Landon (October 31, 1936 - July 1, 1991) was an American actor,
writer, director, and producer, who starred in three popular NBC
TV series that spanned three decades. He is widely known for his
roles as Little Joe Cartwright in Bonanza (1959-1973), Charles Ingalls
in Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983), and Jonathan Smith in
Highway To Heaven (1984-1989). Although his Bonanza co-star David
Canary and youngest daughter Jennifer Landon have both won Emmys,
Landon was never given the honor. Nonetheless, few prime time actors
have been so prolific. With twenty eight years of full-hour episodic
acting, he surpasses the TV mileage of both James Arness and Lucille
Ball. Landon produced, wrote, and directed many of his series' episodes,
including his only short-lived production, Father Murphy, which
starred his friend and "Little House" co-star Merlin Olsen.
He also hosted the annual long-running coverage of the "Tournament
of Roses Parade" with Kelly Lange, also on NBC.
Landon was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz in Forest Hills, a neighborhood
of Queens, New York. Landon's father, Eli Maurice Orowitz, was a
Jewish American actor and movie theater manager, and his mother,
Kathleen Ignatius O’Neill, was an Irish American Roman Catholic
dancer and comedienne. Eugene was the Orowitz' second child; his
sister, Evelyn, was born three years earlier. In 1941, when Orowitz
was 4 years old, he and his family moved to Collingswood, New Jersey,
where he later attended Collingswood High School.
at home was anything but pleasant for young Landon. His parents
would often speak to each other through him, saying such things
as "Tell your father that dinner is ready." and "Tell
your mother that I'll be there in a minute."
addition to his parents’ refusal to speak to one another, Landon
bore a terrible secret; he was a bed wetter. His mother would hang
his soiled bedsheets in an effort to humiliate her son. Landon would
later draw on this experience for the made-for-television movie
The Loneliest Runner.
also had to bear the burden of living with his mother's constant
suicidal tendencies. He would often find his mother sticking her
head in the oven. He once tried to prevent his mother from drowning
herself in the ocean during one of the family's rare vacations.
He pulled at her and hit her as hard as he could to convince her
to come back. He finally knocked her down and dragged her back to
the beach. Forty-five minutes after this suicide attempt, Landon's
mother and sister were playing on the beach as if nothing had happened.
Landon later threw up.
After changing his name to Landon (selected from a phone book) he
soon became one of the more popular and enduring young actors of
the late 1950s, making his first appearance in The Mystery of Casper
Hauser. This part led to other roles such as: I Was A Teenage Werewolf,
Crossroads, The Rifleman, Fight For The Title, The Adventures of
Jim Bowie, Wire Service, Telephone Time, General Electric Theater,
The Court of Last Resort, The Tales of Wells Fargo, Johnny Risk,
and The Legend of Tom Dooley, among many others.
In 1959, at age 22, Landon had his first starring TV role as Little
Joe Cartwright on Bonanza, one of the first TV series to be broadcast
in color. Also starring on the show were Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts,
and Dan Blocker. Landon's character was the green, cocky youngest
Cartwright brother. The character evolved into a "ladies' man".
During Bonanza's sixth season (1964-1965), the show topped the Nielsen
Ratings and remained number one for three years. Landon, a southpaw,
often performed his own stunts. Receiving more fan mail than any
other cast member, the young actor successfully coaxed the powers-that-be
to allow him to write and direct some episodes. It was a smart move,
as he spent the next twenty plus years as one of television's most
successful talents. In 1962, he wrote his first script. In 1968,
he directed his first episode. In 1993, TV Guide listed Little Joe's
September 1972 wedding episode, as one of TV's most memorable specials.
Landon's script fondly recalled brother Hoss, who was initially
the story's groom, before Dan Blocker's untimely death. During its
final season, Bonanza declined in the ratings and NBC cancelled
it in October 1972. Its last episode aired on January 16, 1973.
Along with Lorne Greene, Landon appeared in all 14 seasons of the
western. Michael Landon was loyal to many of his Bonanza associates
including producer Kent McCray, director William F. Claxton, and
composer David Rose, who remained with him throughout Bonanza as
well as Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven.
1962 Landon released a Bonanza related single, Gimme A Little Kiss/Be
Patient With Me, on Columbia Records.
Little House on the Prairie
The year after Bonanza was canceled, Landon went on to star in the
pilot of what would become another successful television series,
Little House on the Prairie, again for NBC. The show was taken from
a 1935 book that was published by Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose character
in the show was played by then-unknown actress, Melissa Gilbert.
