Little House on the Prairie’s Dean Butler Wished He Was ‘Closer’ to Melissa Gilbert’s Age

If Dean Butler could change one thing about his time filming Little House on the Prairie, it might be the age difference with costar Melissa Gilbert.

The actor, 67, explained to PEOPLE at the Little House on the Prairie 50th Anniversary Cast Reunion and Festival in March why their age disparity was somewhat of a barrier. When Almanzo (Butler) met Laura (Gilbert) in the season 6 episode “Back to School (Part 1),” Butler was 23 while Gilbert was just 15. Their characters would share their first onscreen kiss in the episode “Sweet Sixteen,” which aired later that season.

“When I met Melissa in ‘Back to School,’ there was no sign of a woman there. She really was a little girl: bright, incredibly capable, spunky, vibrant, very extroverted,” he says, adding, “Now, I don’t know how much more of a woman there was there at the end, but she was being asked to go there at the end of that season. And I think she did it amazingly well when you look at how little life experience she had.”

Melissa Gilbert, Michelle Steffin and Dean Butler in ‘Little House on the Prairie.’.

NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty

Butler recalls the nervousness both actors felt when they filmed their kissing scene in “Sweet Sixteen,” which takes place during a quiet moment at the local dance.  

“I think that there was anxiety on both sides of that kiss and how is this going to go? But we stepped up to it,” he continued. “I’ve often said to Melissa, ‘I wish we could have been a little closer in age when we were doing this.’ But that’s not the way it really happened. Laura was 10 years younger than Almanzo. But from the perspective of playing it, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could have [had] … a little more common ground, so we would’ve been able to play the loving side of this in perhaps a little bit more interesting way.”

Regardless, the scene proved to be a very tender moment that resonated with viewers and tapped into several of Little House’s themes, including love and innocence.

Dean Butler and Melissa Gilbert.

NBCU Photo Bank

“I look at this saying, ‘Oh boy, we really were pretty simple with all this,’ but it was beautiful [and] simple. It was heartfelt [and] simple. It was sort of storybook simple. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people continue to love this, because it gives you this idyllic view of what a romance could be, what young love could be,” Butler says, adding, “Because the audience loved her [Laura] so much … If she’d chosen this guy, then this guy must be really good. And so I got the benefit of a lot of all of that. The audience just came right with me, because she did.”

Because of his portrayal of Almanzo, Butler finds he’s still approached by viewers decades later who tell him he was their first celebrity crush.

“We all have those people, and to be one of those people for so many young women is really incredibly touching to me. It’s gratifying,” he says, adding, “I want people to walk away from an encounter with me feeling like they’ve gotten what they hope to see. Older, a little more of me than there was then, but that they’re getting the essential truth of what I brought then, and they’re seeing the same thing now. That’s really important to me.”

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All nine seasons of Little House on the Prairie can be streamed on Prime Video and Peacock.

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