Daren: My guest today is one of my media heroes, she’s a best selling author, and a Fox news network anchor on shows such as The Five, Out numbered, Happening Now, and America’s News Room. As an Actress shoes appeared on a lot of motion pictures and television series but is best known for her role as Micheal Landons’s daughter Cassandra Cooper Ingalls in Little House on The Prairie, and she’s the author of the new book Lessons From the Prairie: The Surprising Secrets to Happiness, Success, and (Sometimes Just) Survival I Learned on America’s Favorite TV Show. She is Melissa Francis, I’m so glad to have you on here Melissa.
Melisa: Thank you.
Daren: So A little book about lessons from Little House on The Prairie, You know, I was a big fan of the show as a kid, even during the big confusing episodes like when they blew up the entire town.
Melisa: That was probably one of the biggest episodes of all time, some say it was explosive.
Daren: I kept waiting for it to be some kind of a dream sequence, like they wake up and its all better. But it was a fantastic show, it gripped so many people. I notice that there are some television stars that don’t really cherish the shows that put them on the map, they kind of resent the show that made them famous, But you seem to have a lot of affection for Little House on the Prairie, What accounts for that.
Melissa: I kind of talk about that in the book a little bit, it starts out in the first chapter, I’m coming out of the packed studio, we sit around the couch and kind of work in a fish bowl quite literally, we’re surrounded by glass, and people would kind of come by and they would tap on it like we’re guppies, and they see really horrible things like what my feet look like in person, they’re gnarled and hideous, I have bunions, it’s so bad, and people say when I talk about this “How bad can your feet be?” And I say “I’m gonna spare you cause then people would be vomiting because they are so bad” But they make me human, its god’s way of reminding me that underneath all the makeup and hair I’m really horrible, so I’m like okay, thank you. But anyway I come walking out of that studio, and people are nice enough that there’s a little walk way, where we make our way o the main building, and people hang out there and they’re kind enough to ask us for autographs and selfies with us, and one day we come out and one of them said “oh we want to take a picture with you” And I said ”I don’t think I’m who you think we are” I mean all the blondes at Fox look the same, our dresses look the same, and I say “Wait for the lady behind me she’s a lot more famous” And the woman said to me “Oh no Melissa, I know just who you are, you’re the girl in Little House on the Prairie” And it still surprises me to this day, mainly because obviously they dyed my hair brown when I was a child and I’ve always been a natural blonde, but beyond that I’m surprised that people still remember it, and I spent a lot of time like you said running away from that, you know, wanting to reinvent myself and prove myself as a different person, I went to Harvard and I studied economics, I went into news. I did all these different things, and it took me a while to realize that so many of the fantastic things that I embrace in my life now, from faith, to family, to resilience, to authenticity, to humility, these are lessons that I learned both behind the scenes and in front of the camera on Little House on The Prairie. Michael Landon, for all his personal foibles was an incredibly hard working, generous, and giving person.
Daren: That’s what I’ve heard.
Melissa: He was the first one here in the morning and he was the last one to leave at the end of the day, He rolled up his sleeve and he worked along side everyone. He was so tight with the buck, we was so smart, he was one of the first entrepreneurs in Hollywood, he understood that to make it in television you had to own the show, write it, produce it, star in it, the whole thing. That way he had a corner in all the profits. He called me “One Take Missy” Because I could get it done right the first time and he loved it because he wanted to save money on his films. He expected us to work like adults because we were making adult paychecks, but he made it so fun, we had a great time during lunch, but when it was time to work it was time for work, and I was talking to Melissa Gilbert recently and she said the reason why she thinks none of us ended up robbing a dry cleaners or going to rehab, its because he taught us this, the pride in getting a pay check with your name on it, the pride in an honest days work where you’re putting together something that people care about and love, how good that feels, not to be on the government dole, but to be someone, that you’re earning for your family. We learned some very valuable lessons, and my good friend Megan Kelly, we were having dinner one time and she said “You have so many funny stories but if you look underneath them, you have so many traditional values that there’s a way to put that in a book.
Daren: And you did.
Melissa: I make fun of myself for a few pages, and when you’re done laughing at the pies I’ve taken to the face there are some really valuable, traditional, authentic, sincere lessons.
Daren: Absolutely, it’s kind of amazing too because you were pretty young during the filming of the show that you would glean all these lessons. I understand you got the job at little house because unlike a lot of the other kids auditioning you were the only one who could cry tears on queue, how did you pull that off?
