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Michael 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.

In 1976 Landon wrote and directed an auto-biographical movie, The Loneliest Runner, and was nominated for two Emmys. He also hosted the annual long-running coverage of the Tournament of Roses Parade with Kelly Lange, also on NBC. In 1981, Landon won recognition for his screenwriting with a Spur Award from the Western Writers of America.

Life and career

Early life

Michael Landon was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz in Forest Hillsmarker, a neighborhood of Queensmarker, New Yorkmarker. Landon's father, Eli Maurice Orowitz, was a Jewish American actor and movie theater manager, and his mother, Peggy O'Neill, was an Irish American Catholic dancer and comedienne. Eugene was the Orowitz' second child; his sister, Evelyn, was born three years earlier. In 1941, when Orowitz was four years old, he and his family moved to Collingswood, New Jerseymarker, where he later attended Collingswood High Schoolmarker.

During his childhood, Landon was constantly worried about his mother's suicide attempts. Once the family went on a vacation on a beach, and his mother tried to jump off a cliff and drown herself, but a lifeguard was present and she was rescued. Soon after the attempt his mother acted as if nothing had happened. After a few minutes, Michael threw up. It was the worst experience of his life.

Landon also battled a childhood problem (bedwetting) that was documented in his biography,Michael Landon: His Triumph and Tragedy. His mother would put his wet sheets on display outside his window for all to see. He would run home every day and try to remove them before his classmates could see.

In high school, Landon was an excellent javelin thrower, his 193’ 4” toss in 1954 being the longest throw by a high schooler in the United States that year. This earned him an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern Californiamarker, but he subsequently tore his shoulder ligaments, ending his javelin throwing career and his participation on the USC track team.

Early career

Landon decided on his surname by choosing it from a phone book. . His first starring appearance was on the television program, Telephone Time in the episode, The Mystery of Casper Hauser as the title character. Other parts came - movie roles in I Was A Teenage Werewolf, High School Confidential, and the notorious God's Little Acre, as well as many roles on television, such as Crossroads (three episodes),Sheriff of Cochise (in "Human Bomb"),Crusader, The Rifleman, Fight For The Title, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Johnny Staccato,Wire Service, General Electric Theater,The Court of Last Resort, State Trooper (two episodes), Tales of Wells Fargo, Tombstone Territory (in theepisode "Rose of the Rio Bravo", with Kathleen Nolan), among many others.


In 1959, at the age of 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 ("Bonanza" liner notes, Bear Family CD Collection), 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 ("Forever"), 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. 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.

45 rpm record singles

In 1957, Candlelight Records released a Michael Landon single, "Gimme A Little Kiss (Will "Ya" Huh)"/ "Be Patient With Me" during the height of his notariety for role in the film, I Was A Teenage Werewolf. Some copies show the artist credited as the "Teenage Werewolf" rather than as Michael Landon. In 1962, both the A- and B-side of the record were re-released on the Fono-Graf label that included a picture sleeve of Landon's then-current work on Bonanza as Little Joe Cartwright. In 1964, RCA Victor Records released another Landon single, "Linda Is Lonesome"/"Without You". All of Landon's singles have since been issued on compact disc by Bear Family Records as part of a Bonanza various artists compilation..

Little House on the Prairie

The year after Bonanza was canceled, Landon went on to star as Charles Ingalls 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 written 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. 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. The entire cast shared a close bond with Landon, especially Gilbert.

As Little House on the Prairie executive producer, Landon hired four sets of real-life siblings to appear on the show: Melissa and Jonathan Gilbert, Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush, Matthew and Patrick Labyorteaux, and Brenda and Wendi Turnbaugh.

Landon's real-life son, Michael, appeared as Jim in the episode "The Election". His real-life daughter Leslie also played in this episode, as well as a plague victim in "The Plague", an episode from the show's premiere season. Leslie would later appear as Marge, a pregnant woman in the fourth episode of the sixth season, "The Third Miracle." She was a dishwasher who befriends Laura in the episode "A Wiser Heart", and was cast as school teacher Etta Plum during the show's final season.

Tremendously 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 show's executive producer, director and writer, A New Beginning did not feature Charles and Caroline Ingalls. A New Beginning was actually the final chapter of Little House, as the series ended in 1983. The following year, three made-for-television movies followed.

Co-star Melissa Gilbert said that her mentor Landon became a second father to her when she lost her own father 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 had no contact with Landon.

Seven years later, on May 9, 1991, when she saw a gaunt-looking Landon on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson discussing his pancreatic cancer, she was compelled to finally telephone him. She visited Landon at his Malibu home where he was, by then, bed-ridden. They spent the afternoon together. It was her opportunity to say "goodbye," After Landon's death, she named her own son, Michael Garrett Boxleitner (b. 1995), after him.

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. In Highway to Heaven, he played Jonathan Smith, a probationary angel whose job was to help people in order to earn his wings. His co-star on the show was best friend Victor French (who had previously co-starred on Landon'sLittle House on the Prairie) as ex-cop Mark Gordon. NBC didn't feel the show would last very long, but it 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. 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.

By 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. By its fifth season, Highway took a nose dive in the ratings, and in June 1989, co-star French died of lung cancer. French's death contributed to the show's subsequent cancellation. Landon invited his youngest daughter, Jennifer Landon, to take part in the final episode.

Other projects

  • After the cancellation of Highway to Heaven and before his eventual move to CBS, Landon wrote and directed the teleplay 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.

  • Up through the run of Highway to Heaven, all of Landon's television programs were broadcast on NBC. However, after the cancellation of Highway, he moved to CBS and in 1991 starred in a two hour pilot called Us. Us was meant to be another series for Landon, but with his diagnosis of on April 5 of pancreatic cancer, the show never aired beyond the pilot.

Personal life

Landon was married three times.
  • Dodie Levy-Fraser (married March 1956/Landon filed for divorce in March 1962 - divorce finalized in December 1962)
    • Mark Fraser Landon, born October 1, 1948 (adopted, Dodie's biological son), died May 11, 2009
    • Josh Fraser Landon, born February 11, 1960 (adopted as infant)

  • Lynn Noe (married January 12, 1963/divorced 1982)
    • Cheryl Lynn Landon, born November 16, 1953, was Lynn's daughter from her first marriage and was six when her mother and Landon married. Though Landon was unable to legally adopt her, he referred to her as his daughter. Cheryl Landon has a Master's degree in Education and a teaching credential. She is an author, international speaker, and a continues the work for youth. She has one son.
    • Leslie Ann Landon, born October 11, 1962. She was born while Landon was still legally married to first wife, Dodie Fraser. With a Ph.D. in psychology, Leslie Landon is a therapist, specializing in children dealing with loss. She is married and has four children.[38470]
    • Michael Landon Jr., born June 20, 1964
    • Shawna Leigh Landon, born December 4, 1971
    • Christopher Beau Landon, born February 27, 1975

In February 1959, Landon's father succumbed to a heart attack. In 1973, while a student at the University of Arizonamarker, his eldest daughter Cheryl was involved in a serious car collision just outside of Tucson, Arizonamarker. The sole survivor out of four involved in the collision, Cheryl Landon was hospitalized with serious injuries and remained in a coma for days. In March 1981, Landon's mother, Peggy O'Neill, died.

Illness and death

On April 5, 1991, Landon was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma in the pancreas, an inoperable form of cancer that had also spread into his liver and lymph nodes. On May 9, 1991, he appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to speak of his cancer 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. During Landon's appearance, he pledged to fight the cancer and asked fans to pray for him. In June 1991, Landon made the cover of Life Magazine, after granting the periodical an exclusive private interview about his life, his family, and his struggle to live. However, nearly 2 months later on July 1, 1991, Landon died in Malibu, Californiamarker. He was 54 years-old.

Landon was interred in Culver Citymarker's Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery and his family was joined by 500 other mourners including former President Ronald Reagan (with whom Michael had once chopped wood) and his wife Nancy. Also among the mourners were actors Merlin Olsen, Ernest Borgnine, Brian Keith and many more of Landon's co-stars, including Little House on the Prairie child-actors Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson.

Although Landon's first wife, Dodie Fraser, accompanied her two sons to the funeral, his second wife, Lynn Landon, was noticeably absent. When asked why she didn't attend the funeral of her ex-husband, Lynn Landon replied that she grieved Michael's death years before, when they were divorced.


A community building at Malibumarker's Bluffs Park was named "The Michael Landon Center" following the actor's death.

Cheryl Landon made a promise to her father to continue his grave concern for the future generation with positive live shows; promoting family values and to honor and protect his name. She continues the work for youth. She has been awarded: "Ambassador of Peace" from the Washington Times Foundation and United Nations.

Landon's 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. Melissa Gilbert, who played his daughter on Little House 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 courses.

Honors and awards

Michael Landon also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Famemarker at 1500 N. Vine Street and in 1998, and was inducted posthumously into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma Citymarker.


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