In addition to Gilbert, two other unknown actresses also starred
on the show: Melissa Sue Anderson who appeared as Mary Ingalls,
the oldest daughter in the Ingalls family, and Karen Grassle, as
Charles's wife, Caroline Ingalls. Landon served as executive producer,
writer, and director of Little House, making him a driving force
in Hollywood. The show, a success in its first season, emphasized
family values and relationships. Little House became Landon's second-longest
running series. Above all, the entire cast shared a close bond with
Landon, especially Gilbert.
Little House on the Prairie executive producer, Landon hired three
sets of real-life siblings to appear on the show: Melissa and Jonathan
Gilbert; Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush; and Matthew and Patrick Laborteaux.
Patrick appeared on Little House from 1977 to 1981 as Jonathan Garvey's
son, Andy. Years later, he appeared as Bud Roberts in the hit series
JAG, which ran for 10 years.
real-life son, Michael, appeared as Jim in the episode The Election
and his real-life daughter, Leslie, also appeared in that episode
as well as playing a plague victim in The Plague, an episode from
the show's premiere season. Leslie would later appear as a dishwasher
who befriends Laura in the season eight episode A Wiser Heart, and
was cast as school teacher Etta Plum during the show's final season.
popular with viewers, the show was nominated for several Emmy and
Golden Globe awards. After eight seasons, Little House was retooled
by NBC in 1982 as Little House: A New Beginning, which focused on
the Wilder family and the Walnut Grove community. Though Landon
remained the shows executive producer, director and writer, A New
Beginning did not feature Charles and Caroline Ingalls. The New
Beginning was actually the final chapter of Little House, as the
series ended the show's run in 1983. The following year, three made-for-television
movies followed, which served as the unofficial tenth season of
said that her mentor Landon became a second father to her when she
lost her own dad at age 11. When not working on the Little House
set, Gilbert spent many weekends at Landon's home. In 1981, when
Gilbert was 17, she briefly dated Michael Landon Jr., who took her
to her prom. After the series ended, Gilbert stayed connected with
Michael Sr. for the next 8 years, until his death. After Landon's
passing, she named her son, Michael Garrett Boxleitner (1995), after
teamed up with Oscar-winner Paul Newman, and First Lady Nancy Reagan,
for a drug abuse foundation called, Just Say No.
Highway to Heaven
After producing both the Father Murphy TV series and a movie, Sam's
Son, Landon went on to star in another successful television series.
On Highway to Heaven, he played Jonathan Smith, a probationary angel
whose job was to help people in order to earn his angel wings. His
co-star on the show was Victor French (who previously co-starred
on Landon's Little House on the Prairie) as ex-cop, Mark Gordon.
NBC didn't feel the show would last very long, but it too proved
to be another hit for Landon. This was also the first religious
fantasy drama series, starting a specialized sub genre which included
later shows such as Touched By An Angel. On Highway, Landon served
as executive producer, writer and director of the show. Though Landon
liked directing and writing more than acting, he continued to act
because actors were paid more, and his top-billing enticed network
executives to buy his series.. Highway to Heaven
was the only show throughout his long career in television that
he owned outright.
1985, prior to hiring his son Michael Landon Jr. as a member of
his camera crew, he also brought real-life cancer patients and disabled
people to the set. His decision to work with disabled people led
him to hire a couple of adults with disabilities to write episodes
for Highway to Heaven.
its fifth season, Highway took a nose dive in the ratings, and in
June 1989, co-star Victor French died of lung cancer. French's death
contributed to the shows subsequent cancellation. Landon invited
his youngest daughter Jennifer Landon to take part in the final
Landon was married three times.
Levy-Fraser (married in March 1956. Landon filed for divorce in
March 1962 and the divorce became final in December 1962)
Mark Fraser Landon, born October 1, 1948 (adopted)
Josh Fraser Landon, born February 11, 1960 (adopted)
Marjorie Lynn Noe (married on January 12, 1963/divorced 1982)
Leslie Ann Landon, born October 11, 1962 (Has a Ph.D. in psychology,
and is now a therapist, specializing in children dealing with loss.
She is married, and has four children, Rachel Lynn (b. 25 October
1993), Justin Michael (b. 31 May 1995), Catherine (b. 2000), and
Joseph (b. 2 February 2002).
Michael Landon Jr., born June 20, 1964
Shawna Leigh Landon, born December 4, 1971
Christopher Beau Landon, born February 27, 1975
(Landon at one point attempted to adopt Lynn's daughter, Cheryl
Ann Pontrelli, from her first marriage, but the child's birth father
wouldn't allow it.)
Clerico (married on February 14, 1983)
Jennifer Rachel Landon, born August 29, 1983. (Jennifer is now an
Emmy-winning actress starring as Gwen Norbeck Munson on the soap
opera, As the World Turns.)
