My worst moment: Melissa Gilbert and the perils of being on the set of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ with cowboys and their spit cups

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CHICAGO — Melissa Gilbert is in Chicago for the next two months, starring in the play “When Harry Met Rehab,” playing opposite “Frasier” alum Dan Butler.

“It’s based, more or less, on the true life of Chicago sports radio personality Harry Teinowitz, who is one of the authors of the play” said Gilbert. “I play the therapist who is also in recovery and is a former magician. It is a comedy, albeit one that deals with the issues of recovery seriously. But a dark sense of humor is important.”

Gilbert was in Chicago earlier this year with her husband, the actor and director Timothy Busfield (“Thirtysomething” and “The West Wing”), who was directing an episode of “Chicago Med.”

“So we were here, and then instead of driving back to our place in New York we took a road trip down to Texas to see the new grandbaby, and I got the call while I was there asking if would like to be part of this production.” Before returning to Chicago, they stopped in Mansfield, Missouri, at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum. “I had never been to that one, I’ve been to all the others, and it was fantastic. That’s where she and her husband Almanzo passed away and where they are buried.”

Laura Ingalls, of course, is the character that brought Gilbert fame as a child actor on “Little House on the Prairie,” and when asked about a worst moment in her career, she shared a memory from her time on the show.

My worst moment …

“You have to know there are myriad possibilities for my worst moment because I’ve had a 55-year career and I’ve spent most of that being embarrassed (laughs), not on camera but off, for sure.

“Actually, riding in the car back from play rehearsal, I asked my husband, ‘Which story should I tell?’ And I pulled out five and I said, ‘Which one, which one, which one?’ So I’m going to tell you Tim Busfield’s favorite. And it’s a ‘Little House on the Prairie’ story.

“We were shooting in Tucson, Arizona, at Old Tucson, which is an amusement park and old Western town. They had actual legitimate rides you could go on there. I think I was 14 at the time, and for the kids it was a lot of fun because between setups, if we weren’t in school, we could go to the haunted gold mine. They also had an ice cream shop where they served sarsaparilla and root beer floats. You could buy souvenirs. It was a fun place to be.

“This was probably five or six seasons in, enough for this to actually be really humiliating because, you know, hormones and changing bodies and I was the uncomfortable, awkward girl trying to be really cool all the time around all the other kids we were working with.

“So we had a break. And all us kids went and got root beer floats. And then we came back to where we were filming, which was in this old bar. It was a big Western bar. The other thing you have to know is there were a lot of cowboys on our set. They were stuntmen and wranglers — so, a lot of people who chewed tobacco. And there was a rule that they weren’t allowed to spit on the ground. So they handed out, like, red solo cups for the guys to spit in.

“We go back into this saloon where we’re filming and we’re getting ready to rehearse a scene, and I set my root beer float down on a counter next to a bunch of other stuff and I rehearse my scene. And then I come back and I pick up my root beer float and take a giant sip.

“It wasn’t root beer float. It was one of the guy’s spit cups.

“And I just exploded and spit this stuff everywhere! At first I stopped and thought, maybe I can swallow this and no one will know? But it was the most disgusting — I can’t even. It took me a second to realize this wasn’t root beer. You know how it all happens in a flash? And when I realized what it was and there was nothing else for me to do but pwaaaahhh and tears are running down my face. I’m so glad I didn’t vomit. I was screaming and jumping up and down, I couldn’t have made more of a scene.

“I ran out, ran to my dressing room, rinsed my mouth out with water as best as I could. Ran somewhere else and got a piece of gum. And nobody followed me or said, ‘Are you OK?’ They just assumed, oh, Half-Pint did something really weird and took off, she’ll be right back. There was a bunch of other stuff going on and everyone was focused on another part of the room. None of the guys came running over and saying, ‘I’m so sorry.’ No. They were all working, so nobody was really even focused on me. And I’m so glad because it was almost like a cartoon, my reaction to it. So I was able to save face that way.

“And I remember coming out of my trailer and somebody saying, ‘Everything OK?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, everything’s fine!’”

Was Gilbert able to concentrate for the rest of the day?

“Yes, nothing stopped me from going back to work. Also, I didn’t want anyone to know that anything had rattled me that much.

“There is a tendency, especially on stage, to get a spit shower when you’re doing really passionate scenes and people are yelling at each other and you’re close physically. That’s par for the course. Drinking tobacco spit cup water is not. That was just bleeecchhh.

“I never had another root beer float, though. I was traumatized. It was the worst thing. People might actually gag if they read this. It’s that nasty.

“I don’t think I had root beer again until the lockdown. At that point I figured, what the hell? So it’s been 40 years.”

The takeaway ...

“Look in the cup before you take a sip.

“I didn’t tell Michael Landon about it. He probably would have announced it to everyone on the set and it would have become a big gag, pardon the pun.

“But no, I didn’t tell anybody. I told my husband the story and now I’m telling you — and everyone who reads this column.

“Maybe, just maybe, there’s some old wizened cowboy somewhere in Southern California who will see this and step forward and say, ‘That was my cup.’”