2015 SME Women in Business
Keynote speaker: Melissa Gilbert
A native of Los Angeles, Melissa Gilbert comes from a long line of entertainers. Her grandfather, Harry Crane, creator and writer of “The Honeymooners”, was one of the best-known and most respected comedy writers in the business. Her father, Paul Gilbert, was a respected comedian, actor, musician and dancer.
At the age of two, Gilbert made her on-air debut modeling baby clothes. She then “retired” until age seven when she plunged back in, acting in more than thirty television commercials, including national spots for Crest, McDonald’s and GAF toys with the late Henry Fonda. In the summer of 1973, the nine-year-old joined the cast of “Little House on the Prairie”, continuing with the popular series for 10 years. “I grew up with wonderful people’, Gilbert recalls. “I learned professionalism from all of them and especially from Michael Landon. He taught me fine points about camera angles, set designs, costuming, production, direction and LIFE.”
When Gilbert was fourteen, her personal manager formed Half-Pint Productions (her character’s nickname on “Little House”), which first resulted in the production of the Emmy award-winning MOW “The Miracle Worker”, starring Patty Duke. The company subsequently produced, with Gilbert starring, such well-received television specials as “The Diary of Anne Frank”, “Splendor in the Grass”, “Family Secrets” with Maureen Stapleton, and “Choices of the Heart”, the true story of missionary Jean Donovan who, in 1980, along with three other nuns, was raped and murdered in El Salvador.
A variety of rich television roles continued, including the abortion drama “Choices” with George C. Scott and Jacqueline Bisset, the true-life drama “Without Her Consent”, “Joshua’s Heart” with Tim Matheson, USA’s “The Lookalike”, “Blood Vows: Story of a Mafia Wife”, “Killer Instinct”, “Donor” and “Forbidden Nights”, the true story of the relationship between a young American teacher and a Chinese man. In 1992 Gilbert made her comeback to series television starring in the Fox-TV Comedy “Stand By Your Man” with Rosie O’Donnell. The prison-based series was adapted from “Birds of a Feather”, the highest rated comedy series on British television. Gilbert also starred opposite Ronnie Cox and Cicely Tyson in the NBC television series “Sweet Justice”, portraying a headstrong attorney from a well-to-do Southern family.
In 1993 she starred in five telefilms including the highly rated “Shattered Trust” The Shari Karney Story”, the true story of a California attorney whose recollection of early childhood abuse by her father leads her to champion other incest victims and change the state’s statute of limitations law. Her portrayal and her own fight to help abused children were honored with a 1994 Inspirational Award from Childhelp USA, with which she has been affiliated for twenty years. Her other work that year included such top-rated telefilms as CBS’ “With Hostile Intent”, “A Family of Strangers” with Patty Duke, “Babymaker: The Cecil Jacobson Story”, with George Dzunda, and USA Networks’ “Dying To Rmember”. Gilbert also starred alongside her husband Bruce Boxleitner in Danielle Steele’s miniseries “Zoya” and “House of Secrets”, both for NBC.
Over the years, Gilbert has continued to bring such powerful stories to the small screen as Lifetime’s “Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story” with Marlee Matlin, and the CBS drama “Cries from the Heart”, again with Patty Duke. In December of 1996, she starred opposite Tim Matheson in the feel-good holiday telefilm “Christmas in My Hometown” and demonstrated her audience appeal by giving CBS their highest ratings ever for a MOW on a Tuesday night. 1997 saw her star in “Seduction in a Small Town” and “Childhood Sweetheart”. In 1998 and 1999 she starred in three telefilms: “Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Her Own Rules”, opposite Jean Simmons, “The Soul Collector” with Bruce Greenwood and “Switched at Birth” opposite Rosanna Arquette. From 2001 to 2003 Melissa starred in “A Vision of Murder: The Story of Donielle”, “Nora Roberts’ Sanctuary” and “Jackie Collins’ Hollywood Wives: The New Generation” opposite Farrah Fawcett. In 2005 she starred in the highly rated hallmark Channel movie “Thicker Than Water”.
Melissa starred in a very controversial episode of the acclaimed series “Nip Tuck” and can be seen frequently in Hallmark Channel movies.
In feature film, Gilbert starred in “Sylvester”, opposite Richard Farnsworth, from which she was selected ShoWest’s Promising Star of the Year in 1985. She was also honored that year when she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, becoming the youngest recipient of such an honor. In 2000 she did a cameo role playing herself in Griffin Dunne’s film “Lisa Picard is Famous”.
In 1987 she made her off-Broadway debut as a star of “A Shayna Maidel”, earning an Outer Critic’s Circle Award for Best Debuting Actress for her realistic portrayal of a young girl who escapes war-torn Europe but is later confronted by her older sister who spent tine in a concentration camp. She also starred in such productions as “The Miracle Worker”, “The Glass Menagerie”, “Bus Stop” and most recently “Love Letters” at the canon Theatre in Los Angeles.
Having fully outgrown the “Half-Pint” image of her “Little House” youth, Melissa has proven herself a successful adult actress and director. In 1996, she made her directorial debut with the critically acclaimed ABC after school special “Me and My Hormones”, starring Marion Ross with special appearances by Bruce Boxleitner, Sara Gilbert and Chad Lowe. Melissa and Tony Dow (“Leave it to Beaver”) teamed up to produce the highly rated A & E documentary “Child Stars: Their Story”, which gave an insider’s look at the privileges and pain of child stardom. Melissa’s legacy came full circle last year when she starred as Ma in the national tour of “Little House on the Prairie Musical”.
In 2009, Melissa shared her story of growing up in front of the cameras, dealing with a complicated family, overcoming addictions, and how she finally learned to move on in her New York Time’s bestselling memoir, Prairie Tale.
In addition to her acting, directing and writing career, Gilbert served two terms as the 23rd President of the Screen Actors Guild. Along with her duties as SAG President, she served two terms as Vice President on the AFL-CIO executive council, as Vice President for the California Labor Federation, and as a commissioner on the California Film Commission.
During her tenure at Screen Actors Guild, Gilbert helped to create and pass anti-runaway legislation as well as laws to protect child performers. Additionally, she helped to fight movie piracy and to implement many other worker and artist protections. Gilbert also served as chair of the 2005 SAG Theatrical/Television Negotiating Committee.
Representing the Guild internationally, Melissa Gilbert served on a panel dedicated to cultural diversity at the XVIII World Congress of the International Federation of Actors in Budapest, Hungary. Among her many honors and accolades, Gilbert has received the Media Access Office Award of Merit for her efforts in seeking casting diversity, was on of Hollywood Reporter’s “Women of the Year” for three consecutive years, and was recently honored with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
As an avid Philanthropist, Melissa is the President of the Board of Directors for the Children’s Hospice and Palliative Care Coalition and recently became the first-ever national spokesperson for The Partnership at Drugfree.org. Through her work with the Children’s Hospice, Melissa has dedicated her life to ensuring that all chronically and terminally ill children get to live and die with the gentleness, dignity and grace they deserve. As a devoted mother to four sons and having had her own struggles with sobriety, Melissa’s work with Drugfee.org allows her to provide parents with help and resources to prevent, intervene in and find treatment for drug and alcohol use by their children.