Melissa Gilbert’s Dad Was in Vaudeville!

Wow! Wow. Just wow.

I generally peg my posts to birthdays and other significant dates. I had nothing new in the hopper planned for today (having already done posts on Marlene Dietrich, Oscar Levant, Sydney Greenstreet, Cliff “Charley Weaver” Arquette, Mary Kornman, Robert Greig, Eddie Boland, John Amos, and even Al Mardo and His Do-Nothing Dog) but I thought I’d surf the net a little anyway, and boy did I strike pay dirt. It turns out that today is the birthday of Paul Gilbert (1918-1976), the adoptive father of Melissa Gilbert and Jonathan Gilbert of Little House on the Prairie (I’m sure you know that Melissa played the main character Laura Ingalls; it’s less well known that her adoptive brother Jonathan played Willie Oleson). And Paul Gilbert was himself in show business, which is undoubtedly how the kids got into the biz.

Gilbert (pere) was born into a family of vaudeville acrobats. His given name, believe it or not, was Ed MacMahon! No doubt he changed so as not to be confused with the portly announcer by that name. Amusingly the name Paul Gilbert is nowadays most associated with a rock guitarist. If you want to set yourself apart, choose a weird name! At any rate, an injury caused Gilbert to drop out of the aerial troupe and pursue acting.

One of Gilbert’s very first screen credits was in an appearance on a 1955 TV special called Show Biz: From Vaud to Video co-hosted by Groucho Marx and Art Linkletter. Interestingly I don’t see Joe Laurie Jr’s name anywhere in the credits for this show, although it bears the exact same title as the 1951 book, he co-wrote with Abel Green. 1954 was Gilbert’s breakthrough year in show business. He starred in a TV series called The Duke, in which he plays an ex-boxer who starts up a nightclub (very much reminiscent of Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom). He demonstrated all of his vaudeville skills on the show: sang, danced, juggled, and played four different musical instruments. That same year he appeared in his first movie, So This is Paris, fifth-billed behind Tony Curtis, Gloria de Haven, Gene Nelson and Corinne Calvet, and directed by Richard Quine. Not too shabby. This was followed by appearances in the films The Second Greatest Sex (1955) with Jeanne Crain, and You Can’t Run Away From It (1956), a remake of It Happened One Night, directed by Dick Powell and featuring June Allyson, Jack Lemmon, Charles Bickford, Jim Backus, Stubby Kaye, Jack Albertson, and Howard McNear. Gilbert was fourth billed in this prestigious company. Around this time he also did a lot of variety television: The Colgate Comedy Hour, Ed Sullivan, George Jessel, Spike Jones etc. In 1961 he starred in an unsold sitcom pilot called Shore Leave for NBC. The following year, he married Barbara Crane, daughter of legendary comedy write Harry Crane.

In 1964, Gilbert appeared in the film 3 Nuts in Search of a Bolt with Tommy Noonan and Mamie Van Doren, and was also on the The Dick Van Dyke Show, Perry Mason, The Hollywood Palace, and The Mike Douglas Show. It was a good year for him — a probable explanation for the timing of his and his wife’s adoption of the infant Melissa that year. He went on to appear in the films Sylvia (1965), Cat Ballou (1965), and Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1967), and to make guest appearances on Gomer Pyle USMC, Good Morning World, The Joey Bishop Show, The Dean Martin Show (which his father-in-law wrote for) and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, where he had a recurring bit as a French juggler.

Gilbert’s last screen credit was in 1973. By then the torch was already passed. Melissa had several screen credits under her belt by then; Little House launched in 1974. Sadly, Paul was only around to enjoy his daughter’s success for a couple of years. He died of a stroke in early 1976. In her 2009 memoir Prairie Tale, Melissa theorized that it may have been a suicide, perhaps motivated by pain from injuries he had sustained during World War Two Service. Either way, a sad ending to a productive life. He was 57. (Sara Gilbert, Melissa’s equally famous half-sister by adoption, took the Gilbert surname for professional reasons; her given surname is Abeles).

To learn more about vaudeville, where Paul Gilbert got his start, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,