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From "Little House" to Big "Earthquake" - Melissa Anderson Rocks

By Shelly Lyons


No, she doesn't mind that those of us who grew up watching "Little House on the Prairie" fawn over her, as if she were still little blond-haired, blue-eyed Mary, in her fresh calico dress, studying before the fireplace in Ma & Pa Ingall's cabin.

"Thank you," Melissa Anderson (formerly Melissa Sue Anderson) says modestly and with a hint of an "I've heard it soooo many times before" in her voice, after I tell her how much the show meant to me as a child, still means to me as a grown-up, and how the coolest era of the family series was her early Blind Years.

Our interview takes place while her kids, Piper, 7 and Griffin, 2 are at school or napping. We talk over the phone. I can hear the busy mom in her Southern California home running water - perhaps doing dishes? - while she's interviewed about her role in the Fox Family original movie, "Earthquake in New York."

The movie, which premieres October 11 on the Fox Family Channel, starts with the Northridge, Calif. quake and a family tragedy for Detective John Rykker (Greg Evigan - "B.J. and the Bear") and his wife Laura (Cynthia Gibb - "Fame"). The couple and their kids move to New York City. Soon enough, an 8.2 earthquake and hard-core aftershocks rock Manhattan. Rykker, who , along with his partner Eric (Gotz Otto) search the devastated subway tunnels for Laura and their six-year-old daughter. Meanwhile, a ruthless serial killer stalks the crime-fighting duo.

Our first glimpse of Anderson is in the New York seismology office (who knew?). She plays Dr. Marilyn Blake, a "feisty seismologist," who knows an earthquake is on the way, but cannot warn the populace. After the quake hits, Dr. Blake takes to the subway to replace some sensors. Nothing stops her, not even a NYPD Lieutenant played by Michael Moriarty ("Law & Order"). Soon she teams with the two detectives for an underground expedition.

Anderson agrees that the Fox Family press materials have aptly described her character. "She's a real go-get'em, feisty seismologist, no-nonsense kind of person," says Anderson, who adds that she watched the movie the night before the interview and was happy with it. "It actually comes across like I know what I'm doing," laughs Anderson, a surprisingly funny and wry lady.

But don't look for another role any time soon for the wife and mother, who claims to "work just every now and then for friends." I am dismayed as she relates that "I basically retired" (in 1990).

Her work in "Earthquake USA" was for a friend indeed: husband Michael Sloan's business associate, the other executive producer of the film, Lance H. Robbins.

Retired means that since 1990, Anderson's done a play in Toronto for six weeks and an episode of the Aaron Spelling show "Burke's Law."

"I'm really too busy with my kids. I couldn't work full-time I don't think, unless it was something in-town (Los Angeles), like a sitcom, which I would be more than happy to do," says Anderson. "Except that people don't actually know that I'm funny from my other work."

Could she referring to the 1981 film "Happy Birthday To Me," wherein Anderson portrayed Virginia Waynewright, a new member to the popular clique in high school who suffers blackouts and her friends die, one by one, in very imaginative ways?

Or is she alluding to her role in "Midnight Offerings," the 1981 TV movie in which she played a high school girl who practices black magic and does battle with the new girl in school, a good witch, played by Mary McDonough ("The Waltons"). Anderson, in fact, said that a string of bad luck accompanied that role. "All kinds of bad things happened to me when I did that, I was hit-and-run by a huge truck, then my car was stolen, I was followed . . . I was having the worst luck ever. So I thought, 'ecch, it must be somebody telling me I shouldn't' be playing these parts,'" she laughs.

Of course in her signature role (so far) of the brainy Mary Ingalls, she didn't get the comic lines - those seemed reserved for Laura. What Mary did get was dumped by a city boy, chased by wild dogs, blinded by Scarlet Fever, and almost burned in the fire at the Blind School. Whew.

The crystal blue eyes gazed sightlessly across the prairie - a mighty task for such a young actress to play.

"I went to the Foundation for the Junior Blind and worked with a teacher there so I could learn how to walk with a cane and pour a glass of water and sit in a chair - because if you've just lost your sight you don't really know how," says Anderson. "It sounds silly but you need to know things like that." She continues, "You shuffle if you're not confident, but once you gain confidence you can use a cane. When you first go blind and you want to sit down, you sit on your hands, you find the chair, you make sure the seat is there and you sit."

No such training for her turn as "feisty" Marilyn Blake. She infuses the role with the same wry determinism with which she conducts interviews. Very no nonsense. I make one last stab at convincing Anderson that she return to the TV world. "They (my kids) should be the stars instead of their parent," Anderson replies.

"Earthquake in New York" premieres Sunday, October 11 at 8 p.m. on Fox Family Channel