I subsequently got married some years after that. We knew each other through NBC events a little bit, and then she was out of her first marriage and I was out of my first marriage.
We met again at a commercial audition, just totally random commercial audition! She said hello to me and I turned around, and she looked fantastic in this beautiful pink suit.  I just looked at her and said, "I need to call you. Can I have your number?" She gave me her number and I went home and called her 15 minutes later, and 2 days after that for coffee, and we've been together ever since!  
I even owe the most important relationship in my life, other than my family, to Little House because in all likelihood, I probably never would have met Katherine if it had not been for that day when she was coming out to audition for Michael.  

Mercy: If you had the opportunity to do Little House On The Prairie all over again, would you?
Dean: You know, we all know this as we get older, you realize you can never go back.  It would be different.  I would love - and I think most people would agree with this - you'd love to do something that meant a lot to you once you've learned more about how to do it. Actors always feel this way.
There are performances you'd like to do again, a scene you'd like to do again, a life experience that you'd like to be able to have a little differently.  But as I say that, it was pretty terrific as it was! It has stood the test of time and it continues to be loved and watched all over the world.  People continue to - like you - like talking about it and knowing about it.  It was a really special experience!  So, yeah, you'd like to do it again for the chance to do it again, but it was pretty terrific as it was really terrific as it was.
Mercy: Do you have a funny account or experience that you can share from your time in Little House?
Dean: As much as I was 8 years older than Melissa and had a lot more life experience than she had, Melissa had a ton more acting experience than I had.  She was really a pro by the time I met her at 15 years old.  She had been in front of a camera for 8 years of her life already! And a lot, not just a little bit but a lot, in front of the camera!  She has a very quick mind, very inquisitive, and having worked with Michael for so long, she really got it. She knew what she was doing. And so you really couldn't rattle Melissa at all, nothing you could really do to throw her off her game.  There was one time, one of our few bedroom scenes - and we didn't have many of those.  It was maybe a little uncomfortable, there were always a lot of people around watching you, there always are when you're on a set. You're in this little bedroom but 80 people are working around you so you're not really alone. But it was sort of one of those moments that wasn't necessarily easy for either one of us.  So I started singing Strangers In The Night (that Frank Sinatra recorded years ago) and it was one of the few times I ever saw Melissa uncomfortable!  In sort of a funny way.  It was the one time in all the years we worked together that she was a little off balance.  And I thought that was great because I had a little something on her that she didn't have. That was sort of entertaining! 
Basically, it was a pretty straight-forward experience!
Okay, I can tell you something else. One of the things I loved about doing the series, and it's not just one experience but many experiences. I traveled all over the United States during the 5 years I was on Little House. I probably traveled 30 weekends a year during the Little House to the NBC affiliates all over the country doing mall appearances, local parades, events in local markets in different cities around the country.  I really got to see a lot of America during those years and meet a lot of Little House fans!  I got to see how popular the show was.  That was really gratifying.  Little House just really touched people, and going to this city and that city and this little event and this little community gave me an opportunity to experience some of that affection that was out there for the program.  It was just really gratifying because when you're working on it, you are on the sound stage or out on location and you don't really have any contact with an audience when you're working on camera. So going out around the country, although I wasn't acting when I was going out around the country, it gave me an opportunity to see how the program was touching people.  That was really a special experience for me and I am really grateful for that.

Mercy: Are you presently working on any new projects?
Dean: Well, as I said at the beginning of the conversation, I've been producing a program for Golf Channel called Feherty. I produce that program at Golf Channel which is part of the NBC sports group. The channel is located in Orlando, FL.  David (Feherty) is a wonderful, quirky, much loved golf commentator, interviewer and humorous writer.  I've been producing this show now, coming up on the 8th season.  We just got back, I traveled with them to Pyeongchang, South Korea for the Winter Games.  I got home a week ago Monday from Pyeongchang.  Pretty jetlagged for the last 8 days or so but I'm coming out of it now.  
The Olympics was just an amazing experience! To go there as part of NBC's broadcast team was just an incredible honor and unforgettable experience.  No one does sports television like NBC Sports does.  It's just a pretty amazing thing that they do.  Such talented people and a huge financial commitment, so it's all done in a very first class way. Every aspect of it is done in a very first class way.  It's pretty amazing. I feel very lucky to have had that experience.
Now I'm back in Orlando, starting to edit episodes and shoot more episodes for Feherty's 8th season which premiers Monday March 5th on Golf Channel 9pm!  

Mercy: Lastly, when I posted online about interviewing you, a lot of people asked if you had a email or address for fan mail?
Dean: Unfortunately, I don't check it that often.  I do have a Gmail address. Sort of funny for Little House Fans, it's  People can email there if they want to.  I make no guarantees that I would respond.  I'm also Call Me Manly at Facebook and Twitter!  

Dean, thank you so much for doing this!  It was such a pleasure to chat with you.
Readers, after getting the chance to talk with Dean, I can tell you that in my opinion, he is one of the most humble, genuine, and nicest people I've chatted with.
I hope you enjoyed reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it!


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