Melissa Gilbert is back in Hallmark Channel’s “The Christmas Pageant”

It’s been a few years since Melissa Gilbert has appeared in a project for TV, but she returned to TV this month in the Hallmark Channel original movie The Christmas Pageant, which airs tomorrow, Dec. 21, at 10pm, as well as numerous times throughout the week, and on Christmas Day. The film tells the story of a difficult, driven Broadway theater director whose temperament costs her job after job until her only offer is a small upstate town’s Christmas pageant — for which her former fiancé recommended her.

For Gilbert, it was a comforting welcome home of sorts, as by her own admission, things haven’t been so easy lately. “I had been out on tour with the Little House on the Prairie musical, which was an amazing experience,” she says. “But I also got horribly injured. I broke my back and had major surgery, and had to go through rehab. … That was followed several months later by my separation from Bruce [Boxleitner] and our pending divorce, and that’s been really hard.”

The Christmas Pageant came along at just the right moment. “The doctors had given me the green light to work and I just wasn’t emotionally ready,” she recalls. “I woke up a couple of days after my birthday … and I thought, ‘OK. I think I can work now. I think I can do this.’ And I got an offer to do this movie right after. I read the script and it was just — it sounds kind of corny and cliché, but it was exactly what the doctor ordered. It’s sweet. It’s funny. To come back to television after being gone for a few years working on the musical with a Hallmark Christmas movie. So poetic when you consider the trajectory that my career has taken, and to come back doing something that I really enjoyed. I had a blast shooting this. The director, Dave Cass, I’ve known since I was a little girl — he worked on Little House.”

Gilbert maintains a quietly optimistic disposition, in spite of the difficulty of the last year, and she’s doing so by keeping busy — very busy, in fact. Not only is she putting herself out there in the acting arena once again with The Christmas Pageant, but she’s putting the pen to the page in service of a number of projects. “I’m working on two books,” she says. “One of them is a book with Abrams. It’s a coffee-table scrapbook of behind-the-scenes photos and anecdotes from Little House on the Prairie — from the television series. The photographs are all ours, from behind the scenes. That is coming out, I believe, next fall. Then I also have a children’s book at Simon & Schuster that I don’t have a publishing date for yet, that I wrote, that we are just closing a deal on.

“And I’m working on my first novel — an adult crime-fiction novel,” she suddenly remembers, laughing. “Who knew? I’m writing.”

The holidays are likely to be tough this year for Gilbert and her family, but Gilbert has something special lined up for herself after New Year’s. “I’m taking myself on my first trip alone in January, to Paris, for a week,” she says. “As one of my friends said to me, ‘You’re still doing this thing where you still burst into tears once in a while and curl up on the floor.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know. It could happen there. But I’ll be crying on the floor in Paris!’

“I rented an apartment, so I’m not staying in a hotel,” she continues. “I have to cook for myself and I have to go to the supermarche, and find my way about. It’s a major adventure I have ahead of me. It’s my miniature, teeny version of what could have been my year of Eat, Pray, Love.”

And beyond that, Gilbert’s future is wide open. “Our house is on the market, and I’m really looking forward to it selling so that I don’t feel tied to a property,” she says. “The youngest boy is graduating from high school in two and a half years — so who knows what the future will bring? I’m riding it out and looking forward to whatever’s around the corner.”

The Christmas Pageant repeats:

Dec. 21 at 10pm ET/PT

Dec. 22 at 8am ET/PT

Dec. 25 at 4pm ET/PT


Photo: Hallmark Channel