Michael Landon was one of those stars who became popular for a number of reasons but mostly from his roles on Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven. Landon wore many hats, so to speak, in his career. He was an actor, producer, writer, and director who donned the cover of TV Guide all of 22 times (the only one to outdo him was Lucille Ball).
Landon easily stood out with his good looks and luscious hair. But underneath the cheerful and good-humored personality, Landon had more than one skeleton in his closet. It may be over three decades since the thrice-married father of nine children died in 1991 at the age of 54, but it’s never too late to take a glimpse (or deep dive) into the unfortunate life and death of one of America’s most memorable stars.
Sure, many celebrities end up changing their names to suit Hollywood, but Landon’s birth name was far from his “christened” actor name. He was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz on Halloween of 1936 in Queens, New York, to Jewish and Catholic parents. When he was four, the family moved to Collingswood, New Jersey.
His father, a movie publicist, and his mother, an actress, constantly fought with each other. His mother, Peggy, was suicidal, and one attempt, in particular, stood out in Landon’s memory. The family was at a beach house, and after an argument, his mother left and headed toward the sea.
As Landon looked outside the window, he realized she was going deeper and deeper into the water. He ran after her and pulled her back to safety, which was extraordinary, considering he didn’t even know how to swim at that point. Shortly after that, his mother acted as if nothing had happened. But Landon considered it to be the worst experience of his life.
Landon’s daughter Cheryl wrote a book about her father, which argued that his childhood experiences gave him real clarity. He decided early on that he would never follow in his parents’ footsteps when he reached adulthood. He swore to live differently.
During his childhood, Landon was relentlessly (and understandably) worried about his mother’s attempts on her life. The stress caused Landon to regularly wet his bed – something he only admitted later. He also described the humiliation of having his mother put his wet sheets on display outside his bedroom window for everyone to see.
He would have to run home every day to remove the sheets before his classmates would see. In her book, Cheryl described how exhausting life was for the entire family. “She [Landon’s mother] bullied everyone, including her husband.” Landon suffered a lot during his school years as he was also bullied by his classmates for being half-Jewish. The result of all the pressure was a thin and angry child.
Landon spent a lot of time by himself, retreating more and more into his solitary world. He often fantasized about building an identity for himself, far from his current reality. One aspect of Landon’s life that distracted him – in a good way – was his athleticism. His low grades didn’t stop him from excelling.
Landon, who went to Collingswood High School, was an excellent javelin thrower. His 193 ft. 4 in. toss in1954 was the longest throw by a high schooler in the US that year. It earned him an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California. However, his days as a college athlete were short-lived because he tore his shoulder ligaments.
With his dream of a career in sports now crushed, and his hopes of competing in the Olympics now in the past, Landon considered show-business as his next move. He was determined to try, and had always been fascinated by, acting. Still, he had to make a living, and so once he dropped out of the college, he started working odd jobs.
At one point, he worked as a babysitter and even worked in a soup factory as well as a ribbon factory. According to Cheryl’s account, while Landon was working at the ribbon factory, one of his colleagues asked him to help him out with an audition at Warner Bros.
Landon was happy to help his friend out, and, along the way, found himself enjoying the acting process. Seeing that he still needed to make ends meet, though, he decided to take a job at a nearby gas station which happened to be located near the Warner Bros. studios. Landon hoped that being near the studio might create opportunities in terms of networking.
And he was right. He was discovered at the gas station, while pumping gas. He was noticed by Bob Raison, a local agent, who spotted Landon and motivated him to sign up for acting classes. He signed up for acting school while continuing to support himself through random gigs.
Following Raison’s advice, Landon changed his name. And so, Euegene Orowitz became Michael Landon – a name he literally picked out from the phone book. The rest, as they say, is history. He was about to begin a whole new career… and life.
Landon broke into the acting scene in the mid-1950s. But his success wasn’t an overnight process as it was for many celebrities. For Landon, though, it was hard work. He worked hard to get parts, auditioning as much as he could and taking on the smallest of roles until he finally got his first real break in 1957 in a horror film called I Was a Teenage Werewolf.
