(b. 31 October 1936 in Forest Hills, New York; d. 1 July 1991 in Malibu, California), film and television actor, writer, producer, and director, best known for his roles on the television series Bonanza (1959-1973) and Little House on the Prairie (1973-1983).
Born Eugene Maurice Orowitz, Landon was the son of Eli Orowitz, a movie publicist and theater manager, and Peggy O’Neill, a Broadway actress. His parents doted on his sister while Peggy, mentally unstable, continually harassed her son. He later referred to her as “a stabber, a kicker and a wacko.” His mother abused him and threatened suicide several times. On one occasion Landon rescued her from drowning despite his inability to swim. He often escaped to a nearby cave, where he hoarded canned goods while fantasizing about the adventures of his favorite comic-book characters. Years later, in 1976, Landon produced a television
movie, The Loneliest Runner, a candid look back at childhood anxieties.
The family moved to Collingswood, New Jersey, when Landon was four years old. As an elementary school student, shy, polite Landon (nicknamed “Ugey”) excelled at school and pleased his teachers but had few friends. Deciding to become popular, he reversed his behavior by becoming streetwise and boisterous: picking fights, failing classes, and performing dangerous stunts. At Collingswood High School, Landon discovered the javelin. Although small in stature he could throw farther than his peers, and his coach, Maurey Dickinson, recognized his prowess. That summer Landon diligently practiced with a borrowed javelin. After viewing the movie Samson and Delilah, he adopted “long tresses” in the belief that it increased his power to throw the javelin. He went on to win regional and state championships, including the longest throw recorded that year in national high school competition. Named an All-American, he was offered several college scholarships and elected to attend the University of Southern California (USC) because of its renowned track team. Landon’s high school graduation, however, was deferred by detentions. Before he could receive his diploma, the principal demanded that he sit outside the school to atone for his 200 outstanding detentions. Even though the school year had officially ended in June, Landon sat outside during school hours for thirty days before he was granted his diploma.
After one stint in a high school drama production, Landon confidently enrolled in the drama department at USC. He thought that if he could win an Olympic medal throwing the javelin, the publicity would make him a star like Buster Crabbe. Unfortunately, early in the track season, teammates attacked him and cut his hair. Stripped of his confidence, he threw the javelin shorter distances and tore his shoulder ligaments, ending his dream of Olympic glory. Disillusioned, he dropped out of college after only one semester. He embarked on a series of odd jobs: loading freight cars, babysitting, and making ribbons. One day an actor acquaintance asked Landon to be his partner in an audition at Warner Brothers. He complied by crying profusely at the audition, recalling childhood memories. He began attending studio acting classes, where he met such future stars as James Garner, Steve McQueen, and Sal Mineo.
In 1955 Landon became engaged to Dodie Fraser, who had a seven-year-old son. Although apprehensive, he and Fraser were married in 1956 in Mexico. About this time, he chose a stage name at random, calling himself Michael Lane. Since there was a duplicate name in the Screen Actors Guild listings, he assumed the name Michael Landon. His early appearances were on live television productions of Playhouse 90 and Studio One. The film IWas a Teenage Werewolf (1957) was his first commercial success. The producer David Dortort, impressed by Landon’s film work, cast him as “Little Joe” on Bonanza (1959-1973), a turning point in his career. However, as the ratings soared, his marriage to Dodie soured. In 1960 the two were divorced.
Landon and Marjorie Lynn Noe were married on 12 January 1961. He adopted Noe’s daughter and the couple had four children together. Landon sought professional power and control by writing and directing some Bonanza episodes, enabling the family to move to a palatial Beverly Hills, California, mansion. When his teenage stepdaughter was involved in a life-threatening auto accident in 1973, Landon was devastated. He confided, “I promised God that if He would let her live, I would do something useful with my life, something to make the world a little better because I’d been there.” She survived her injuries, and Landon subsequently produced two wholesome series “before sincerity got clobbered on television by terminal irony.”
In December 1981, Landon and his second wife were divorced. He was often linked with other women, and he arrived in Thailand to film the television movie Love Is Forever (1983) with his then partner, Cindy Clerico. The two married in 1983; they had two children.
Landon starred in, wrote, and directed two successful series, Little House on the Prairie (1973-1983) and Highway to Heaven (1984-1989). The ambitious actor also supervised Father Murphy, a frontier television drama (1981-1984). He played Charles Ingalls, a Minnesota farmer, on Little House, and Jonathan Smith, a probationary angel who personified compelling humanism on Highway to Heaven. He also wrote and directed a film for television, Where Pigeons Go to Die (1991), which was nominated for two Emmy Awards. Although the effort did not win either award, Landon tenaciously proceeded with a new pilot, Us, which CBS aired on 20 September 1991, after Landon’s death. With Landon as the middle figure in the three-generational drama, he personified the prodigal son, always seeking parental approval.
Neither his fictional characters nor Landon himself were faultless. Michael Leahy wrote in a March 1985 TV Guide article: “The moralist who talked incessantly about the need for ’apos;strong family values’was the temperamental artist on his third marriage to a woman twenty years younger.” However, the real and imaginary men strove for a kind of perfection, both in themselves and in the world they inhabited. His characters contended with drought, poverty, pride, disease, and despair but acknowledged the triumph of faith. Landon brought laughter, tears, reason, and realization to his vehicles. Behind the scenes the actor often hired disabled actors and espoused several charitable causes, especially those devoted to children. He was an avid fundraiser for Down’s Syndrome Parents of Los Angeles and hosted a celebrity gala for the charity every year. He was also active in Free Arts for Abused Children, an organization that introduced creative arts to child abuse victims. In addition to writing parts in his scripts for the blind, crippled, and hearing impaired, he hired many disabled actors for his shows and also contributed to cancer research efforts.
Landon died of pancreatic cancer at his Malibu home and was buried in Hillcrest Memorial Gardens in Los Angeles. Five hundred mourners attended the funeral including former president Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Melissa Gilbert, Brian Keith, and Landon’s first wife, Dodie. Friends recalled Landon as a complex, diversified individualist, stubborn and sensitive, kind but rough, innovative yet traditional. Landon believed his heartening television projects could make a difference, and they did: through his television work he became a fighter and father figure to generations of Americans. Tom Ito wrote that Landon, although ahead of his time, had ’the creative courage and ability and talent to put together beautiful pieces of entertainment ... all wrapped around the nucleus of human understanding: the longing that everybody had for having their own dreams come true, for having a good life, for having a world in which people cared about each other.’ A direct quote from Landon was: “Remember me with smiles and laughter, for this is how I will remember you all. If you can only remember me with tears, then don’t remember me at all.”
Landon’s life has been recorded in several biographies, including Harry Flynn and Pamela Flynn, Michael Landon: Life, Love and Laughter (1991); Aileen Joyce, Michael Landon: His Triumph and Tragedy (1991); Cheryl Landon Wilson with Jane Scovell, I Promised My Dad: An Intimate Portrait of Michael Landon by His Eldest Daughter (1992); Tom Ito, Conversations with Michael Landon (1992); and Jill C. Wheeler, A Tribute to the Young at Heart Michael Landon (1992). An extensive article about Landon by Ken Tucker is in Entertainment Weekly (11 July 1997). An obituary is in the New York Times (2 July 1991).