Michael Landon: His Own Highway To Heaven
From "Bonanza" to "Little House on the Prairie" to "Highway to Heaven," Michael Landon brought us through many episodes of tears, laughter and entertainment.
HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN
Pictured: Michael Landon as Jonathan Smith (Photo by Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Coincidentally, in his last NBC series, Michael Landon played an angel who had died previously and was on assignment on earth. At the age of 54, he passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1991. He left this world on his own highway to heaven, leaving behind many loved ones and fans who adored him in his long-running series of Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven. A loyal family man, he was the proud father of six of his own 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 he got to see the final series aired.
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, Michael 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 Jonathon 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.
Michael Landon began his first long-term series role on Bonanza at the age of 22 in 1959. He was “Little Joe Cartright,” who was always laughing about something, usually at Hoss Cartright’s expense. Hoss, played by Dan Blocker, and Little Joe was always getting into trouble with their Pa, played by Lorne Greene. Hoss also passed away in 1972 at the young age of 43. The funniest episode was the one about the Leprechauns, who 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 was the second long-running series that Michael Landon played in. The series lasted for eight seasons with Michael Landon as the star and then went to “Little House: A New Beginning” that didn’t feature the roles of his character, Charles Ingalls, or his character’s wife, Caroline Ingalls. Taken from the book by the same name, nine-year-old Melissa Gilbert played 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 eleven. She would spend a lot of time with his real-life family and he instilled in her the importance of family over fame.
This picture shows the opening scene before every episode of Highway to Heaven. 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 as you see in the picture. It’s that same laugh you see on him as Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza. Everything he played in, he 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.
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. Personal tragedy was no stranger to him. 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.
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