Sean Matthew Landon, born August 5, 1986
His second marriage, to Marjorie Lynn Noe, ended in a bitter and
public divorce in 1982. Landon had left Noe in 1980 when he met
and became involved with Cindy Clerico. The final divorce decree
did not address the division of assets, and so
there was a separate battle over the division of the couple's community
property that took two years to settle and ended up costing Landon
more than US$26 million in 1982. She helped form
a vocal Hollywood ex-wives association that included the former
wives of Andy Griffith, Ken Berry, Don Knotts and Robert Goulet,
entitled LADIES (Life After Divorce Is Eventually Sane). Defending
himself in interviews, Landon replied, "Nobody's perfect. Not
Charles Ingalls. Not Michael Landon.". Many
fans felt betrayed by Landon, who had always played morally upstanding
characters on television. Kodak Film suddenly dropped him as their
official spokesperson without fanfare.
February 1959, Landon's father died of a heart attack. In 1973,
his stepdaughter, Cheryl was involved in a serious car accident.
She was hospitalized in a coma. Three years later in 1976, Cheryl
suffered bouts of depression and became addicted to painkillers.
In March 1981, Landon's mother, Peggy O'Neill, died.
the 1983, Landon co-produced an NBC "true story" television
movie, Love Is Forever, starring himself and Laura Gemser, which
tells of Australian photojournalist John Everingham's successful
attempt to scuba dive under the Mekong to rescue his lover from
communist ruled Laos in 1977.
the cancellation of Highway to Heaven and before his eventual move
to CBS Landon wrote the teleplay and directed Where Pigeons Go to
Die. Based on a novel of the same name, the film starred Art Carney
and was nominated for two Emmy awards.
shows were all on NBC, but after ending Highway, he moved to CBS
and in 1991 starred in a two hour pilot called Us. This was meant
to be another series for Landon, but on April 5, he was diagnosed
with pancreatic cancer. Landon's heavy cigarette smoking—four packs
a day—contributed to this cancer. On April 8, 1991,
he appeared at a press conference to speak of his illness promising
to do the best that he could to fight the cancer.
May 9, 1991, he appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
to speak of his illness and to publicly condemn the tabloid press
for their sensational headlines and inaccurate stories, including
the claim that he and his wife were trying to have another child.
In June 1991, Landon made the cover of Life Magazine, after giving
the magazine an exclusive rare private interview in May about his
life, his family, and his struggle to live. Less than 2 months later,
on July 1, 1991, Landon died in Malibu, California, at the age of
building at Malibu's Bluffs Park was named The Michael Landon Center
following the actor's death.
was interred in the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City,
California. Cindy and Michael's family were joined by 500 other
mourners including former President Ronald Reagan (with whom Michael
had once chopped wood) and his wife Nancy. Merlin Olsen, Ernest
Borgnine, Brian Keith and many of Michael's co-stars, such as Melissa
Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson, were present. Although Michael's
first wife, Dodie, accompanied her two sons to the funeral, his
second wife, Lynn, was absent. When asked why she didn't attend
the funeral of the man she'd once shared nearly twenty years together,
she would reply that she grieved Michael's death years before, when
they were divorced.
his death, Landon was again on the covers of weekly tabloids when
his stepdaughter, Cheryl, alleged that he had made some last-minute
changes to his will that gave a larger portion of his estate to
his wife, Cindy, and their two children. Michael Landon has a star
on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1500 N. Vine Street. In 1998, he
was inducted posthumously into the Western Performers Hall of Fame
at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma
Landon had a lot of hobbies over the years: fishing, karate, spending
family time, painting, creating, building mosaic coffee tables,
playing bridge, golfing, swimming, weightlifting, cooking, playing
tennis, water skiing and hang gliding. According to the A&E
Biography, he also spent a lot of time with disabled children and
adults. On an episode of Highway, Landon's character took them to
the Special Olympics, including a special needs man, who felt he
couldn't do anything, when he can fix things to make them right.
Following Landon's death, his son, Michael Jr., produced a memorial
special, Michael Landon: Memories with Laughter and Love, featuring
the actor's friends and co-stars. Bonanza co-star David Canary said
that one word that described Landon was "fearless" in
his dealings with network brass. TV daughter Melissa Gilbert said
that the actor made her feel "incredibly safe" and that
he was "paternal." One of Landon's trademarks was his
signature "cascading chuckle," as the actor loved practical
jokes. Often cited was his bizarre sense of humor, which included
having toads leap from his mouth and dressing as a superhero to
visit a pizza parlor. Replaying a 1988 "Tonight Show"
episode, Johnny Carson related how the actor took him to a restaurant
after Carson accidentally ran over a cat. Landon had a fake menu
made that had variations of the word cat woven into many of the