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
Although his Bonanza co-star David Canary and youngest daughter Jennifer Michael have both won Emmys, Michael 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. Michael 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. In 1981, Michael won recognition for his screenwriting with a Spur Award from the Western Writers of America.
Michael 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, Peggy 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 four years old, he and his family moved to Collingswood, New Jersey, where he later attended Collingswood High School.
During his childhood, Michael 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.
Michael 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 remove them before his classmates could see.
In high school, Michael 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 California, but he subsequently tore his shoulder ligaments, ending his javelin throwing career and his participation on the USC track team.
He changed his name to Michael by choosing it 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, Sheriff of Cochise (in episode "Human Bomb"), Crusader, The Rifleman, Fight For The Title, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Johnny Staccato, Wire Service, Telephone Time, General Electric Theater, The Court of Last Resort, State Trooper (two episodes), Tales of Wells Fargo, Tombstone Territory (in episode "Rose of the Rio Bravo" with fellow guest star Kathleen Nolan), Johnny Risk, and The Legend of Tom Dooley, among many others.
In 1959, at the age of 22, Michael 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 ("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, Michael 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.
In 1962, Michael released a Bonanza-related single, "Gimme A Little Kiss/Be Patient With Me", on Columbia Records.
The year after Bonanza was canceled, Michael 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. Michael 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, Michael 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 Lea Turnbaugh and Wendi Lou Turnbaugh.
Landon's real-life son, Michael, appeared as Jim in the episode "The Election". His real-life daughter Leslie played 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 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 Michael 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.
In 1983, Michael 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 real John Everingham was an extra.
Gilbert said that her mentor Michael 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 stayed connected with Michael Sr. for the next eight years, until his death. After Landon's passing, she named her son, Michael Garrett Boxleitner (1995), after him.
After producing both the Father Murphy TV series and a movie, Sam's Son, Michael 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 Victor French (who had 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 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, Michael served as executive producer, writer, and director. Though Michael 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. Michael invited his youngest daughter, Jennifer Landon, to take part in the final episode.
After the cancellation of Highway to Heaven and before his eventual move to CBS, Michael 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.
Landon's 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.
This Michael Landon Biography Page is Copyright © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub