When she was 20, Melissa Gilbert wanted the world to know she was no longer the pigtailed pixie Laura Ingalls of "Little House on the Prairie."
"That is when I really wanted to be a woman," stresses Gilbert, 28. "I was dating and had a steady boyfriend (actor Rob Lowe). I was seen out and about town. I wanted people to see me as an adult. I forced that issue."
What she didn't realize then, Gilbert says, was that it was "inevitable" people would see her as a woman. "You cannot deny the fact now," Gilbert says. "If you look at me, I am not 9 years old. I have a 4-year-son (Dakota). So it really is undeniable that I am an adult. And my life has been splashed across the headlines for years, and here I am going through a divorce (from actor-writer Bo Brinkman) with a child. Kids don't do this; grown-ups do."
These days, Gilbert sees herself as definite leading-lady material.
"I am no longer an ingenue," she says, sipping on coffee in the conference room of her publicist's Beverly Hills office.
"As a friend of mine said to me, 'You are pushing the envelope of 30 now, babe,' which is very true. I am in the last year of my 20s. But it's great. I welcome age."
Well, at least for now. "We will talk when I am 40 how I welcome age," she says, laughing. "But for now, every day I get a little wiser. That is the only thing I am interested in--a little smarter in the choices I make and the decisions I make regarding my life and my own destiny."
Since "Little House on the Prairie" left the airwaves in 1983 after 10 seasons, Gilbert has starred in a long line of successful TV movies, including "Choices of the Heart," "Donor" and "With a Vengeance."
"I just got lucky," she says matter-of-factly. "I got the roles. I got the work. I haven't really pursued any movie of the week. I just go off of straight offers."
Gilbert starts laughing. "When you have a classic or an issue, they call me," she quips. "Got a crisis? Call Melissa. She'll do it. Do you need someone to roll around on the floor and cry? She can do that. How much crying do you need? 'Oh, Melissa Gilbert is perfect .' "
She sighs. "I am so mushy and emotional," she says. "I cry at commercials--those AT&T; commercials. Music just kills me. My mother, when a relationship breaks up, she says never listen to love songs because it is music to kill yourself by. One time when I was going through a particularly painful breakup, she sent me a tape of polka music. That was the only thing I was allowed to listen to."
Gilbert found it difficult to stop crying while making her latest TV movie, "A Family of Strangers," premiering Sunday on CBS. Gilbert plays a young woman who must have a delicate brain operation after she blacks out while driving. When she asks her father (William Shatner) about family medical history, she learns she is adopted. Patty Duke, who appeared with Gilbert 14 years ago in the acclaimed TV film of "The Miracle Worker," plays her birth mother.
Like her character, Gilbert was adopted. "It's funny how, with the exception of 'Splendor in the Grass,' I have never been given a role that I didn't have some sort of personal connection," she says. "At the time I did 'Splendor,' I hadn't even been on a date, and I was playing a woman who was so obsessed she had a nervous breakdown."
Gilbert felt emotionally connected with "every moment" of "Family of Strangers." "It opens up when you realize that I am recently separated with a child. It hit very close to home for me and I just thank God I had Patty Duke and William Shatner there with me. So much of me is in (the movie). It was scary."
Last February, Gilbert did a successful search for her birth family. Her mother, she discovered, had died. "My birth father is alive and we spoke and met," she says. Gilbert says she keeps in touch with him "from a distance."
It never occurred to Gilbert to find her birth family until her son was born. "When the baby came I looked at this little person and then it hit me (that) this is the only person I know that I am connected to by blood," she says. "There has got to be more out there. I've got to find it."
She finally found her real parents with the help of a Florida organization called International Locater. Gilbert recently did an infomercial for the group, which has put together a kit to help those who want to find their birth parents. "I just got a fax from them," she says. "It has been in a very few markets for a very short period of time and we have reunited 29 families."
Despite the fact Gilbert has a career many actresses would envy, there are some days when she feels like quitting the business. "I think, 'Why don't I just marry a nice man and settle down and have babies?' My dream-life existence would be to have someone to share it with--to share the burdens and reap the rewards--and sit back and work when I want to, on my own terms and have a lot of babies. It would be wonderful to have someone to share that with eventually."
"A Family of Strangers" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS; repeats of "Little House on the Prairie" air weekdays at 6 a.m. on TBS and 11 a.m. on KTLA.