Kent McCray (Little House Producer) Exclusive Interview!
Kent, Thanks for letting PrairieFans.com interview you about your
job as producer on Little House on the Prairie.
1. Wow, It's been a little over 30 years now since Little House first aired on TV. What do you think of it's success after so many years? Would you have thought it would still be as popular today as it was many years ago?
I would have never thought, at the time we were doing it, that it would be the success that it is today. But with the advent of cable and all the outlets its on now, I think the show’s popularity is bigger today than when we originally released it.
2. What was it like producing Little House on the Prairie? Any memories about this job that you will never forget?
Well there were a lot of them. It was certainly enjoyable time in my life when we did it. I enjoyed it immensely. It had many problems in production that we had to overcome. The pilot is a story all in its self. The pilot was interesting. I was asked by NBC, I was working on another series at the time. The people at NBC called me and said that Michael had asked for me to work on Little House and it was a show that he was going to do. So, I went out to Michael’s house to talk to him. The NBC people said they wanted to film in January of ’74. I thought of all the weather problems we have out here in January and tried to think of places we could go with better weather. I went to Texas, I went to Albuquerque, and I went to Tucson, Arizona. Outside of Tucson I thought I had found a great place to film the show. It had a stream, big acreage of flat land and hillside behind the trees and more. So, I got Mr. Friendly, Michael Landon, the camera man, the assistant director and the art director and brought them all down to Tucson on a different day.
Now Michael said he was only coming down for a day. I was going to stay if this worked and do some other things. We went down to the area, outside of Nogales a town called Padagonia. I took everyone out to the location. The trees that I had seen had been in a killing frost just before we got there. Between the time I had surveyed the area and the time we arrived there was nothing left but cactus on the hillside. Everyone looked at me and said we can’t show cactus we are suppose to be in Kansas. Obviously, I had to explain what had happened. We went back to the hotel and it was decided that we would go elsewhere and try to find something. I made a few phone calls. I decided we should go up to Northern California to look. Now you got to remember this is a time, November or December of ’73, when there was a big gas crunch, so it was difficult to get airplanes and it was difficult to get gas. So some of the group went home and Michael Landon, the assistant director, Miles Middough the art director Trevor Williams the cameraman Ted Voigtländer and I, flew to Sacramento. I rented a car and we started driving.
We scouted northern California up into Oroville, Marysville and all around that area and came back into Stockton. It rained off and on during the entire trip. I asked Mike to go to dinner? He said “no, I only left with my briefcase, I don’t have a change of clothes. I have to stay here and rinse out my underwear”. This was a running gag every night. We drove over to Sonora, California and found some places there. We knew Sonora because we’d gone there on Bonanza so that was a step in the right direction. We found a ranch outside of Stockton; I think it was the town of Farmington somewhere on route 4. We decided to build the log cabin on this ranch, it was a cattle ranch. after a week of traveling we came home and started laying out the show. We were going to start filming after the New Year in 1974. I went back to Sonora the weekend before the cast and crew were to arrive on that following Monday.
Both Ted Voiglander and I had just returned from dinner and we were talking. I looked out the window and saw it was starting to snow. We were not prepared for snow. I got a hold of a local driver, and by then it was snowing pretty good. We were going to work up in the hills above Columbia California. About 2 in the morning, I went out on a scouting trip with driver, Jim Opie who was a great guy. He drove me up in his pickup and it was getting pretty deep and even with that power. He got a hold of a private company who had a big snow plow. They started plowing out some of the main roads so we could get our equipment in. The company flew into Stockton. They were picked up and bused up to the location. By the time they got their, it had snowed so heavily we needed four wheel drive equipment to get them to the location.