His role in I Was a Teenage Werewolf helped him get noticed… big time. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Landon went all-out in his role as a troubled teenager who had a hard time coping as things escalated around him – a life similar to his own. Cheryl recounted how her father didn’t have high expectations at first.
“With a title like that, Dad didn’t expect much, but it was a starring role, and he was getting paid,” she wrote. The film, however, eventually came to be a cult classic. After that film, things started to look up for Landon. He earned several roles in movies like High School Confidential, The Legend of Tom Dooley, and God’s Little Acre.
After his horror movie breakthrough, the movie ran as a double feature with Invasion of the Saucer Men in 1957. The movie led to Landon recording a single called Gimme a Little Kiss (Will “Ya” Huh) released by Candlelight Records. In some places, the single was credited simply to Teenage Werewolf rather than Michael Landon.
In 1962, both A- and B-sides of the record were re-released and included a picture sleeve of Landon as Little Joe Cartwright (which his then-current role on Bonanza). In 1964, RCA Victor Records released another single of his called Linda Is Lonesome/Without You. Eventually, all of Landon’s singles were issued on a CD by Bear Family Records as part of a Bonanza music compilation.
Things took off for Michael Landon in 1959, when he was offered the role of Little Joe Cartwright in Bonanza. He was 22 when he started playing the character he would go on to play for the next 14 years. He grew to become the beloved, ideal son on Bonanza, which was the first TV Western to be broadcast in color and was also, unexpectedly, a huge hit.
The show really took off once NBC started showcasing it to audiences on the weekends. By 1964, it was a part of the American family household schedule. Without a doubt, Bonanza made Landon a household name and a force to be reckoned with. It paved the way for his promising acting career and helped him find his identity in the entertainment industry.
Landon received more fan mail than any other cast member on Bonanza. Realizing his importance on the show, Landon reportedly negotiated with executive producer David Dortort and NBC to write and direct some of his own episodes. In 1962, he wrote his first script, and, in 1968, he directed his first episode.
TV Guide listed Little Joe’s 1972 two-hour wedding episode (titled Forever) as one of television’s most memorable specials. During the final season, the show’s ratings declined, and Bonanza was canceled in 1972. Along with Lorne Greene and Victor Sen Yung, Landon was in all 14 seasons. But the end of Bonanza didn’t mean the end of his career. He still had more television stardom to acquire…
In 1959, while Landon was busy working on his career and making a name for himself, he experienced a major setback. His father Eli grew accustomed to a routine that he religiously followed. According to Cheryl, her grandfather would grab lunch next to a theater he was managing and buy the soup of the day every time he dropped by.
One day, however, while he was eating his soup, he suddenly had a major heart attack. His unexpected passing really shook Landon, who mourned his loss for a long time. Cheryl noted that Landon started to believe that he would ultimately suffer a similar fate — that he would also go early due to a heart attack.
Landon tried to grieve and make sense of the loss of his father in his own way. “Typical of Dad,” Cheryl mentioned, “he took this upsetting conviction and changed it into a kind of comedy routine in which he’d suddenly grab his chest, call out ‘Adiós!’ and drop to the ground.” (In the end, everyone copes in his or her own way).
As a successful actor, Landon was able to take care of the funeral costs, and he ensured that he would look after his mother’s and sister’s financial needs throughout his life. Nonetheless, losing his father left him shaken, and he had a difficult time once he got back on set (he was filming The Legend of Tom Dooley). Landon’s mother, Peggy, passed away in 1981.
A year after Bonanza was canceled, Landon became the star of NBC’s Little House on the Prairie as Charles Ingalls. The show, based on a 1935 book by Laura Ingalls Wilder, also starred then-nine-year-old actress Melissa Gilbert. Landon did more than just act in the show; he was the executive producer, writer, and director of the show that turned out to be Landon’s second-longest running series.
After eight seasons, the show was remade in 1982 as Little House: A New Beginning, which focused on the TV family. Although Landon remained the executive producer, director and writer, the show didn’t feature Charles and Caroline Ingalls, and thus he was no longer on screen. His time on the show also created a deep bond between Landon and Gilbert…
“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 Gilbert said of her on- and off-screen relationship with Landon. When not on the Little House set, Gilbert spent many weekends visiting Landon’s real-life family.
