Michael Landon

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Michael Landon
Michael Landon-publicity.jpg
Publicity still of Landon, c. 1960s
Born Eugene Maurice Orowitz
(1936-10-31)October 31, 1936
Queens, New York, U.S.
Died July 1, 1991(1991-07-01) (aged 54)
Malibu, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Pancreatic cancer
Resting place
Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery
Alma mater University of Southern California
Occupation Actor, director, producer, writer
Years active 1956–1991
Spouse(s) Dodie Levy-Fraser (1956–1962; 2 children)
Marjorie Lynn Noe (1963–1982; 5 children)
Cindy (Clerico) Landon (1983–1991; 2 children)

Michael Landon (born Eugene Maurice Orowitz; October 31, 1936 – July 1, 1991) was an American actor, writer, director, and producer. He is known for his roles as Little Joe Cartwright in Bonanza (1959–73), Charles Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie (1974–83), and Jonathan Smith in Highway to Heaven (1984–89). Landon appeared on the cover of TV Guide 22 times, second only to Lucille Ball.[1]

Landon produced, wrote, and directed many of his series' episodes, including his shortest-lived production, Father Murphy, which starred his friend and "Little House" co-star Merlin Olsen. In 1981, Landon won recognition for his screenwriting with a Spur Award from the Western Writers of America. Although his youngest daughter Jennifer Landon and Bonanza co-star David Canary have both won multiple Emmys, Michael Landon was never nominated for an Emmy. In 1976, Landon wrote and directed an auto-biographical movie, The Loneliest Runner, which was nominated for two Emmys.

Early life[edit]

Michael Landon was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz in Forest Hills, Queens, a neighborhood of Queens, New York.[2][3] Landon's father, Eli Maurice Orowitz, was an actor and movie theater manager, and his mother, Peggy (O'Neill), was a dancer and comedian. Eugene was the Orowitz family's second child; his sister, Evelyn, was born three years earlier. His father was Jewish, and his mother was from an Irish Catholic family. In 1941, when Landon was four years old, he and his family moved to the Philadelphia suburb of Collingswood, New Jersey. He attended and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Temple Beth Sholom,[4][5] a Conservative synagogue, then located in Haddon Heights, an area that did not allow Jews until after World War II, now in Cherry Hill.[6] His family recalls that Landon "went through a lot of hassle studying for the big event, which included bicycling to a nearby town every day to learn how to read Hebrew and do the chanting."[7] He attended Collingswood High School.[2]

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 drown herself, but Michael rescued her. 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.[8]

Stress overload from the suicide attempts of his mother caused Landon to battle the childhood problem of bedwetting, that was documented in the unauthorized biography, Michael Landon: His Triumph and Tragedy. His mother put his wet sheets on display outside his window for all to see. He ran home every day and tried to remove them before his classmates could see. These events later inspired Landon to write and direct the 1976 made-for-television movie The Loneliest Runner.[9]

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.[10] 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.

Career[edit]

Early work[edit]

Landon decided on his surname by choosing it from a phone book.[2] His first starring appearance was on the television series, 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, the notorious God's Little Acre, and The Legend of Tom Dooley as well as many roles on television, such as Crossroads (three episodes), The Restless Gun (pilot episode aired on Schlitz Playhouse of Stars), Sheriff of Cochise (in "Human Bomb"), U.S. Marshal (as Don Sayers in "The Champ"), Crusader, Frontier Doctor, The Rifleman (in "End of a Young Gun"),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, The Texan (in the 1958 episode "The Hemp Tree"), The Tall Man, Tombstone Territory (in the episode "Rose of the Rio Bravo", with Kathleen Nolan), Trackdown (two 1958 episodes), and Wanted: Dead or Alive, starring Steve McQueen (in episodes "The Martin Poster", 1958, and "The Legend", 1959).

In 1958, he appeared in an episode of the ABC/Warner Bros. series Cheyenne, titled "The White Warrior". He was cast as White Hawk a.k.a. Alan Horn, a young white man who, like Cheyenne Bodie, was raised by Indians after the slaughter of his parents. White Hawk rises to the occasion to help Cheyenne as he heads a wagon train to California amid the threat of the Apaches.

45 rpm record singles[edit]

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 notoriety 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.[citation needed] 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.[11]

Bonanza[edit]

in Bonanza (1960)

In 1959, at the age of 22, Landon began 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. During Bonanza's sixth season (1964–1965), the show topped the Nielsen ratings and remained number one for three years.

Receiving more fan mail than any other cast member,[12] Landon negotiated with executive producer David Dortort and NBC to write and direct some episodes. In 1962, Landon wrote his first script. In 1968, Landon directed his first episode. In 1993, TV Guide listed Little Joe's September 1972 two-hour wedding episode ("Forever"), as one of TV's most memorable specials. Landon's script recalled Joe Cartwright's brother, Eric "Hoss" Cartwright, who was initially the story's groom, before Dan Blocker's death. During the final season, the ratings declined, and NBC canceled Bonanza in November 1972. The last episode aired on January 16, 1973.

Along with Lorne Greene and Victor Sen Yung, Landon appeared in all 14 seasons of the series. 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.

Little House on the Prairie[edit]

Landon as Charles Ingalls, 1974

The year after Bonanza was canceled, Landon went on to star as Charles Ingalls in the pilot of what became 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 nine-year-old 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' wife, Caroline. Landon served as executive producer, writer, and director of Little House. The show, a success in its first season, emphasized family values and relationships. Little House became Landon's second-longest running series.

As Little House on the Prairie executive producer, Landon hired five sets of real-life siblings to appear on the show: Melissa and Jonathan Gilbert (Laura Ingalls and Willie Oleson), Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush (Carrie Ingalls), Matthew and Patrick Labyorteaux (Albert Quinn Ingalls and Andy Garvey), Brenda and Wendi Turnbaugh (Grace Ingalls), and Jennifer and Michele Steffin (Rose Wilder).

Landon's son, Michael Landon Jr., appeared as Jim in the episode "The Election". Landon's daughter, Leslie Landon, was also in that episode. She also appeared as a plague victim in "The Plague", an episode from the show's premiere season; as Marge, a pregnant woman in the fourth episode of the sixth season, "The Third Miracle"; as a dishwasher who befriends Laura in the episode "A Wiser Heart"; and she was cast as school teacher Etta Plum during the show's final season.

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 aired.

Melissa Gilbert said of her on- and off-screen chemistry with Landon, “He was very much like a ‘second father’ to me. My own father passed away when I was 11, so, without really officially announcing it, Michael really stepped in.” Melissa also said about Michael’s smoking ritual, “He would be smoking. It was real cold there and he had these big leather gloves on, and he would put out a cigarette in his glove. And then, just (you know) flick the butt away, and I just thought that I’d never seen anything like it. That was the coolest, he was the toughest.” When not working on the Little House set, Gilbert spent most of the weekends visiting Landon's real-life family in 1976, she once said, “The house was huge. We ran like banshees through that house, and Mike would hide behind doorways and jump out and scare us.” Melissa said about Landon who took the script in a new direction, “He put frogs in his mouth, we had a script supervisor. He had this chair with these pouches on the sides and he would carry from the set to where we were shooting, from spot to spot to spot to wrap around the course of the day. And there was one day where he was sneaking up and putting rocks in his pocket of the pouches, and the chair got heavier, to move the chair over, and completely clueless, but of course, everybody else knew.”

Highway to Heaven[edit]

After producing both "Little House..." and later the Father Murphy TV series, Landon starred in another successful program. In Highway to Heaven, he played a probationary angel (who named himself Jonathan Smith) 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. On Highway, Landon served as executive producer, writer, and director. 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 season four, Highway took a nose dive in the ratings, and in June 1988, NBC announced that the series would return for an abbreviated fifth season, which would be its last. The final episodes were filmed in the fall of 1988, and aired from May to August 1989. Co-star French would not live to see Highway's series finale make it to air; he died of advanced lung cancer on June 15, 1989, the disease which was only diagnosed two months before. Landon invited his youngest daughter, Jennifer Landon, to take part in the final episode.

Other projects[edit]

Landon at the 42nd Emmy Awards Governor's Ball, September 1990

In 1973, Landon was an episode director and writer for the short-lived NBC romantic anthology series Love Story. In 1982, he co-produced an NBC "true story" television movie, Love is Forever,[13] starring himself and Laura Gemser (who was credited as Moira Chen), about 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 Everingham was cast as an extra in the film.