We started filming. if you remember the pilot where they get into the wagon and they leave the big woods and they’re going on their trip to Kansas. The wagon is supposed to go up a big road and off into the distance. The wagon could only go about 20 feet because of the drifts of the snow. We had to shovel out so the boom could come backwards as the wagon went forward. It gave the illusion we wanted to show - that was the first day of shooting. While we were there we also shot the sequence where Victor French (Mr. Edwards) comes across the river to bring candy canes to the Ingalls children for Christmas. This was an area I found in Strawberry, California. We were next to the ranger station and they agreed to plow a parking lot for me. We got into the parking lot. All of our equipment had to be carried through two feet of snow down to the river, which was about 100 yards away so it was a little chore setting up. It was the only thing we were going to shoot that day - take Victor across the river.
Finally, right after lunch, we are set to shoot it. I sent Victor across up stream so his tracks wouldn’t be noticed He went across the river and was waiting there. He was in his underwear because the scene called for him to be in his long johns. He had a wet suit underneath it to keep himself somewhat warm. He went across the river and got over on the other side and just as we were ready to shoot, clouds came in. We couldn’t shoot because we didn’t have enough light. Victor is sitting in a snow bank on the other side of the river and getting colder and colder. I went up and threw a bottle of brandy over to him. He sat there and drank the bottle of brandy. He told me he felt a lot warmer. We finally got that shot and that is the way we started the pilot. We shot there for three or four days than moved down to the ranch outside in Stockton. That morning it had been raining pretty heavy all down in that area.
I went with the trucks at three in the morning and we drove into the ranch. Every truck we had, and we had a number of what we called 18 wheelers, got stuck. The land was saturated with water and they just sank up to their axle. So, that night I spent the night in a honey wagon (trailer) out on the location and we had to call in two big tractors to pull us out the next day. The company went to work we had built the cabin in a building on the fairgrounds. Michael juggled his schedule and re-wrote things. For ten days we shot inside working on the fairgrounds doing the interiors. And each day we get the company started and we had to literally put in a new road to the exterior of the cabin. It was quite a chore and I thought we would never get done to be honest with you, but we did.
Lennon: And it became a success!
Yes it did! We brought it back to Hollywood to edit it. It was a two-hour premier show. NBC took it to a testing house where people looked at it. The audience was wired so they could press a button if they liked it and press another button if they didn’t like it. There were question and answers afterwards and Michael came out that night and answered any questions they might have about it. It was the highest tested show that NBC ever had to date. The following Spring we started shooting the show.
3. In the movie "Where Pigeons Go to Die" Melissa Sue Anderson was one of the producers. Was it a treat for you to work with her behind the camera after watching her grow up on Little House?
Yes, she had brought the property to Michael it was a book she had read. It was after “Highway to Heaven”. Melissa was involved while we were still in town, I don’t believe she ever came to location. We shot it outside of Lawrence, Kansas. That’s another story. Michael wanted to have fall colors. I went back and said if you wanted to have fall colors, we should go someplace in New England - that’s where the great fall colors are. We went back there and unfortunately, I did not have a great experience with the people there and it was tough to find things. I went to Kansas and they did have some nice fall colors and that’s where we shot it.
4. Michael Landon was loved by millions, but to you and your wife Susan, he was your best friend. What is your fondest memory of Michael?
Oh gosh there’s many. His working relationship, he just loved everybody. He loved the crew. You have to remember many of the crew from Little House came off of Bonanza and from Little House to Highway to Heaven. He loved the crew. Our attitude was l hire people that are good and than get out of their way and let them do their work. And that’s what we did. If someone didn’t work out than I would ask them to leave and we would hire somebody else. For the most part, most of the crew stayed with us through the show. Normally in a production, you have production meetings for every show. We had one production meeting for the pilot. Once we started filming the series, we never had a production meeting, it wasn’t necessary. The crew knew what they were doing. They would talk to me or talk to Michael if things had to get ordered or done. That’s the way we worked it. He and I worked very closely together. He said “Kent, you lay it out and run the production, let me handle the directing and work on the scripts” and that’s what we did.
5. Jennifer Landon, Michael's youngest daughter was nominated for the 2006 Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Younger Actor in a Drama Series for her role as Gwen Norbeck on the CBS daytime soap opera "As The World Turns." Do you think Michael would be proud of Jennifer for this nomination and for following his footsteps?