They would even go on vacation together every Easter holiday to Hawaii. Landon’s own son, Mike Jr., was her prom date. Gilbert said that Landon would give her advice, telling her that nothing is more important than home and family; “no success, no career, no achievements, no accomplishments, nothing’s more important than loving the people you love and contributing to a community.”
Unfortunately, the father-daughter-type bond they developed went sour, and the two had a falling out. Their relationship suffered a setback when it was revealed that Landon was having an affair with Cindy Clerico, the show’s makeup artist. Gilbert, who looked up to him, was heartbroken.
In her book, Cheryl wrote that Gilbert was just as surprised as Landon’s own family when the details of his affair came out. Gilbert publicly stated that Landon leaving his wife for a younger woman just proved that he was far from perfect. Gilbert stayed polite to Landon, but their relationship was ultimately strained. They didn’t communicate for a long time after the end of the show. That is, not until 1990.
Still, despite their long period of tension and lack of communication, Gilbert remembered her on-screen dad with fondness later in life. “He was an amazing man, an amazing talent, an incredible director, actor, writer, a great boss, an incredible human being,” she stated in 2009.
Here’s a fun fact for the Little House fans: when Little House began, producer Kent McCray made an agreement with the property owners. The production agreed to restore the land to its original condition once filming was done. But the production-built home wasn’t part of that original condition. And so, when trying to figure out how to dismantle the sets, Landon suggested blowing up the village. That would explain the “kaboom.”
After producing Little House on the Prairie and then the Father Murphy TV show, Landon starred in yet another successful series. In Highway to Heaven, he played an exploratory angel, named Jonathan Smith, whose task it was to help people in order to earn his wings. His co-star Victor French (who co-starred on Little House) as ex-cop Mark Gordon.
Landon served as executive producer, writer, and director, as well as actor. Highway to Heaven was the only TV program that he owned outright over the course of his TV career. By 1985, in addition to hiring his son as a member of his camera crew, he also brought real-life cancer patients to the set.
Not only cancer patients, but disabled individuals were brought onto the set of Highway to Heaven as well. It led to his decision to hire some of the disabled people as episode writers. The show lasted five seasons. Victor French didn’t get to live to see the series’ finale air because he died of advanced lung cancer on June 15, 1989 (he was only diagnosed two months before).
Landon invited his youngest daughter, Jennifer, to take part in the show’s final episode. After Highway to Heaven (and before his move to CBS), Landon wrote and directed a teleplay called Where Pigeons Go to Die, which was nominated for two Emmy awards.
Later in his career, Landon took more and more control over his work. It turned out to be an aspect of his personality that irritated many co-workers who called him arrogant and stubborn. According to The New York Times, when he started writing and directing episodes of Bonanza, he was his own worst critic. Since he was always chasing perfection, he had more than one disagreement with those he worked with.
Bonanza’s executive producer David Dortort once remarked: “Landon developed very quickly as a good director. Then, as an actor, he began to criticize what he thought were errors being made by other Bonanza directors. It was the same with Mike Landon, the writer. He’d challenge nearly every line, every scene, every setup in other writers’ scripts. It got increasingly bitter toward the end.”
Unfortunately for Landon, his personal life, particularly in the romance department, wasn’t perfect. He was married three times. The first time was to a woman named Dodie Levy-Fraser from 1956 to 1962. They had two children: Mark (born in 1948 and Dodie’s biological son who died 2009) and Josh (born in 1960 and adopted as infant).
Then he was married to Marjorie Lynn Noe from 1963 to 1982. They had five children: Cheryl, born in 1953 and Noe’s daughter from her first marriage, was nine when her mother and Landon married; Leslie was born in 1962; Michael Jr. was born in 1964; Shawna was born in 1971; and Christopher was born in 1975. His third and final marriage was to Cindy Clerico – the one that began as an affair – from 1983 to his death in 1991. They had two children: Jennifer (born 1983) and Sean (born 1986).
While Landon was often depicted as a family man on TV, his reality was a bit different. Sure, the failure of his first marriage to Dodie can be chalked up to simply being too young. But Landon was authentically upset when people thought he left his second wife Marjorie for a younger woman (Cindy).
