Michael Landon, real name Eugene Maurice Orowitz, (31/10/36 – 01/07/91) is an American artist, director, producer and writer who became famous worldwide for his roles in popular TV shows Bonanza (he played Little Joe Cartwright), Little House on the Prairie (where he played Charles Ingalls) and Highway to Heaven (where he played Jonathan Smith).
Landon was a multitalented artist who acted, wrote and directed many episodes of the TV series he played in, and even had his own projects like Father Murphy (where his friend and co-star from Little House – Merlin Olsen also played in). One of Landon’s most interesting works was an auto biographical feature film named The Loneliest Runner which won him two Emmy nominations (however, he has never won this award).
Michael Landon was born in New York, and both of his parents were artists as well – father was an actor and mother was a dancer and a comedian. Landon had various problems in his family, as a kid – his mother had few suicide attempts and he had a bedwetting problem (he wrote about these problems in his autobiography Michael Landon: His Triumph and Tragedy). Before starting his acting career, Landon was a promising athlete – javelin thrower but after the injury, his sport career was finished.
Once he decided to become an actor, Michael Landon changed his name, by choosing the one he liked from a phone book. The first role he got was in a TV show Telephone Time, and afterwards he played in movies: I Was A Teenage Werewolf, God’s Little Acre and High School Confidential. He became well known in TV circles so he received numerous roles in TV series like Crossroads, The Rifleman, Crusader, State Troopers and many more.
The real breakthrough was his role in Bonanza, where he played Little Joe Cartwright (the youngest of three sons) since he was 22. Bonanza was the first TV shows developed and broadcasted in colour and became an iconic TV series worldwide. Landon’s character was the youngest of three Cartwright children, Little Joe – cocky, pushy and still green youngster. Little Joe later became a ladies’ man, seductive and fatal. Landon often performed his own stunts, and he was a good friend with Bonanza co-stars Lorne Greene (who played Ben), Dan Blocker (who played Eric Hoss Cartwright) and Pernell Roberts (known as the eldest son Adam Cartwright). But eventually, since he became the most popular cast member, his excellent relations with co-stars started to fade, because he was given more freedom to change the script and even co-write and co-direct some episodes of the show (of course, other actors disapproved). However, that was a great beginning of his directing, writing and later producing career which lasted for decades. Michael Landon and Lorne Greene are the only two actors who were part of Bonanza for all 14 seasons.
Landon loved the team he met on the set of Bonanza and often collaborated with these people during his career. He was a very loyal colleague and continued working with Ken McCray, director William Claxton and his friend David Rose (composer) on TV series Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven.
Bonanza was the first big project Michael Landon participated in and this role actually made him famous and critically acclaimed. The show aired for 14 seasons continuously and after it was cancelled, another great opportunity was offered to Landon – a role in new TV show Little House on the Prairie. This show was developed from a book with the same title, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Michael Landon portrayed Charles Ingalls, and gained more popularity since this show also became a very successful one. Since he was credited as a producer, co-writer, co-director and main star on the show, Landon became very popular, acclaimed and powerful in Hollywood. Even his family members worked with him, as actors on the show, and he was very proud to be able to help them and to be surrounded with the ones he loved, on set.
This TV show had numerous award nominations (Emmy and Golden Globe) and aired for 8 seasons, till 1983. The final season was named Little House: A New Beginning and after it has been aired, 3 TV movies (spin offs) were also aired, with big success.
Third TV project which became extremely popular and featured Landon was Highway to Heaven, where he portrayed probationary angel Jonathan John Smith, who had a role to decide which person can become an angel and earn wings and which can’t. In this show, Landon was accompanied by his best friend Victor French who played the role of a former cop – Mark Gordon. This fantastic saga was very popular and received mixed critics at first (religious viewers weren’t quite thrilled) but afterwards gained big publicity and became very popular and appreciated.
Among other projects this actor participated in, it is important to mention TV movie Love is Forever, based on a true story, which was inspired by the life and work of Australian photographer and adventurist John Everingham. Sam’s Son was also one of his popular movies, loosely based on his own experiences and life story. Another important project was Where Pigeons Go to Die, which was nominated for Emmy, and based on the same titled book.
Landon mostly worked on projects developed by NBC, and his biggest success is certainly related to this network. However, after finishing work on the Highway to heaven, he moved to CBS. He started developing new show – Us, but dropped it after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Michael Landon had a very rich personal life, being married three times, and leaving 9 children behind. He was a very famous actor, truly talented and definitely a person who will stay remembered for his acting, directing, producing, writing and charity work as well.
Millions of viewers were emotionally attached to his characters and were truly touched by his acting and talent. Michael Landon died at the age of 54, but he will be remembered forever as Little Joe Cartwright, Charles Ingalls and Jonathan Smith, whom he made immortal and will be remembered for playing, for years to come.