I think he would be extremely proud. Actually, there is no question in my mind, he would definitely be proud. However, I will say, if Michael had lived, her career might have been different. I give her credit for leaving California on her own and going to New York and studying. She came home briefly after 9/11, but than had the courage to go back by herself to stick it out and keep studying and she really got the job with no help from anybody. She had an agent and she was offered a three month contract which they said was a short term contract. After she had been there a month they said well your short contract is over and so she left thinking she wasn’t any good. She didn’t realize what the agent had said, she just heard the words your contract is over. What they actually said was your short term contract is over and we are going to sign you to a contract for three years, which is now a long-term contract. In all of the interviews I have seen with Jenn, she has the up most respect for her father, which really makes me feel very good and quite proud of her.
6. Little House fans have debated over the years if Albert died or not, as producer of Little House on the Prairie, do you know if he lived or died in the series?
Well, the indication he did when he went up on the hill in that particular two-hour show but I would say yes he did. That is what the intent was.
7. Do you have a favorite episode of Little House on the Prairie?
I have many. “The Lord is my Shepard” I thought was a tremendous show with Ernie Borgnine and Melissa who was nine years old. We shot that in the first season, and there again we shot it in Sonora California or outside of Sonora. I thought the show “Journey in the Spring” was a good show because it had a different aspect with Melissa and the horse and when the horse had to be shot was a very dramatic and heartwarming show. I thought it was very touching when Michael had to take Mary to the school for the blind and he is told to leave her and not to stick around. That was quite emotional and heartfelt.
Lennon: Very dramatic!
Well, that was the beauty of the show it could touch your heart one minute and especially with Victor, you could have some lighter moments. So it worked both ways.
8. Fans around the world would love to see a Little House TV reunion. Do you see this happening down the road?
Well, I don’t think so; Mr. Friendly controls that pretty much. Mr. Friendly owns the property, he brought it to NBC. I don’t see it happening, I don’t know how you would do it really. I had an idea of doing one at one point and it got turned down by Mr. Friendly. You can’t go back with people now and put them back in wardrobe and pickup where you left off.
9. If you could go back and change one thing in Little House would you, and what would you change?
I can’t think of anything off hand that we could do better. Every show is not your best, you try to make it your best, but there is always something that comes up that didn’t work out and you have to make the best of it. We did a show we use to call it “Loose Caboose” which was “The Runaway Caboose,” which we shot in Sonora. We had the steam train, we came home and put it together and I think we were in the neighborhood of being 15-20 minutes short because it just didn’t play. You cant just constantly look at a loose caboose running down a track, so Michael developed a whole front end of the show where the kids got talking. I can’t remember exactly but we added to it and re-shot some stuff to make it work. Those are the things you wish you could have done better.
10. Finally, How are things going for you these days? Any projects in the works?
Yeah, Stan Ivar and I are working on a project together, but these days, its very difficult to get something off the ground, I’m not sure, with the networks the way they are, if it would even be as much fun as it was when we did the show. Times have changed.
Thanks again for letting PrairieFans.com interview you about your work on Little House on the Prairie. Do you have anything you would like to say to all the fans around the world?
Just keep watching. I’m amazed with the fans, the Web sites; all the shows are just wonderful. Bonanza has a convention every other year out here. The response and the attitudes of all the fans, they know more about shows than I do. They watch these things religiously and pick out everything. It’s just amazing. I thank them for that and thank them for their loyalty and shows what we did, we did right and I appreciate that.
* Did you Know:
Kent McCray was an actor twice in "Little House." Once, in the "The Race" episode during the horse race sequence when the town is out in the prairie and Kent is the one on the wagon that yells "go Nellie go." Second, in the "Men will be Boys" episode when you see a gentlemen with a beard who breaks into the camp while Albert and Andy are eating dinner over a camp fire, Kent is the one that steals all their food. His part name was "Grizzly Kowalski." Michael always thought if Kent had a little something in the show it brought good luck - kind of an Alfred Hitchcock thing. Pictures from Kent's cameo appearance on "Little House" are featured below.
Webmasters Note: Interview was done on February 18, 2006.