In 1991, actor-producer Michael Landon was on the crest of another TV hit with the pilot for his new drama ‘Us’. It was to be his fourth series, backed by giant studio NBC, who knew Landon was a bankable winner in the ratings war.
Landon’s track record was untouchable. He had the distinction of starring in three consecutive hit TV series, each lasting at least five years – in one case, well over a decade. Famous for his thick, curly hair, American smile, wholesome characterisations and family-friendly, lightly moralistic storytelling, ‘Us’ was sure to be another winner in the Landon catalogue.
But the success wasn’t to continue. In April 1991, Landon suffered stomach cramps that were initially thought to be caused by stress and indigestion. Later, he was diagnosed with an advanced and aggressive cancer of the pancreas. The prognosis was bleak, and those closest to him couldn’t accept such a fatal illness in a man who appeared so fit, healthy and driven. After a very public and frenzied battle of less than three months, he passed away aged 54.
30 years after his death, Landon’s remarkable legacy in television lives on through regular repeats, streaming services and Blu-ray releases. The demand for his wholesome brand of easy-watching family entertainment shows no sign of fading.
Here are our top five performances from the late, great Michael Landon:
5. Tony Rivers in ‘I was a Teenage Werewolf’ (1957)
Early in his career, Michael Landon played a troubled youth in a budget horror that would have been largely forgotten if it wasn’t for its rising star, albeit hidden behind fangs and fur.
Tony Rivers is – you guessed it – a werewolf in his teens who’s struggling with all the usual coming-of-age anxieties you’d expect of an American high schooler in the late 1950s. Full of bubble gum romance and eye-rolling makeup effects, it’s no surprise this little caper was shot in less than seven days, but it’s a hoot from start to finish.
Landon no doubt did this one for the money whilst searching for better things, and those opportunities would soon come. But for what it is, as a drive-in B-movie that shows Landon as his James Dean best, ‘I was a Teenage Werewolf’ is well worth putting the popcorn on for. Pure drive-in, veg-out schlock horror.
4. Jonathan Smith in ‘Highway to Heaven’ (1984)
When Landon pitched the idea of a series about a travelling angel with a sidekick policeman, executives warned him that critics would laugh him off the screen. Landon countered that many actors could guarantee laughs or action each week, but he could tap into people’s deeper emotions and draw tears.
NBC gambled on the bizarre concept and the risk paid off, with a series that ran for five seasons and sold across the world. Landon produced all 111 episodes as well as directing and writing for the series – a rarity even today for a lead actor.
In 2021, it remains a popular easy-watching Sunday afternoon drama. Landon’s heartwarming relationship with his old co-star Victor French makes for some golden scenes, nestled between topical stories about living with abuse, crime, poverty, inequality and disability. For Landon, there was no subject he wouldn’t visit as long as it was explored with dignity and empathy.
As for the executives’ original concerns? ‘Highway to Heaven’ is destined for a reboot with the Lifetime Network sometime in 2022, starring Jill Scott and Barry Watson, and produced with support from the Landon Estate. Clearly, this charming little show still has its wings.
3. Little Joe Cartwright in ‘Bonanza’ (1959)
Bonanza was one of the most popular and longest-running series of the golden age of TV, commanding a huge international audience hungry for Western adventures. It was the first of its type to feature a large ensemble cast with no discernable leading actor among the Cartwright clan. Like ‘Dallas’ that would follow in the 1980s, or even ‘Game of Thrones’ in the 2010s, ‘Bonanza’ would offer a wide scope of characters under threat, with audiences picking out their favourite leads.
Among the most popular was “Little Joe” Cartwright, played by a young and dashing Michael Landon who no doubt wasn’t too keen on the “Little” moniker. He often chose to wear risers or stack heeled boots to gain a few inches over his towering company.
Running for a remarkable 14 seasons, ‘Bonanza’ was the show that made Landon into something of a heartthrob of the day, and allowed the young actor to pick up some first-hand experience of camera direction and scriptwriting. He would eventually write and direct several episodes himself.
Whilst ‘Bonanza’ is certainly showing its age over sixty years on, it still has plenty of firepower in its fight sequences. Shot in glorious living colour and featuring plenty of horseback action, Landon is often centre to the action and one of the few of the cast to survive the entire run. Unlike many series of its age, it also chose to explore difficult subjects like racism, sexism and bigotry, and in that regard, it still stands up today.
2. Himself in ‘The Loneliest Runner’ (1976) and ‘Sam’s Son’ (1984)
Despite passing away in his early fifties, Landon had a long and active career. Whilst working on his consecutive television series he somehow found the time to produce short features, and two of these were based on his own life experiences.
‘The Loneliest Runner’ is heavily inspired by Landon’s early childhood. As a boy, he’d regularly wet the bed and his mother would hang his sheets outside his window of an evening to humiliate him. His frantic race home to intercept the bedding before his friends could see would become the start of his professional running career – something he would dryly thank his mother for in later years. The film is a charming evocation of childhood and a fascinating insight into the importance of kindness and compassion towards young people.
A decade later, Landon would revisit his experiences as a youth in ‘Sam’s Son’, which was much more explicit in its origins: depicting his high school experiences as a champion javelin thrower obsessed with growing his hair for good luck. It was clearly something that would stay with Landon, and his buoyant curls, for life. Interestingly, Landon also reveals his birth name, and his Jewish heritage, in the film’s lead character: Eugene Orowitz.
The late, almost forgotten Timothy Patrick Murphy plays young Orowitz, as Landon alleged an uncanny similarity between them both at the same age. Murphy was famous at the time for his role as the ill-fated Mickey Trotter in ‘Dallas’, and this would prove to be one of his best-remembered roles before his premature death from AIDS in 1988.
In the absence of an autobiography from Landon, these two very personal films are well worth exploring and again showcase his ability as a writer-director.
1. Charles Ingalls in ‘Little House on the Prairie’ (1974)
Following his global success in ‘Bonanza’, Landon was on the lookout for his next big vehicle and one he could steer all by himself. He found inspiration in the popular children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which told the true story of her family’s struggle for a new life on the frontier in the 1800s.
Now well into his 30s and with a growing family of his own, Landon confidentally cast himself as the patriarch of the Ingalls family. The stoic, loving, fatherly image would stick with Landon for life, despite him insisting he wasn’t quite as clean-cut as the real Charles Ingalls – something newspapers would gleefully report when his troubled private life strayed into the limelight.
But it’s of no importance, for in his 1970s’ reading of Charles Ingalls, Landon encapsulated the idyllic father figure every child adores, or others seek to have in their youth. For some viewers, the empathetic Mr Ingalls filled a gap where their own father should have been, and perhaps some men with their own children learnt how integrity, warmth, and respectability were values to aspire to as a father.
‘Little House on the Prairie’ ran for nine series plus some specials along the way, with many of the young cast growing into adults by the programme’s end. It’s a unique gem of television history, lavishly produced and almost genre-defying in its ability to charm, amuse, enthrall and even traumatise its audience. Who could forget the time when anthrax threatened Plum Creek, or the day Mary Ingalls went blind, or when a carnival-masked murderer was on the rampage? (Seriously, it all happened…)
Punctuated with good old-fashioned American values and plenty of heartwarming laughs, ‘Little House on the Prairie’ is easily Michael Landon’s greatest triumph and lasting legacy. Its universal appeal across all ages, set against the idyllic backdrop of the American West, ensures its success, and Landon’s memory, for many decades to come.