Sam's Son was a 1984 coming-of-age feature film written and directed by Landon and loosely based on his early life. The film stars Timothy Patrick Murphy, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, Hallie Todd, and James Karen. Karen previously worked for Landon in the made-for-television film Little House: The Last Farewell.

After the cancellation of Highway to Heaven and before his 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. 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 on April 5 of pancreatic cancer, the show never aired beyond the pilot.

Landon also appeared as a celebrity panelist on Match Game 73 on CBS.

Personal life[edit]

Landon was married three times, and father to nine children.

  • Dodie Levy-Fraser (married March 1956; Landon filed for divorce in March 1962 – divorce finalized in December 1962)
    • Mark Fraser Landon, born 1948 (adopted; Dodie's biological son), died May 11, 2009[14] – did some small acting, including role in the Landon TV movie Us
    • Josh Fraser Landon, born 1960 (adopted as infant)
  • Marjorie Lynn Noe (married January 12, 1963 – divorced 1982) had several small uncredited roles, including one in Bonanza
    • Cheryl Lynn Landon / Cheryl Ann Pontrelli, born 1953, was Lynn's daughter from her first marriage and was nine when her mother and Landon married. Though Landon was unable to legally adopt her, he referred to her as his daughter. She has a Master's degree in Education and a teaching credential. She has one son.
    • Leslie Ann Landon, born 1962, With a Ph.D. in psychology, Leslie Landon is a therapist, specializing in children who have experienced loss. She is married and has four children.[15]
    • Michael Landon, Jr., born 1964
    • Shawna Leigh Landon, born 1971, appeared on Little House Years television movie and one episode of Little House on the Prairie
    • Christopher Beau Landon, born 1975, a producer, writer and director

In February 1959, Landon's father succumbed to a heart attack. In 1973, while a student at the University of Arizona, his eldest daughter Cheryl was involved in a serious car collision just outside of Tucson, Arizona. 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, died.

Landon was by his own admission a chain smoker and a heavy drinker.[16]

Illness and death[edit]

Landon began to suffer from severe abdominal pain in February 1991.[17] On April 5, 1991, pancreatic cancer was diagnosed; it had metastasized into his liver and lymph nodes. The cancer was inoperable and the doctors' prognosis was terminal. On May 9, 1991, he appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to speak about the cancer and to 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 his appearance, Landon pledged to fight the cancer and asked fans to pray for him. On May 21, 1991, Landon underwent successful surgery for an almost fatal blood clot in his left leg.[18] In June 1991, Landon appeared on the cover of Life Magazine, after granting the periodical an exclusive private interview about his life, his family, and his struggle to live. On July 1, 1991, at age 54, Landon died in Malibu, California.[2][3] His remains were interred at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery, in Culver City, California.

Legacy[edit]

Landon's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

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

Landon's son, Michael Jr., produced a memorial special, Michael Landon: Memories with Laughter and Love, featuring the actor's family, 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". Often cited on the special was Landon's bizarre sense of humor, which included having toads leap from his mouth and dressing as a superhero to visit a pizza parlor.

In his final 1991 Tonight Show appearance, Johnny Carson related how the actor took him back to a restaurant the two had dined at previously. Carson had been led to believe he accidentally ran over the owner's cat in the parking lot during their first visit. When sitting down to eat the second time, Carson discovered that Landon had helped create a fake menu of dinner items featuring dead cat.

A made-for-TV movie, Michael Landon, the Father I Knew, co-written and directed by his son Michael, Jr., aired on CBS in May 1999. John Schneider starred in the title role as Michael Landon, with Cheryl Ladd as Lynn Noe, and Joel Berti as Michael Landon, Jr. The biopic detailed, from Landon, Jr's point of view, the personal emotional trauma he endured during his parents divorce, and his father's premature death. The movie spanned a timeline from the 1960s through the early 1990s.

