The former child actors grew up in the Hollywood spotlight
The eldest sibling, Melissa, was born on May 8, 1964, and adopted by Barbara Cowan (née Crane) and Paul Gilbert. Jonathan was born two years later and adopted by Barbara and Paul. The two later divorced, and Barbara welcomed Sara with her second husband, Harold Abeles, in January 1975. Sara was credited as Sara Abeles in her first TV role but took the Gilbert name shortly after.
All three siblings began acting at a young age, with Melissa rising to fame as Laura Ingalls Wilder in the beloved TV series Little House on the Prairie. Jonathan also appeared in the show as Willie Oleson. At 13 years old, Sara landed the role of Darlene Conner on Roseanne.
While Jonathan stopped acting at age 18, Melissa and Sara's Hollywood careers continued into adulthood. Sara continues to play Darlene on The Conners and has appeared in The Big Bang Theory and the film Poison Ivy. She also co-created The Talk, where she served as co-host for nine seasons.
Melissa had held roles in a number of TV movies, guest starred on shows like Touched by an Angel and Nip/Tuck and competed on Dancing with the Stars. From 2001 to 2005, she acted as president of the Screen Actors Guild.
Here's everything to know about Melissa, Jonathan and Sara Gilbert’s sibling relationship, including their beginnings as child actors and the times they’ve shared the screen.
They come from a show business family
There is a long history of entertainers in the Gilbert family, so it’s no surprise that Melissa, Jonathan and Sara went into acting.
Their maternal grandfather, Harry Crane, was a comic and screenwriter who created the classic sitcom The Honeymooners, starring Jackie Gleason. Both their mother, Barbara, and Melissa and Jonathan's father, Paul, were actors, too.
Jonathan and Melissa both starred in Little House on the Prairie
Melissa made her TV debut at 2 years old when she appeared in commercials for baby clothes but didn’t return to acting until the age of 7. After two years of commercial work, including national spots for major brands, she was cast as Laura Ingalls Wilder on Little House on the Prairie in 1973, a role she played for 10 years.
Jonathan was also cast in Little House on the Prairie. In his first acting role, he played Willie Oleson, the brother of Laura’s rival and Walnut Grove bully, Nelly Olesen. Jonathan appeared in all seasons of the hit show and two TV movies — Little House: Look Back to Yesterday and Little House: The Last Farewell.
Melissa and Jonathan appeared in 1979’s The Miracle Worker
While Melissa and Jonathan were starring in Little House on the Prairie, they both appeared in the 1979 TV film The Miracle Worker alongside Patty Duke. Melissa portrayed Helen Keller, the same role that Duke won an Oscar for in 1963, while Duke played Annie Sullivan, Helen’s tutor. Jonathan played Jimmy, Annie Sullivan’s younger brother.
The film won an Emmy for outstanding drama or comedy special in 1980. Melissa was nominated for outstanding lead actress in a limited series or a special, but the award went to her costar, Duke.
Sara pursued acting because of her older siblings
Melissa and Jonathan’s TV careers inspired younger sister Sara to become an actor. She made her debut in the TV film Calamity Jane in 1984. Following Melissa getting her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1985 — the youngest person to do so — Sara pursued acting as a career.
In an interview with Deadline, Sara shared that the gifts that Melissa and Jonathan received around the holidays from the Little House on the Prairie crew made her want to join the family business. “I was really jealous, so I wanted in on that,” Sara said about all the presents.
“I also just had this overwhelming sense that I was supposed to be an actor; like, I just knew it,” she added.
Melissa supported Sara when she left The Talk
After helping create The Talk and serving as an executive producer and co-host on the show for nine years, Sara announced that she was leaving the series in 2019 to focus on her family as well as her acting and producing career.
“I obviously love it here and like I said, this was extremely difficult,” Sara said during the Emmy-winning daytime talk show's April 9, 2019, episode. “Last season, I did The Conners, as you know, and was also producing, and here, and I loved it and felt totally empowered, but also if I’m being honest about it, I think my life was slightly out of balance and I wasn’t able to spend as much time with my three kids as I’d like, and time for myself.”
Following Sara’s announcement, Melissa supported her sister on X (formerly Twitter).
“I love my baby sister @THEsaragilbert so much. I am so incredibly proud of her. She created an incredible show in @TheTalkCBS. I know that this, for her, may feel like an ending but I also know, with all my heart, that this is really the beginning. Just watch!” Melissa tweeted.
Sara’s final episode of The Talk on Aug. 2, 2019, included tributes from her co-hosts and a moving performance by her daughter, Sawyer Jane. Accompanied by Sara’s then-wife, singer-songwriter and producer Linda Perry, Sawyer sang an original song called “Mama” as Sara watched from the audience.
Jonathan left Hollywood at age 18
At the age of 18, Jonathan walked away from his acting career. Melissa reflected on her brother’s move away from Hollywood and his family in her 2009 autobiography, Prairie Tale: A Memoir. “My brother, Jonathan, completely cut himself off from the family,” Melissa wrote. “He turned 18 and simply disappeared. Though he would turn up a couple of times over several years, I have only seen him three times in the last two decades. Surprisingly, I am at peace with it.”
In April 2023, however, Melissa wished her brother a happy birthday on Instagram. “Yesterday was my baby brother’s birthday! Love him so much! Happy to say he remains one of the funniest people I know. Love you Brocephus," she wrote alongside throwback photos of the siblings, including a few from Little House on the Prairie and one of them swimming with their little sister, Sara.
Melissa has embraced country living
Decades after her brother, Melissa has also moved away from Hollywood. In 2013, she bought a home in Michigan with her husband, Thirtysomething star Timothy Busfield. While living in Michigan, Melissa ran for Congress in 2016 but withdrew due to health issues.
In 2018, Melissa and Busfield purchased a mountainside cabin in the Catskills as a vacation home, but they’ve since made it their permanent residence. "This is what I've always wanted," she told PEOPLE in 2022 of farm life.
Melissa also started a lifestyle brand called Modern Prairie, which offers clothing and home goods made by women-owned or women-run businesses. "The retail industry has underestimated women our age — and our ability and desire to spend,” she told PEOPLE of her business. "There was very little space for aging women. We were either marginalized as a spaced-out old lady or as a cranky old woman you want to avoid. There's clearly so much more to us than that."
She added, “Aging is not a disease. It’s time we celebrate it. I think it’s so amazing that I get to grow old.”
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