TV's Family Man
Michael Landon, best known for his roles on Little House on the Prairie and Bonanza, created and starred in programs that portrayed family values with authenticity and humor.
By Marci A. Landsmann
Michael Landon holds actress Lindsay Greenbush, part of his TV family on Little House on the Prairie. Standing are co-stars Karen Grassle and Melissa Gilbert. | Photo © Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images
From his first appearance at age 22 on the new Western Bonanza in the fall of 1959, Michael Landon was a constant presence on television for more than three decades, appearing in long-running series like Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. Landon won over the hearts of many viewers by playing salt-of-the-earth, steadfast characters like his most celebrated role, Charles Ingalls on Little House. Landon was more than an actor, however. Later in his career, he was a writer, producer and director on programs wholesome enough for the entire family to watch together.
“If you look at television now, there is nothing like what he loved to do and what he created,” says Susan McCray, a longtime friend who was casting director for many of Landon’s productions. “More often than not, I hear people say, ‘I wish I could sit down with my family and watch a show that makes me feel good and makes me laugh.’ ”
Landon’s career and life took an unexpected turn in April 1991 when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Shortly after the diagnosis, he invited reporters to his 10-acre ranch in Malibu, California, to break the news. He was upbeat and cracked jokes throughout.
“I think you have to have a sense of humor about everything,” Landon told reporters at the April 8 press conference when he went public with his illness. “I don’t find this particularly funny, but if you’re going to try to go on, if you’re going to try to beat something, you’re not going to do it standing in the corner.”
Landon was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz on Oct. 31, 1936, in the borough of Queens in New York City. His father, Eli Maurice Orowitz, was a publicist and radio announcer; his mother, Peggy O’Neill, was a Broadway showgirl. His parents were frequently at odds.
“He told the story about how his mom would never speak to his father and vice versa,” says McCray. “Mike used to tell me he had a place that he would go to, and he would act out certain things. He’d pretend or he’d think of stories or ways to escape.”
When he was 4 years old, the family moved to Collingswood, New Jersey, near Philadelphia. As one of the few Jewish children in the neighborhood, young Orowitz was often on the receiving end of anti-Semitic comments by peers. In addition, he lived in constant fear of what his mother, who frequently threatened to kill herself, would do next. Landon used his experiences with his mother as the basis for a 1976 made-for-television drama he wrote and directed, called The Loneliest Runner
. The movie tells the story of a bed-wetter who becomes a track athlete and competes in the Olympics. Landon himself was a bed-wetter until his early teen years; his mother hung urine-stained sheets out the window in an effort to embarrass him and make him stop.
In his freshman year of high school, Landon discovered he had a talent for javelin throwing. He worked hard at perfecting his skill and earned a track and field scholarship to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Unlike the character in The Loneliest Runner, Landon’s real-life dreams to compete in the Olympics were dashed by an elbow injury. He dropped out of college at the end of his freshman year, remained in Los Angeles and took jobs selling blankets door to door, working at a ribbon factory and loading freight cars.
One day, Landon was helping a friend go over lines for an audition. The scene called for a young soldier to cry, but his friend had trouble sobbing on command. Landon’s tears came easily.
“It was the first time I had ever tried anything like that,” he said. “And I suddenly realized that it was a great release for me. I could cry when I was someone else and get a lot of things out of my system that I couldn’t get out on my own.”
An Actor Comes of Age
Landon enrolled in an acting school at the Warner Brothers studio and picked the screen name Michael Landon from a phone book. His big break came when he landed the lead role in the 1957 horror film I Was a Teenage Werewolf
. His portrayal of Tom Dooley in the Western The Legend of Tom Dooley
in 1959 caught the eye of writer and producer David Dortort, who recruited Landon to co-star in Bonanza
. The show featured the Cartwrights—a father and his three sons who lived and worked on the Ponderosa ranch. Landon played the youngest son, Little Joe. Bonanza
ran for 14 seasons through 1973 and had consistently high ratings.
In 1974, Landon moved on to star in Little House on the Prairie, another Western, this one with a family focus. He played Charles Ingalls, called “Pa” by the Ingalls children, as a hardworking and honest family man and farmer in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Landon wrote, directed and produced many of the episodes of the series, which was inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s popular Little House books. The series aired for nine seasons, ending in 1983.
After Little House ended, Landon created his own television series, Highway to Heaven, which aired from 1984 to 1989. He played Jonathan Smith, an angel on probation who traveled the country doing good deeds. By this time, Landon had started his own company, Michael Landon Productions.