Gilbert Adds Directing to Credits : Careers: Directing ‘Ice House,’ TV’s former Laura Ingalls is besieged with work offers--and happy at home.
The play could be called “This Was Your Life, Melissa Gilbert.”
Two lovers trapped in a dead-end relationship. Running from each other, and from themselves. Never really breaking away.
Gilbert-Brinkman did break away.
“The play shed some light on myself,” said Gilbert-Brinkman, who is directing “Ice House,” showing through Sept. 9 at the Company of Characters Theater in Studio City. “Mine wasn’t as demented as the characters in the play; they’re much different than my past relationship. But doing this made me realize I contributed to the insanity of it. I wasn’t seeking anything functional at that point in my life.”
She was 17, and seeking Rob Lowe. For six years, they struggled through an on-again, off-again romance. Today, Gilbert-Brinkman is 26, married and the mother of 15-month-old son Dakota. The little house on the prairie in the make-believe world has been replaced by the real-life big house in the Valley--Sherman Oaks.
“With Bo, I have a white-picket fence,” said Gilbert-Brinkman about her marriage to writer-actor Bo Brinkman, who wrote “Ice House.” “I always thought comfortable was boring. It’s not. It’s exciting to keep things going.”
Her career hasn’t stalled either. Gilbert-Brinkman, most recognized for her role as Laura on NBC-TV’s “Little House on the Prairie,” from 1974-83, has added to her television resume with starring appearances in cable and network movies; a new NBC drama, “Joshua’s Heart,” with Tim Matheson, is set for the fall, as is a USA Cable movie, “The Lookalike,” co-starring her husband and Diane Ladd.
At the same time, she has charted new paths, such as directing. Although she said she never displayed an interest in directing before, she jumped at the opportunity to direct her husband’s work. As in previous career moves, her insecurities were never far away.
“I always wonder if I’m going to be taken seriously,” she said. Referring to the two male characters in the play, she said, “how are they going to handle this 5-foot-3, red-haired woman who they could split in half? I don’t take me seriously.”
As director, Gilbert-Brinkman had to resist the temptation to show her actors too much.
“You have to explain what you want without reading the part and showing the emotion. They have to do that themselves.”
Which is just what she did, according to Doug Stevenson, who played the male lead. “She’s an actor’s director,” said Stevenson. “She knew how to throw suggestions without making them seem like direct commands.”
Frustrated with the limits of directing--"I can only direct them so far"--Gilbert-Brinkman even briefly contemplated playing the female lead one night; she played it in an independent feature film that saw only limited release in 1988, but decided against it because she had already done it.
Gilbert-Brinkman was worried she would somehow tarnish her husband’s vision of the one-hour play, but is confident the final product is consistent with his original intent. Having him, the writer, constantly close by helped. “He let it be my vision of what I saw the play as, and he sees it the same way.”
Her family life has greatly changed her priorities. She finds herself less ambitious than ever and yet getting more work. She turned down three TV pilots, including one in which she’d play the female Hulk.
“Before this baby, I couldn’t get arrested,” she said, “and now I get offered everything.”
Everything, it seems, except movie scripts. She believes her years as a television actress have made her unattractive to film executives. Although the conversion from the small to big screen has been made in recent years by stars such as Bruce Willis, Michael J. Fox and Kirstie Alley, Gilbert-Brinkman believes it’s still an uphill battle.
“I have to audition for features,” said Gilbert-Brinkman, whose last wide-release film, “Sylvester,” came out in 1985. “Either I’m too old or too young, too sexy, not sexy enough. I was told I couldn’t play 17 anymore. I had a mixed reaction. I knew womanhood had begun, but I wasn’t a little baby anymore.”
Specifically, she would like to do a comedy role, instead of the heavily dramatic characters she has played her whole life. Acknowledging she is still pictured by many people as the lovable girl on “Little House,” Gilbert-Brinkman said she is capable of branching out. “I grew up in a family of comedians.” Her grandfather, Harry Crane, created and wrote “The Honeymooners.” Her late father, Paul Gilbert, starred on “The NBC Comedy Hour.”
As an actress, Gilbert-Brinkman said, her peace at home has greatly lessened the pressure. “I am more willing to take chances,” she said. “I always have this to come back to.”
These days, she rarely talks to Lowe. Her new life has made her old life with him seem like “a movie I did 10 years ago.”