A plaque and small playground referred to as the "Little Treehouse on the Prairie" was erected in Knights Park, a central park in Landon's hometown of Collingswood. In 2011, the plaque was removed from the park by the borough and was later given to a local newspaper by an unnamed person. According to the Collingswood, NJ website, the plaque was removed during a fall cleanup with plans to return it to a safer location. The plaque was reinstated next to a bench in a safer location the following summer.[19][20]

Awards and honors[edit]

Year Award / Organization Category / Honor Work Result Ref.
1969 Bambi Award TV Series International Bonanza
(shared with Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, Pernell Roberts)
Won
1970 Bronze Wrangler Award Fictional Television Drama Bonanza episode: "The Wish"
(shared with director, producer and cast)
Won
1979 Golden Globe Award Best TV Actor – Drama Little House on the Prairie Nominated
1980 Spur Award Best TV Script Little House on the Prairie episode:
"May We Make Them Proud"
Won [21]
1984 Hollywood Walk of Fame Television Star at 1500 N. Vine Street Inducted
1984 Golden Boot Award Significant Contribution to the Western Genre Honored
1991 Youth in Film Award Michael Landon Award Outstanding Contribution to Youth Through Entertainment Honored [22]
1995 Television Hall of Fame Significant Contribution to the Field of Television Honored [23]
1998 National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum Western Performers Hall of Fame Inducted
2004 TV Land Award Most Memorable Mane Little House on the Prairie Nominated
2005 TV Guide 50 Sexiest Stars of All Time Ranked #33 [24]

References[edit]

  1. ^ TV Guide, "Michael Landon's Final Days" (July 20, 1991, p. 3)
  2. ^ a b c d Weil, Martin (July 2, 1991). "TV Actor Michael Landon Dies; Star of 'Bonanza,' 'Little House'". Washington Post. p. B04. 
  3. ^ a b Flint, Peter B. (July 2, 1991). "Michael Landon, 54, Little Joe On 'Bonanza' for 14 Years, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-02-11. 
  4. ^ Rabbi Albert L. Lewis, his Hebrew School teacher and rabbi, would later be memorialized as the central character in Mitch Albom's non fiction work, Have a Little Faith.Albom, Mitch, Have a Little Faith, Hyperion Books, 2009. Albom, as well as Steven Spielberg, also attended Hebrew School at this synagogue, and celebrated their Bar Mitzvah ceremonies there.
  5. ^ Bloom, Nate (2011-11-22). "Interfaith Celebrities: Albom's Latest, a Star-Studded Muppet Mo". InterfaithFamily.com. Retrieved 2012-08-02. 
  6. ^ McBride, Joseph (1997). Steven Spielberg: A Biography. Simon and Schuster. p. 53. 
  7. ^ Landon Wilson, Cheryl (1992). I Promised My Dad: An Intimate Portrait of Michael Landon by His Eldest Daughter. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 28. 
  8. ^ His Early Days Were Fun, Philadelphia Daily News, July 2, 1991. "In a 1985 interview, Landon claimed he ate lunch alone at Collingswood High School, that he never had a date as a teen-ager because no Christian father in the town would allow his daughter to go out with a Jew."
  9. ^ secragt (20 December 1976). "The Loneliest Runner (TV Movie 1976)". IMDb. Retrieved 3 November 2014. 
  10. ^ Track and Field News (December 1953)
  11. ^ "Bonanza single CD on Bear Family Records". Bear-family.de. Retrieved 2012-10-07. 
  12. ^ "Bonanza" liner notes, Bear Family CD Collection
  13. ^ Love Is Forever at the Internet Movie Database
  14. ^ "Report on death of Mark Landon". Latimesblogs.latimes.com. 2009-05-11. Retrieved 2012-10-07. 
  15. ^ "Leslie Landon". IMDb. Retrieved 3 November 2014. 
  16. ^ "Goodbye, Little Joe". People.com. Retrieved 3 November 2014. 
  17. ^ "Michael Landon, American Actor, Bonanza - When Westerns Ruled". Trivia.ellenthorp.com. Retrieved 3 November 2014. 
  18. ^ "Bonanza Cast Biographies: Michael Landon". Ponderosascenery.homestead.com. Retrieved 2012-08-02. 
  19. ^ Kevin Riordan (2012-01-04). "Kevin Riordan: Landon plaque sidelined; accounts vary". Philly.com. Retrieved 2012-08-02. 
  20. ^ "Michael Landon plaque and commemorative playground pickets reinstalled at Knight Park | Collingswood, New Jersey". Collingswood.com. Retrieved 2013-02-03. 
  21. ^ [1][dead link]
  22. ^ "13th Annual Youth In Film Awards". YoungArtistAwards.org. Retrieved 3 March 2013. 
  23. ^ "Television Hall of Fame Honorees: Complete List". 
  24. ^ TV Guide Book of Lists. Running Press. 2007. p. 202. ISBN 0-7624-3007-9. 

External links[edit]