Melissa: A lot of complaining at home, a lot of tantrums, an older sister who stole stuff from me, a lot of practice hosing my parents, you know, I mean I could turn em’ on in an instant, in fact there’s this story I tell in the book where my son, he was five or six at the time, he throws himself on the ground in the kitchen and he’s wailing and crying and beating his fists and I just look at him and yawn, and I’m like “You know, I appreciate the effort, but what you’re doing there, that is horrible, and that is very bad acting, and when I was your age I could produce real tears on a dime and I made good money doing it” Instantly he was like “What, you got paid for this?” And I’m like “No not for that, I didn’t get paid for that, what you’re doing there is awful, but I got paid for doing a good job with the tantrums” And he was all ears, he was like “ What?!” And I’m like “Yes” And I showed him the tapes and I was like “ That was my trick, I could produce convincing tears on the dime” The way I did it is not kosher as acting goes, I would imagine that my own pets were dying, I would imagine terrible things in real life and acting, if your method, you’re supposed to be the character and you’re imagining that you are that person, but that’s too complex for an eight year old, so I would picture, like especially in the opening scene, the wagon goes over the hill and it crashes into shreds and my parents are in it, and obviously it great news for me because I become an Ingalls, but really it’s supposed to be bad news that my actual parents are dying, so I pictured my cat princess going over the hill, my dog Casey, these are my real life pets, I would imagine my fish Neptune was in a bowl that smashed into shreds, like I’m picturing my pets going through carnage, and I’m wailing and crying. When it was over they were like “That was a great job” And I’m like “ I just really want to go home and make sure my pets are alive cause I’ve traumatized myself”
Darren: I don’t know if it was after or during but you’ve done a lot of TV commercials too and I just wanted to mention one of them is burned into my brain from countless hours of watching Saturday morning cartoons with a bowl of sugary cereal, the Kellogg’s O.J. Cereal “That there is O.J Joe, rounding up oranges for Kellogg’s” That is burned into my brain, there’s a crease about two inches deep, cause they played that every two seconds. You must’ve sold millions of dollars worth of cereal.
Melissa: I sold a lot of cereal, I sold Frosted Flakes as well, I did a commercial where I was running hurdles and I say “They’re great!” And I ate, and the funny part about that is that I sincerely loved Frosted Flakes, but when you’re doing a commercial, You take a big bite and you have this huge bucket next to you and you’re supposed to spit out the cereal because you do so many takes that a normal child would get sick or vomit, but I liked the frosted flakes so much that I wouldn’t spit it out, and they would say “She’s gonna get sick” And I’m like “No, no I’m good, keep the frosted flakes coming” And they’re like “Wow she’s gonna get fat” And I’m like “Well what ever, it’s one day” But I probably ate three or four boxes a day, and while my teeth hurt a lot, when it was over my stomach was very happy.
Daren: Now you mention in the book that experiencing a lot of T.V. work as a child didn’t necessarily help you as a T.V. anchor. Why is that?
Melissa: I’ve talked to other people who do plays and acting who then went into news and realize that it actually hurts you because here’s the thing, When you’re doing any kind of acting, first, all the words are written for you, it’s nothing that you’re thinking of on the spot, second, you rehearse like a million times, like with little house on the prairie we would rehearse a whole bunch of times because Michael Landon didn’t want to waste any expensive film, so you rehearse, you practice, there’s a million people standing around, everyone’s fixing your hair, they’re checking your lines, they’re doing your wardrobe. You memorize your lines before you go out there you practice, and by the time the cameras role, it’s cemented into your brain, but when you’re doing news especially at the local level, the first time I was ever live they fired me out the door at the state capital in Concord New Hampshire, and here I am, I’m with a photographer, I’ve never been live on television, I’m alone, I’ve done my own hair and makeup rather poorly, No ones told me what to say. I’m covering the story, I have to have it ready to go when the camera comes to me, we’ve done no rehearsals, we’re under the gun, I mean it’s very much like that nightmare you have where you show up at school for the test and you’ve never been to that course and you don’t have any clothes on, it’s like that. Especially when you’re used to being prepared it feels like you haven’t prepared for what you have ahead of you, and so I looked into the black lens, cause that’s all you see when you’re live is a black camera lens and they tossed me back at the studio “Melissa Francis is live in Concord with the latest” And they come to me and I look and my heart sunk and my throat closed. I’m not sure I said anything, I think it was like Charlie Brown when the teacher goes “Wah wah wah wah” That’s what I sounded like. I threw it back to the anchors so quickly, when I was done the photographer came out from behind the camera and he goes “Sit down, sit down, sit down where you are just sit down right there” because to him I looked like I was going to pass out and crack my head on the state house steps. I nearly threw up, it was awful, and I was terrible, and I was terrible for a while, in fact I got fired, that’s another story, but I got fired from that job cause I was so bad, and it really was because I was so used to being rehearsed that it was so hard to be live, cause in T.V. three camera live is not live! You still practiced for a week and it’s on tape, nothing’s live, so for me it was my worst fear coming true, but I made the transition, I was resilient, and I made it through, and the story of how I got over that, I’ve used it, I’ve done a few speeches on it and I made a lot of money off of that. It was one of those things where it was very, very hard to get up and running and I think worse for me than it was for people who had never been on television before, and it’s hard for people to understand but I run into people who were actors of some type, even if they were the star in their high school play and they found it to be a detriment when they tried to get into news and it’s really the truth.
Daren: And now you’re very successful on camera all the time, just fantastic. You know I’ve read a lot of self help books, I’ve needed them.
