Karen Grassle



After I became well-known for playing “Ma” in the long-running NBC series, “Little House on the Prairie,” it was difficult to find time for my first love:  the theatre.   As a kid growing up in Ventura, California, I had always pursued plays at school and church as well as spending much of my free time in dancing school studying ballet, tap, and Hawaiian.  My favorite films were “The Red Shoes” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

Although I tried to stay away from the theatre in college, by the Spring of my Sophomore year at The University of California at Berkeley, I was reading for Look Back in Anger—and won the female lead.  That was it-- no turning back.  That summer I studied at Pasadena Playhouse, then dropped out of college for a year to become an Apprentice at the Actor’s Workshop of San Francisco, a highly esteemed Resident Repertory Company.  From then on, summers were spent at Drama or Shakespeare Festivals acting.

When I returned to Cal the next year, I became a Drama Major as well as an English Major specializing in Shakespeare.  I began to apply for a Fulbright Grant to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and was able to enroll there in the Fall of 1965.  That was one of the most exciting learning experiences of my life:  the school was superb and we could go to the theatre in London and see the finest actors and productions in the English language.  Museums and concerts were abundant and didn’t break the student budget.  I traveled on school vacations to Italy and Spain seeing some of the greatest art and architecture in the world and having a ball.

After a season as leading lady at the Front Street Theatre in Memphis Tennessee, my new husband, Leon Russom, and I joined the ranks of the unemployed actors in New York City.  I was very fortunate to find work quite soon both in the theatre and on television.  At first, I thought “What’s so tough about this?” But before long, I was standing in the Unemployment Insurance lines, looking for the part-time jobs, practicing the scraping-it-together that is the lot of a beginning artist. One summer I worked as a figure model in the garment industry with some wonderful people.

In 1968, I was cast in The Gingham Dog, by Lanford Wilson, by the famous director, Alan Schneider.  It was my Broadway debut.  George Grizzard was a big influence on me at that time and I was forever fond of him.  My new colleague and pal Roy London became one of my closest friends until his death in 1994.  The show didn’t make it, and I was back on the Unemployment Line. Needing something I could count on, I contacted Kristin Linklater about studying to become a Voice Teacher, which I did. She had brought the LAMDA technique to the United States and was teaching at NYU around the corner from where I lived on the Lower East Side.

But people had seen my work.  I began to work more steadily up and down the Eastern Seaboard as well as in the mid-west.  Had a breakthrough with Shakespeare in the Park as Imogen in Cymbeline with Sam Waterston, Bill Devane and  Christopher Walken; and on Broadway in Butterflies are Free where I worked off and on between other jobs for about two years.

When LAMDA needed to revamp, I went with Kristin to rescue the Voice Department.  She went on to Europe to write her book and I stayed and ran the department until I joined Shakespeare and Co. in Warwickshire working on Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale and The Taming of the Shrew.

When I got a call to do a lead in an independent film in Hollywood, I moved there and by the end of the year, had been cast in  “Little House.”  During my years in Hollywood, one of my proudest accomplishments was the production of the TV Movie, “Battered,” which I co-wrote with my friend, Cynthia Lovelace Sears, and starred in with Mike Farrell and other excellent actors.  I did lots of episodic TV as well as co-starring in movies for television such as “Cocaine, One Man’s Seduction,”  “The President’s Mistress, and “Crisis in Mid-air.”  Films include “Wyatt Earp” and “Harry’s War.”

After “Little House” ended, my focus was on my new marriage to J. Allen Radford, and his children. We were supremely happy when we were able to adopt Lily as a new-born by Independent Adoption. Unfortunately, that marriage didn’t last.  Lily and I have hop-scotched around quite a bit, as I found work in Santa Fe, Boston, New York City, and Louisville, KY.  While in Santa Fe, I wrote a screenplay, started a theatre company, acting and directing; and at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, I was lucky to perform in classics and original American plays with an excellent company of actors and directors from all over the world.

During the spells when I am not acting, I give my creative energy to writing.  I have written ten minute plays, a film script called “Playing with Fire” and a full length play.  Currently, I am participating in classes in the Memoir.

In the last five years, I have settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was born, went to college, and began my career.  I have had the pleasure of working at the SF Playhouse in Cabaret and The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, and at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto in Southern Comforts.  This past Spring at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley in John Gabriel Borkmann.   Driving Miss Daisy  has come my way via The Rubicon Theatre in my home town, Manitoba Theatre Center and Tennessee Rep, as well as on tour. At Ashland I was able to work with Libby Appel again in Richard II. One of my favorite roles was in Wit, in which my English Major contributed to my comprehension of the character’s mind and humor.

I have the greatest appreciation for my teachers who include Bob Goldsby at Cal, Roy London in Hollywood, Kristin Linklater in New York, Norman Ayrton at LAMDA, the Shakespeare and Co. teachers and directors both in Stratford-Upon-Avon and in the U.S.  My own teaching includes Voice for Actors at LAMDA and in NYC as well as for Shakespeare and Co. and Actor’s Theatre of Louisville; Acting for the Camera at the College of Santa Fe and a workshop at UC Berkeley.


For a complete list of work, please refer to the Chronological Resume.