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30 Years Of Michael Landon: 'Bonanza' to 'Little House' to 'Heaven'

Entertainment | November 5, 2018

Left: Michael Landon as Joseph 'Little Joe' Cartwright in a publicity portrait issued for the television series, 'Bonanza', circa 1970. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images). Right: Landon on 'Little House On The Prairie.' Source: IMDB

As "Little Joe" Cartwright on Bonanza, Charles Ingalls on Little House On The Prairie, and Jonathan Smith on Highway To Heaven, Michael Landon proved himself a master of TV drama acting. Many actors are lucky to get one small-screen role that resonates with audiences and lasts for multiple seasons; Landon had three, keeping him nearly continuously employed for 30 years.

In his last NBC series, Michael Landon played an angel who had died previously and was on assignment on earth, a character some fans came to see as prophetic. In 1991, at the age of 54, Landon himself passed away from pancreatic cancer -- leaving this world, perhaps, on his own highway to heaven. A loyal family man, Landon was the proud father of six of his own biological children and adopted three more. His own childhood was not so wonderful. What is really coincidental is Victor French, his partner on Highway to Heaven, also at age 54, died of advanced lung cancer before the final season aired.  

Michael Landon and Jack Hogan in 'The Legend Of Tom Dooley,' 1959. Source: IMDB

After a stormy childhood, Michael Landon became determined to make it, as not only an actor but also as a producer. His life was riddled with hardships, beginning with his childhood. His name was actually Eugene Maurice Orowitz, named after his Jewish father, Eli Maurice Orowitz. Added to the stress of being bullied for being Jewish, was also a constant concern for his mother because of attempted suicides. Once he had to save her at a beach during a vacation because she tried to drown herself. Sometime in the '50s, he changed his name, first to Michael Lane and later to Michael Landon, choosing his name by looking through the phone book. 

I was a Teenage Werewolf

The very first television appearance that Michael Landon had was in 1956 on a show called Telephone Time. Later, in 1957, he starred in the movie I Was A Teenage Werewolf, and went on to play in other movie roles as well as television roles. In one of the episodes of Highway to Heaven, Landon, in the role of Jonathan Smith, reverts back to his character in this movie. Mark Gordon, his partner, falls asleep in his chair after eating a heavy meal on Halloween night. He starts dreaming that Jonathan is a werewolf but he thinks it’s real. Meanwhile, Jonathan is really on assignment to help a little boy who is trick-or-treating by himself.

Bonanza

Michael Landon began his first long-term series role on Bonanza at the age of 22 in 1959. He was Joseph "Little Joe" Cartwright, who was always laughing about something, usually at Hoss Cartright’s expense. Hoss, played by Dan Blocker, and Little Joe were always getting into trouble with their Pa, played by Lorne Greene. Blocker also passed away early, in 1972 at the young age of 43. The funniest episode was the one about the Leprechauns, whom Hoss called the “little green men.” Nobody believed that he saw these little green men, not even Little Joe -- until he saw them for himself. Until then, he laughed his head off at Hoss. Bonanza ran for 14 seasons.

Little House on the Prairie

Little House on the Prairie was the second long-running series that Michael Landon played in. The series lasted for eight seasons with Landon as the star before morphing into Little House: A New Beginning, which didn’t call for Landon's character, Charles Ingalls, nor his character’s wife, Caroline Ingalls. Little House On The Prairie was based on the book by the same name, with nine-year-old Melissa Gilbert playing Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the book. Melissa Gilbert said that Michael Landon was like a second father to her both on and off screen. Her own father passed away when she was only 11. She would spend a lot of time with his real-life family and he instilled in her the importance of family over fame.

Highway to Heaven

Every episode of Highway to Heaven, Landon's third and final series, began with the same scene. Jonathan Smith (Michael Landon) would be walking along the road when Mark Gordon (Victor French), would drive up and pick him up. As he got in the car, he would be laughing. It’s that same laugh we heard from Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza -- Landon's characters always had a heartwarming laugh. Of course, a lot of the episodes called for more serious tones, but, for the most part, he always was good-humored. Even, in the more serious episodes of Highway to Heaven, he would implement some humor into the show. His character, as the angel on assignment, portrayed a loving caring person, who always tried to find the good in people even when they appeared to be so evil. Mark Gordon, on the other hand, wanted to take them out until Jonathan showed him what was really behind their actions.  

Michael Landon was no stranger to personal tragedy. In 1959, his father died of a heart attack; his daughter was injured and in a coma for four days, after being in a serious car accident in 1973, as the only survivor of four; and in 1981, his mother passed away.

Michael Landon will always be remembered for his humor, his heart and his legacy that he left us with.

Tags: Highway To Heaven | Little House On The Prairie | Michael Landon | RIP (Famous Deaths)

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Terry Claypoole

Writer

Terry is a lover of the beach, history, politics and has a passion for social media and technology. In her spare time, you can find her at the beach (of course) enjoying the sand and sun and listening to music from the groovy era.