“You don’t dissolve a relationship to go to bed with someone 20 years younger,” Landon reflected once. “You have to have major differences and a deep-rooted need to stop a relationship after as many years as I was married. I would have done anything to make that relationship continue, but I could not.”
With Cindy, he found a kind of domestic bliss that he didn’t have with his previous wives. The truth is that Landon was so committed to keeping his family intact and making up for everything he’d lost in his early years that he even had his vasectomy reversed after marrying Cindy.
On another note, to provide a little background on our dear Cheryl (who has provided ample information on her father), you might like to know that she was involved in a serious car accident just outside Tucson, Arizona, when she was a student at the University of Arizona. Cheryl was the sole survivor out of the four who were in the car. She was hospitalized with serious injuries and was in a coma for days.
A mere matter of months before Landon passed away, in April 1991, he received a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. According to the Associated Press, he said, ″Look, there’s two things that can happen. I can win or I can lose. And I can handle both.” He was strong and wasn’t scared of dying. “I don’t see why I should fear death — and I don’t. I don’t want to die, and I’m going to fight like hell not to, but I’m not afraid to die.”
After getting the diagnosis, he devoted most of his time to his family while getting chemotherapy and trying experimental treatments. Cheryl Landon reflected on one of her biggest regrets about her father’s last weeks on this earth…
Because of a miscommunication with his wife Cindy, Landon didn’t get to see most of his kids during his final weeks. Cindy told Cheryl and her siblings that her husband could only see them on weekends, which Cheryl knew was far from the truth. She wrote that she felt deep pain as well as regret when she found out the truth.
She feared that her father may have misunderstood why his children didn’t spend more time with him during those final days. Unfortunately, it was too late. Michael Landon passed away at the age of 54 on July 1, 1991, leaving many people heartbroken. Even a former president had something to say about it…
When Landon passed, former President Ronald Reagan said, “His tragic battle with cancer touched the hearts of every American, as did his indomitable spirit.” Landon’s funeral was private, yet 500 attendees came to the memorial park in Los Angeles.
Melissa Gilbert also paid tribute to Landon, saying, “He was so special and so basically good. With him, you always knew exactly where you stood. The man had integrity.” Many years after his death, Landon’s legacy has remained, mostly thanks to his contribution to TV. Despite his diagnosis and the nature of his death, he remained upbeat until the very end. He even said at one point, “I’ve had a pretty good lick here.”
In 1955, Landon made an appearance in a pilot for a Western TV show called Luke and the Tenderfoot. The first episode, The Boston Kid, featured Landon as a rambunctious young guy who boxes with his shirt off. Funnily enough, so did his co-star Leonard Nimoy. Spock and Little Joe together – who would have thought? Oh, but the episode never aired. So that’s why you’ve never heard of it.
On an unrelated note, in the 1950s, Landon faced immense disappointment when his father tried to get him a gig in LA through his connections at RKO Radio Pictures. It proved to be an embarrassing moment for the two of them because his father couldn’t even get onto the property thanks to a strict security guard.
Apparently, one man wanted to make a giant inflatable version of Landon. In 2014, a man from Collingswood, New Jersey (Landon’s former hometown), attempted to raise $7,000 online to make a make a 20-foot-tall inflatable Landon. Why? Because he envisioned the blow-up Landon being used at special events such as street fairs and whatnot. The concept never got off the ground, though.
There was, however, a community building at Malibu’s Bluffs Park named “The Michael Landon Center.” Michael Jr. produced a memorial special called Michael Landon: Memories with Laughter and Love, which featured their family, his father’s friends and co-stars. Bonanza co-star David Canary said that the one word that described Landon: “fearless.”
In 1973, Landon wrote and directed episodes for the short-lived NBC series Love Story. In 1982, he co-produced a television movie for NBC called Love Is Forever, starring himself and Laura Gemser (credited as Moira Chen). All the way up to and through the run of Highway to Heaven, all of Landon’s TV programs were broadcast on NBC; it was a relationship that lasted 30 consecutive years.
The cancellation of Highway was due to a fallout with NBC’s upper management, and so Landon moved on to CBS. In 1991, he starred in a two-hour pilot called Us, which was meant to be another series for Landon, but due to his cancer diagnosis in April, the show never aired beyond the pilot.