Michael Landon wore many hats: actor, writer, director, producer. But the most important one to him was that of father.
As an actor, Landon (1936-1991) was Little Joe Cartwright on “Bonanza,” young family patriarch Charles Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie,” and the probationary angel Jonathan Smith on “Highway to Heaven.”
In real life, he was the father to nine children. In 1972, 17-year-old Cheryl was in an auto accident that put her in a coma with little chance to survive. Landon, who wasn’t her biological father but made no distinction, was at her bedside for several days. Already a major television star who was showing emerging writing and directing depth, he made a vow, as quoted in “Michael Landon: The Career And Artistry of a Television Genius,” by David Greenland.
“I promised God that if he would let her live, I would do something useful with my life … something to make the world a little better,” Landon said. “Cheryl lived, and I’ve tried to keep that promise ever since.”
Landon was one of the biggest and most beloved stars ever on television, and for some 30 consecutive years. He also produced the TV series “Little House” and “Highway to Heaven,” 330 episodes combined, plus various values-oriented TV movies.
Count actor and director Orson Welles as a fan, who said in 1984: “At a time when the most cherished staples of TV entertainment are crime and car crashes … I devoutly hope that … there’s still a place on the tube for Michael’s kind of programming, with its emphasis on real human values. … We need Michael’s weekly injection of goodness and decency.”
“I want people to laugh and cry, not just sit and stare at the TV,” Landon said. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think viewers are hungry for shows in which people are saying something meaningful.”
Landon’s character of Charles Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie” was ranked No. 4 in TV Guide’s list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time” in a June 2004 issue. Landon graced the publication’s cover 22 times, second only to Lucille Ball.
His 1991 illness and death from cancer dominated entertainment news. Former President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan, longtime friends, attended his funeral. It was reported that Landon, who made some $40 million from “Little House,” left an estate of some $100 million.
He’d played heroes on television, and in real life he faced his illness with courage and humor, as his memorable last appearance on “The Tonight Show” with his friend Johnny Carson displayed.
In 1995, Landon was posthumously inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.
Wife Cindy Landon told IBD: “Michael was honest, lots of integrity, and he just had a great work ethic. It was important to him to bring good messages to people. He was totally about family. What you saw on the shows, like ‘Little House’ — pretty much you’re looking at Michael.”
Dennis Korn, Landon’s longtime business manager said, “Michael was one of the nicest men I have ever met. He’s the most trustworthy and loyal person you’ve ever met. He was one of the hardest workers you can imagine.”
Greenland said Landon “championed strong family ties with simple, straightforward storytelling.” Both in his shows and in his life, “Landon was a champion of mutual respect among people. He had a soft spot for children and animals, senior citizens and the less fortunate. He was simply a good human being and unaffected by the trappings of stardom. He never went Hollywood, and (he) supported a number of worthy causes.”
The Tough Road
Landon was born Eugene Orowitz, in Forest Hills, N.Y., and raised in Collingswood, N.J. He became Michael Landon by selecting the name from a telephone book when he embarked on an acting career.
Growing up was no “Little House,” as Michael was the subject of his mother’s physical, verbal and psychological abuse. She also had conflicts with his father Eli.
“What Michael really wanted to do was let people know what a proper family life should be like,” Korn said. “Every one of his shows was that way. Michael was successful because he was a great family man, and he wrote about family issues.”
When his father, whom he adored, quit his theater manager job and started a mail-order business that was failing, 9-year-old Michael, the future producer, took the initiative and cut a deal.
He took a bus to Camden, telling his father’s former boss — as quoted in “Conversations With Michael Landon,” by Tom Ito — “My dad isn’t going to … ask for the job back. But if you would offer him the job, if you would tell him how much you miss him, you would get a great worker back … just don’t tell him I said anything to you.” The plan worked.
