Michael Landon (born Eugene Maurice Ortwotz, October 31, 1936-July 1, 1991) was an American Actor, Writer, Producer, and Director. He was best known to TV audiences as Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza from 1959-1973, Charles Ingalls on Little House on The Prairie from 1974-1983, and Jonathan Smith on Highway to Heaven from 1984-1989. He also appeared as a panelist on CBS' Match Game during the show's very first week in production.
Born Eugene Maurice Orowitz, on October 31, 1936, in Forest Hills, a neighborhood of Queens, New York. Landon's father, Eli Maurice Orowitz, was an actor and movie theater manager, and his mother, Peggy (O'Neill), was a dancer and comedian. Eugene was the Orowitz family's second child; his sister, Evelyn, was born three years earlier. His father was Jewish, and his mother was from an Irish Catholic family. In 1941, when Landon was four years old, he and his family moved to the Philadelphia suburb of Collingswood, New Jersey.
During his childhood, Landon was constantly worried about his mother's suicide attempts. One time during a family vacation on a beach, his mother tried to drown herself but Michael rescued her. Soon after the attempt his mother acted as if nothing had happened and after a few minutes, Michael began vomiting. It was the worst experience of his life.
Stress overload from the suicide attempts of his mother caused Michael to battle the childhood problem of bedwetting, that was documented in the unauthorized biography, Michael Landon: His Triumph and Tragedy. His mother put his wet sheets on display outside his window for all to see. He ran home every day from school, quickly trying to remove them before his classmates could see. These events later inspired Landon to write and direct the 1976 made-for-television movie The Loneliest Runner.
In high school, Landon was a star athlete. He was an excellent javelin thrower, his 193’ 4” toss in 1954 being the longest throw by a high schooler in the United States that year. This earned him an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California, but he subsequently tore his shoulder ligaments, ending his javelin throwing career and his participation on the USC track team.
Landon decided on his surname by choosing it from a phone book. His first starring appearance was on the television series, Telephone Time in the episode, "The Mystery of Casper Hauser" as the title character. Other parts came - movie roles in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, High School Confidential, and The Legend of Tom Dooley as well as many roles on television, such as Crossroads, The Restless Gun, Sheriff of Cochise (in "Human Bomb"), U.S. Marshal, Crusader, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, and The Court of Last Resort.
It wasn't until 1959 when Landon, at the young age of 22, landed his big break in the role that made him a glorified superstar: Little Joe Cartwright on the NBC Western series Bonanza, one of the first TV series to be broadcast in color. Landon co-starred alongside Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, and Pernell Roberts (who departed after season six). During Bonanza's sixth season on NBC (1964–1965), the show dominated in the Nielsen ratings and remained in the number one spot for three years.
Michael was such a huge hit with TV audiences as the feisty Little Joe Cartwright, he received more fan mail his other cast members. Landon then negotiated with executive producer David Dortort and NBC to write and direct some episodes. In 1962, he wrote his first script and in 1968, he directed his first episode. In 1993, TV Guide listed Little Joe's September 1972 two-hour wedding episode ("Forever"), as one of TV's most memorable specials. Landon's script recalled Little Joe's brother, Hoss, who was initially the story's groom, before co-star Dan Blocker's untimely death back in May. During the final season, the TV audiences lost interest as the ratings dropped dramatically and NBC canceled the series in November 1972 with the last episode aired on January 16, 1973.
A year after Bonanza ended, Landon then went on to star as Charles Ingalls in the pilot of what became another successful television series, Little House on the Prairie, again for NBC. The show was taken from a 1935 book written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose character in the show was played by nine-year-old actress Melissa Gilbert. In addition to Gilbert, two other unknown actresses also starred on the show: Melissa Sue Anderson, who appeared as Mary Ingalls, the oldest daughter in the Ingalls family, and Karen Grassle as Landon's on-screen wife, Caroline. In addition to the starring role, Landon also served as executive producer, writer, and director. The show, a success in its first season, emphasized family values and relationships. Little House became Landon's second-longest running series.
