Michael Landon: Life & Legacy of America’s Favorite Family Man

Everett Collection

Though he’s been gone almost 30 years, Michael Landon is, for many, still America’s frontier father and the epitome of grace, hard work, parenting skills and good looks all combined.

As a director and star of Little House on the Prairie, Landon cast an indelible image. However, his road to 1870s Walnut Grove, Minn. — the show’s fictional setting — was a roundabout one.

Little House on the Prairie Michael Landon, 1974-1983

Landon was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz in Queens, N.Y. His father was a publicist and theater manager; his mother was Broadway actress Peggy O’Neill. The family moved to Collingswood, N.J., where Landon went to school. It wasn’t an easy ride — the New Yorker was taunted relentlessly by his blue-collar Protestant peers. His mother suffered from serious depression, and Landon himself had to rescue her from several suicide attempts. Though he had a genius IQ, Landon finished high school close to the bottom of his class.

His one escape was sports, and he excelled in track and field. A record-breaking javelin toss earned him a scholarship to the University of Southern California. But while at USC, he tore his shoulder ligaments, bringing an end to his track and field career.

The Early Years

I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, Yvonne Lime, Michael Landon, 1957

Everett Collection

Hollywood seemed like a good next step, so he picked a name out of the telephone book — Michael Landon — and started auditioning for parts. His first starring appearance was in the 1956 TV series Telephone Time; the next year he was cast in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. He also appeared in High School Confidential opposite Mamie Van Doren (1958) and in numerous TV roles. He even recorded a pop single, “Gimme a Little Kiss (Will Ya Huh).”

In 1959 at age 22, Landon was cast as Little Joe Cartwright on the popular TV series Bonanza. It was one of the first TV series to be broadcast in color. An impetuous, smart, feisty ladies’ man, Landon’s Little Joe was the hot-tempered younger brother who loved to ride his horse Cochise. The show took off, and by its sixth season, Bonanza was No. 1 in the ratings and stayed there for three years. It was then Landon also began working behind the camera, writing and directing episodes.

BONANZA, Michael Landon, 1959-73 (1959 photo by Zinn Arthur)

Everett Collection

By the end of Bonanza’s run in 1973, Landon was looking for an opportunity to flex all of his creative muscles. When producer Ed Friendly approached Landon about directing a pilot for Little House on the Prairie, Landon fell in love with the script and agreed to direct, as long as he could play the lead role of Charles “Pa” Ingalls.

Becoming America’s Favorite Frontier Dad

Little House on the Prairie clockwise from bottom left: Melissa Sue Anderson, Michael Landon, Karen Grassle, Melissa Gilbert, Lindsay / Sidney Greenbush (center), (Season 1, 1974), 1974-83

Little House on the Prairie was set in the 1870s and ’80s in the village of Walnut Grove, Minn. Charles was a farmer, mill worker and devoted husband to Caroline (Karen Grassle). He is father to Laura (Melissa Gilbert), Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson) and Carrie (Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush, twins who alternated playing the role). Later, another daughter, Grace, was added (played by twins Wendi and Brenda Turnbaugh), along with an adopted son, Albert (Matthew Labyorteaux), and adopted siblings Cassandra (Missy Francis) and James (Jason Bateman).

As Ingalls, Landon quickly became America’s favorite family man, a loving husband and doting father. Everyday life on the farm was the series’ backdrop as the residents of Walnut Grove dealt with poverty, illness, alcoholism, prejudice, domestic abuse and faith. And though Little House on the Prairie was a drama, there were many light moments of comedy. Each episode told a story that touched many viewers in a special way, deep in the heart. Landon was not only the star; he was also the chief creative force of the show, as the director of 90 episodes and writer of 48.

Melissa Gilbert, who lost her own father at age 11, had a special bond with Landon both on- and offscreen, saying he was very much of a second father. She often spent time with Landon’s family when not filming. They drifted apart after Landon’s highly publicized breakup with second wife Lynn and subsequent marriage to makeup artist Cindy Clerico, some 20 years his junior.

Little House on the Prairie was nominated for 17 Primetime Emmys and three Golden Globes in its run. In 1982 the show was retooled as Little House: A New Beginning, and though Landon continued to occasionally write and direct for the show, A New Beginning did not feature Charles and Caroline. It ran for one year and then concluded with three made-for-television movies.

Following Up Little House

HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN, from left: Victor French, Michael Landon, 1984-1989. ph: Mario Casilli / TV Guide /© NBC /courtesy Everett Collection

Mario Casilli/TV Guide/NBC/courtesy Everett Collection

In 1984 Landon launched the series Highway to Heaven, starring in, executive producing, directing and writing multiple episodes. In it he played Jonathan Smith, an angel who has been stripped of his wings and is serving “probation” on Earth. Smith meets up with Mark Gordon (played by Victor French, a fellow costar from Little House on the Prairie), a retired policeman who finds his true mission assisting Jonathan in helping troubled people on Earth. The popular show ran for four seasons, but the fifth season was interrupted by the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike and only broadcast one episode before getting pulled by NBC.

MALIBU,CA - JULY 29: Actor Michael Landon, wife Cindy Landon, daughter Jennifer Landon and son Sean Landon attend the Third Annual Moonlight Roundup Extravaganza to Benefit Free Arts for Abused Children on July 29, 1989 at the Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, California.

Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

In February 1991, Landon was on a skiing vacation when he began to suffer acute abdominal pain. He was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, and on July 1 he passed away. He was interred in a private family mausoleum in a Culver City, Calif., cemetery. His headstone reads, “He seized life with joy. He gave life generously. He leaves a legacy of love and laughter.” Millions of fans grieve for him to this day.

The 1999 made-for-TV movie Michael Landon, the Father I Knew was cowritten and directed by his son Michael Landon Jr. and starred John Schneider as Michael Landon and Cheryl Ladd as his second wife, Lynn. Paramount Studios is rumored to be working on a big-screen remake of the Little House on the Prairie pilot originally filmed by Landon but that news came out awhile ago and there have been no updates.


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