Melissa: Me too.
Daren: Your book doesn’t really have that sterile, self help book feel to it, it’s has really cool motivational ideals and super entertaining at the same time. Is that what you were shooting for or is that just kind of natural to who you are?
Melissa: I think that most self help books, when you read them you want to strangle the person who wrote them and I didn’t want to be strangled.
Daren: You’ve needed to survive, you’ve gone through some pretty hard stuff, the loss of your sister, being fired, being harassed by several bosses, health issues, terrifying child birth experiences. Can I just say I’m really sorry you had to go through all that.
Melissa: Thank you.
Daren: When you talk about that pain though I notice that you’re kind of framing them as positive turning points in your life. Is it your faith that motivates you to see pain that way?
Melissa: My faith has been a great source of strength and consistency through my life, always knowing that there was someone there walking along side of you no matter how lonely you feel. In the book I give my four steps for how to turn disaster into golden opportunity, and it’s something that I have used again and again that sincerely works for me and I have shared it with other people and it has helped them. That’s one of the main reasons I wrote the book, was to share a lot of those things.
Daren: It’s inspiring, and step one would be a surprise for a lot of people, tell them what step one is.
Melissa: Step one is to wallow in a giant boiling vat of self-pity, to really sit there and wail and cry, because if you don’t mourn the loss of what ever it is, it just festers. When you cry for a while you ultimately get bored and dehydrated, and from there you’re like “Now what” You get it out of you’re system. So then I get a big tub of Ice cream after I’m done with it, and I say “What can I replace my loss with, that’s even better than what I lost” There’s something satisfyingly cocky about saying to the boss of the job that fired you “You know what, I’m gonna do better than what I just lost, I’m gonna get something better” And you don’t believe it when you say it, believe me, it feels fake but say it enough times in the mirror and you’ll feel better, like when I got fired I said to myself “ You know what, I’m gonna get a new job and it’s gonna be in a bigger market than the one I just got fired from” And I set that goal, even though it feels crazy and risky, but you gotta do that in order to visualize what’s coming next, then you say to yourself “What is the first step in that direction” Not the whole thing because that’s overwhelming, and also things change along the way, but you say to yourself “What’s the first thing I can do in that direction” Maybe you need to get some therapy. For me it was to put together a resume tape, the first thing I needed to get a new job was to have a resume and a tape. Once you do one or two steps, before you know it, you’re getting your confidence back, but it’s too over whelming to look at the whole thing. When you finally get there, the fourth step is probably the most important one, you ask “What can I do differently in my life so that this doesn’t happen again” Now, you’re strong enough, you’ve gotten to a new place, you’ve built yourself back, it’s important to look back and say “What part of that disaster was my fault” or “ What can I do to make sure it doesn’t happen again” In the case when I was fired I had to get much better at my job, but I also realized I needed an agent, cause when that woman fired me she said “You’re too young to be working here in this market” You can’t say something like that it’s against the law. She wouldn’t have said that if there was someone behind me, but she saw me as someone who was powerless and young, and she was right, I was powerless and young so I said to myself “You know what, I need some protection” And in all these situations you look back. When my sister passed away it was a devastating thing and I talk a lot about it in the book and even in my last book Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter, I realized that when I got through the whole thing and built my life back, that I didn’t really dealt with the baggage of my childhood, and the thing that I learned was that I needed some therapy to deal with that, and I wasn’t gonna have kids of my own till I addressed what was wrong with my own childhood and how I could be a different parent, I didn’t know how to be a different parent, and I had a good sense to know that there was both good and bad in the way I was raised, But I didn’t have the wisdom to sort through what was the good stuff that I should copy and what was the bad stuff I shouldn’t do. I needed some therapy to work on that, and that was my take away. So when you get to step four, figure out what you need to change next time so that you don’t hit disaster again. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back to that and it works, especially when you’re sitting in that moment when you feel you want to jump off a bridge, and once you pick yourself up off the ground, the next time life knocks you to you your knees you know you can make it because you’ve gone through it before. I know I can build my life back because I’ve done it before, even though it doesn’t feel like that in the moment I know I can do it again, and that’s the gift god gives you, when you can overcome disaster, you know you have the strength next time to pick yourself up off the ground again, and that is the gift from god.
Daren: Let me quote to you from your book “As a teenager I would pray very specifically for the strength to find peace in my life” And then you say “That seems like an odd wish for a sixteen year old, and yet those exact words were my own private prayer, joy and happiness were too big of an ask, I just wanted to sleep soundly at night to get rid of the pit of my stomach of the uncertainty that haunted me” Now how is that quest for peace going for you?
Melissa: I hesitate to say, I found it, I found it, I found it through family and faith. I have a wonderful loving husband, who is more than I dreamed possible he’s so caring and generous, and we have three beautiful children that we love with all our hearts, work and career I love them but it means nothing compared to that family. When I sit in church on Sunday, that is what I thank god for, and that is what has given me peace and joy, is the love of my family, and I have found that through God and through my family.
Daren: That is so fantastic!