Michael Landon Biography

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Michael Landon Biography

Post by weavereb » Wed Apr 02, 2008 5:55 pm

Image 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 (the star was not on-camera for most of "Little House On The Prairie's" final season), 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.

Early life
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.

Life 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."

In 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.

Michael 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.

Early career
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.

In 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.

As 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 Labyorteaux. 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.

Landon's 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.

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 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 Little House.

Gilbert 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 him.

Landon 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.

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 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 episode.

Personal life

Landon was married three times.

* Dodie 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)
* Jason Samuel (Landon) Smith, born May 13, 1961 (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.)

* Cindy 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.

In 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.

In 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.

After the cancellation of Highway to Heaven and before his eventual move to CBS Landon wrote the teleplay and directed Where Pidgeons go to Die (TV movie). 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 adenocarcinoma, an inoperable pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver and lymph nodes. 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. On 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. Less than 2 months later, on July 1, 1991, Landon died in Malibu, California, at the age of 54.

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

He 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.

After 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 City.

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 courses.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The biography listed above was found at:
Biography by weavereb

Click here to go to Mike's Little House. A forum dedicated to Mike Landon's work outside of Bonanza!


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