Young Michael escaped his unhappy home life through comic book heroes and movie theaters. After he saw 1949’s “Samson and Delilah,” he identified with the long-haired Jewish warrior, as Landon was Jewish on his father’s side. Michael “summoned personal strength and a measure of self-confidence born of athletic achievement … that kindled within him the passionate assertiveness to succeed.”
“I believe we can all make our own miracles,” Landon said. “I spent my whole childhood dreaming. It was my escape.”
In high school, Landon, at 125 pounds, became a record-setting javelin thrower — a weapon mentioned in the Bible — to win an athletic scholarship to USC. But he didn’t enjoy what he perceived as a hostile college environment. Added to that, he injured his throwing arm and so dropped out.
A job unloading freight cars led him to meet a co-worker who was an actor and who needed a partner to do a scene at a Warner Bros. movie tryout. But it was Landon, with his striking good looks, who landed the part.
A Real Bonanza
That led to Warner Bros.’ acting school and a string of TV credits culminating in his being cast as the lead in the 1957 cult movie “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” In 1959, he won the role of youngest brother Little Joe Cartwright in the television series “Bonanza.”
Landon shot to stardom on the epic long-running show, but rather than coast on his fame, he soon became intensely interested in writing and directing.
“Mike was a real workaholic,” “Bonanza” producer David Dortort told David Greenland. “He almost never left the studio. He wanted to be part of every part of the filmmaking process.”
Landon wound up with 21 writing credits and 14 directing ones on “Bonanza.” After the hit show’s run concluded in 1973, Landon began looking for a project that he could produce as well as star in, knowing that was where the real money was. When producer Ed Friendly brought him the script for “Little House on the Prairie,” based on the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Landon recognized, with the help of one of his daughters and his then-wife Lynn, that he’d found his project.
During the series’ 1974-1983 run, Landon accumulated 48 more writing credits and directed 90 episodes. The family-oriented show has been a presence on television since its run ended.
After “Little House,” NBC executives were skeptical about Landon’s next producing project, a show in which he’d play an Angel sent to earth to help people. “I play down the religious side of the show,” Landon said, “The God I believe in is not so (concerned) about what you believe in — he’d be more concerned with the sort of human being you are.” It ran for 111 episodes, 94 of which he directed and 22 of which he wrote.
Cindy Landon said “Michael never considered himself to be anything more important than anyone else on his set. His set was like a family. People adored him, and he adored them.” She added that, as much as possible, he tried to have cast and crew go home early enough to have dinner with their families.
Landon made provisions for his longtime crew members to sit in the first two rows at his funeral service, Korn says.
“I’d like to be remembered as someone who was a good guy to work for,” Landon said to Ito, before his illness. “That I was fair with people, and I never put anybody down. It made no difference what their job was.”
He also told Ito: “I have a tremendous closeness with all my children. … I think that’s the only legacy people need: the knowledge that when you’re ready to leave this place, you’ve left behind a bunch of young people who are actually going to be good for this planet. … The world’s gonna be better because they’re around. That makes you feel good.”
Prolific television star. Star and producer of “Little House On The Prairie” and “Highway To Heaven.” Played Little Joe Cartwright on “Bonanza.” Inducted into Television Hall of Fame, 1995.
Overcame: The trend of television in the 1970s and ’80s to favor action shows.
Lesson: Follow your heart and vision.
“It’s no good to have dreams if you don’t bust a little bit to accomplish them.”
So Said Landon
“I think it’s very presumptuous for anyone to think that they should be remembered by anybody else except their family.”
“I think an awful lot of people destroy their lives by spending their lives with expectations instead of just living within the moment and enjoying the dream.”
“For me it’s the relationships with the people I work with. The knowledge that we’ll all cross that river together. I don’t give a damn how tough the water is. … That we’ll love and care about each other.”
“I feel obligated in many ways to try to do good things with my work because it’s my one means of reaching people.”
“Nobody’s perfect. Not Charles Ingalls. Not Michael Landon.”
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