As a child actress in the 1980s, Melissa Francis performed in more than 100 commercials and TV shows, including Little House on the Prairie. She left Hollywood for Harvard, where she studied economics, but eventually found herself in front of a camera again as a financial reporter and news anchor. Francis recently jumped from CNBC to Fox Business Network, where she'll have her own daily program starting later this spring, giving viewers a regular venue to catch her feisty interviewing style.
"She has a playful yet inquisitive edge to her that makes her different than the die-cast cable anchors," says Piers Morgan Tonight executive producer Jonathan Wald, who worked with Francis at CNBC. Francis has a memoir about her career coming out later this year and offered us a preview of her backstage tales.
TV Guide Magazine: You're the rare 1980s child actor who doesn't have a police mug shot. How did you avoid the problems that have beset so many others?
Francis: My parents always kept me in school. Other kid actors were homeschooled or went to professional school. It was never acceptable for me to get less than an A, even if I was out working.
TV Guide Magazine: You were a late addition to the Ingalls family on Little House on the Prairie.
Francis: [The producers] invented this story line where my parents perished — their horses were spooked and their wagon went down a hill. Jason Bateman and I watched and wept. It was beyond ridiculous. We were adopted to kind of freshen up the kids on the show.
TV Guide Magazine: What was it like to work with a TV legend like Michael Landon?
Francis: He was all business. But he was also very playful. We'd be on the set and he would go to deliver a line and he opened his mouth and a frog popped out. Just a nasty frog that he picked up off the ground in Simi Valley. He would put it in his mouth, have it fly out at us so that we would just scream.
TV Guide Magazine: Any fond memories of acting with Robin Williams on Mork & Mindy?
Francis: He was incredibly unpredictable. Every take we did he would do totally different from the last. I thought it was so entertaining, but you could see it wearing a little thin on the crew. He insisted they give me Mr. One Eye, the teddy bear I held through my scene. My son still has it, although it looks like it's going to fall apart any second.
TV Guide Magazine: It's been said you're the inspiration for Avery Jessup, Jack Donaghy's wife on 30 Rock. True?
Francis: Robert Carlock, an executive producer of 30 Rock, was at Harvard the same time I was. I kept pitching him the idea of "What if Jack fell in love with a conservative CNBC host who shares his politics?" I did nag them for a long time to put me on as a character. Coincidence? I don't know.