The show was nominated for several Emmy and Golden Globe awards. After eight seasons, Little House was retooled by NBC in 1982 as Little House: A New Beginning, which focused on the Wilder family and the Walnut Grove community. Even though Landon remained the show's executive producer, director and writer, A New Beginning did not feature Charles and Caroline Ingalls. A New Beginning was actually the final chapter of Little House, as the series ended in 1983. The following year, three made-for-television movies aired.
After Little House on The Prairie, Landon starred in his third successful program once again for NBC, Highway to Heaven, he played a probationary angel (who named himself Jonathan Smith) whose job was to help people in order to earn his wings. His co-star on the show was Victor French (who had previously co-starred on Landon's Little House on the Prairie) as ex-cop Mark Gordon. As he did with Little House, Landon served as executive producer, writer, and director. Highway to Heaven was the only show throughout his long career in television that he owned outright. By season four, Highway took a nose dive in the ratings, and in June 1988, NBC announced that the series would return for an abbreviated fifth season, which would be its last. The final episodes were filmed in the fall of 1988, and aired from May to August 1989. Co-star French would not live to see Highway's series finale make it to air; he died of advanced lung cancer on June 15, 1989, the disease which was only diagnosed two months before.
After the cancellation of Highway to Heaven, Landon wrote and directed the teleplay Where Pigeons Go to Die. Based on a novel of the same name, the film starred Art Carney and was nominated for two Emmy awards.
Up through the run of Highway to Heaven, all of Landon's television programs were broadcast on NBC. After the cancellation of Highway, he moved to CBS and in 1991 starred in a two-hour pilot called Us. Us was meant to be another series for Landon but because of his illness, the show never aired beyond the pilot.
In February 1991 while on a skiing vacation in Utah, Landon began to suffer from severe abdominal pain and his health took a toll for the worse. On April 5, 1991, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; it had metastasized into his liver and lymph nodes. The cancer was inoperable and the doctors' prognosis was terminal. On May 9, 1991, he appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to speak about the cancer and to condemn the tabloid press for their sensational headlines and inaccurate stories, including the claim that he and his wife were trying to have another child. During his appearance, Landon pledged to fight the cancer and asked fans to pray for him. On May 21, 1991, Landon underwent successful surgery for an almost fatal blood clot in his left leg.
In June 1991, he appeared on the cover of Life Magazine, after granting the periodical an exclusive private interview about his life, his family, and his struggle to live. On July 1, 1991, Landon passed away in Malibu, California, he was only 54 years old.
He is interred in a private family mausoleum at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery, in Culver City, California, along with his son Mark (who passed away in May 2009). Michael's headstone reads, "He seized life with joy. He gave to life generously. He leaves a legacy of love and laughter." A community building at Malibu's Bluffs Park was named "The Michael Landon Center" following the actor's death.
Landon had married three times and has nine children. He married his first wife Dodie Levy-Fraser, married March 1956, Landon filed for divorce in March 1962 – divorce finalized in December 1962 and they had three children all of whom were adopted by Landon: Mark Fraser Landon, born 1948 (adopted; Dodie's biological son), died May 11, 2009, Josh Fraser Landon, born 1960 (adopted as infant), and Jason Smith, born 1962 (adopted and subsequently given to another adoptive family).
His second wife, Marjorie Lynn Noe, married January 12, 1963 and divorced in 1982 and together they had five children: Cheryl Lynn Landon (born Cheryl Ann Pontrelli in 1953), Lynn's daughter from her first marriage and was nine when her mother and Landon married. Though Landon was unable to legally adopt her, he referred to her as his daughter, Leslie Ann Landon, born 1962, Michael Landon, Jr., born 1964, Shawna Leigh Landon, born 1971, and Christopher Beau Landon, born 1975.
He married his third wife, Cindy Clerico on February 14, 1983, a makeup artist on Little House on the Prairie and together they had two children: Jennifer Rachel Landon, born 1983, a Daytime Emmy-winning actress who played the roles of Gwen Norbeck Munson on the soap opera As The World Turns and Heather Stevens on The Young and The Restless, both on CBS, and Sean Matthew Landon, born 1986.
Landon was by his own admission a chain smoker and a heavy drinker.