Michael Landon: The Career and Artistry of a Television Genius
© 2015 David R. Greenland. All Rights Reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, digital, photocopying or recording, except for the inclusion in a review, without permission in writing from the publisher.
This version of the book may be slightly abridged from the print version.
Published in the USA by:
PO Box 71426
Albany, Georgia 31708
Cover Design by Valerie Thompson.
eBook construction by Brian Pearce | Red Jacket Press.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Cindy Landon
Chapter 1: The Dreamer (1936-1955)
Chapter 2: Go West, Young Man (1956-1959)
Chapter 3: The Ponderosa (1959-1973)
Chapter 4: Little House — Part One, The Loneliest Runner (1973-1982)
Chapter 5: Father Murphy (1981-1983)
Chapter 6: The Little House — Part Two, Love Is Forever, Sam’s Son (1982-1984)
Chapter 7: The Highway (1984-1989)
Chapter 8: The End, Where Pigeons Go To Die (01-29-90), US (09-20-91)
About The Author
Dedicated to The Landon Family
Past, Present and Future
At a time when the most cherished staples of TV entertainment are crime and car crashes, here’s a courageous fellow daring to go against the grain by portraying an angel who performs acts of charity. What a wild notion! Are we really ready for anything that radical, that revolutionary? Are we prepared to give up our beloved karate kicks to the groin, exploding helicopters and the mating sounds of two pickup trucks colliding?
Of course I devoutly hope that we are, and that there’s still a place on the tube for Michael’s kind of programming, with its emphasis on real human values. In a world where all things frightful are beamed straight into our homes the instant they happen, we need Michael’s weekly injection of goodness and decency as desperately as the diabetic needs his insulin.
This book would not have been possible without the assistance and/or encouragement of Doug Cameron, Barbara Douglass, Sandy Grabman, Karen Gray, Cleo Greenland, Paul Greenland, Steve Homan, Jeff Kadet, Andrew J. Klyde, Dennis Korn, Cindy Landon, Boyd Magers, Susan McCray, Michelle Morgan, Ben Ohmart, Janet Pease, Paula Rock, James Rosin, Valerie Thompson and Lanny Tucker.
Thanks to Mary Ann Bauman of the Michael Landon Fan Club, and to Harry Flynn, Michael Landon’s longtime publicist, who authorized the club’s newsletter. Thanks also to Vicki Christian, editor of Bonanza Gold magazine, who was kind enough to interview me regarding my history of the series.
Special thanks to the late David Dortort, creator and executive producer of Bonanza, who graciously invited me to his home for an extensive interview and contributed the foreword to my book about his television classic. In the letters and telephone conversations we exchanged up until his death in 2010, Mr. Dortort shared several insightful and positive recollections of working with Michael Landon.
There was one biography of Michael Landon published during his lifetime, a slim volume of questionable value that he said he had no intention of reading. Since his passing there have been no less than nine books either about the man, or in which he figures prominently. The most significant of these are Michael Landon: Life, Love & Laughter by Harry Flynn, Pamela Flynn, and Cindy Landon (1991) and Conversations with Michael Landon by Tom Ito (1992), both essential reading for any admirer of the man. Of further interest are I Promised My Dad by Cheryl Landon Wilson and Jane Scovell (1992), Prairie Tales by Melissa Gilbert (2009), The Way I See It: A Look Back at My Life on Little House by Melissa Anderson (2010), and Confessions Of A Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated by Alison Arngrim (2010). Many thanks to all of these writers for sharing their memories of working and living with a truly unique individual.
Note: The photographs appearing in this book were originally distributed for publicity purposes and were obtained from various collectors and memorabilia dealers. The author claims no ownership rights to these illustrations.
David R. Greenland
David Dortort with the author, 1994. Photo by Barry Craig
My husband, the extraordinary Michael Landon, has been gone for more than twenty years. As sad and unfortunate as that is, it makes me happy to know he has never been forgotten. His work as an actor, writer, producer and director continues to entertain, inspire and touch people all around the world. Episodes of Highway to Heaven, Little House on the Prairie and Bonanza are always playing somewhere, on television or home video. Michael would be honored to know that his messages of love, understanding and hope have endured.
I am grateful that one of Michael’s greatest admirers has devoted an entire book to a serious study of his productions, and I hope readers will appreciate David Greenland’s efforts as much as I do.
I had the privilege of observing Michael create magic on countless occasions, whether he was at home writing or on set working on both sides of the camera. It was a pleasure to relive those times in the pages of David’s book, as well as a bittersweet experience to be reminded of the many beloved co-workers who have passed away in recent years — Merlin Olsen, Moses Gunn, Kevin Hagen, Richard Bull, Ted Voigtlander and “Buzzy” Boggs, to name only a few.
In Michael’s words, “I believe that we can all make our own miracles.” Keep laughing and loving! Find your passion and follow your dreams! To my husband, Mike, that’s what life is all about.
I was fortunate to experience much of television’s golden age firsthand, when the majority of programming consisted of Westerns. At one point there were more than three dozen on the air, but I faithfully watched only three: Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and, most of all, Bonanza, in part because, like the Cartwright boys, I was one of three brothers. All of us enjoyed the antics and heroics of Dan Blocker’s Hoss, as most viewers did, but what we young buckaroos wanted most was to see Michael Landon’s Little Joe spring into action.
There is a famous saying: Don’t meet your heroes — you’ll only be disappointed. I prefer to believe that did not apply to Michael Landon. To quote from a memoir I wrote the day after his untimely passing in 1991, “Michael Landon was the only celebrity I ever wanted to meet. Although I have been a fan since the tender age of nine, or thereabouts, this desire occurred not in the youthful days of exaggerated hero worship, but several years later, when I noticed that a Bonanza episode written and/or directed by him was something special.”
While I do not remember the first time I saw Michael Landon, I know the exact date he first moved me: January 28, 1962. In “The Storm,” episode #85 of Bonanza, Joe Cartwright plans to marry a young woman who, in keeping with one of the show’s traditions, dies before the final credits roll. Rather than walk stoically into the sunset like any other TV cowboy would have done, Joe does not hide his grief. As an actor, Landon was not afraid to reveal his character’s vulnerability, and the effect was both admirable and striking. “We are not afraid to show our feelings,” producer David Dortort said later that season. “We have made more people cry than anybody in the business.” And more often than not, it was Landon who made the audience feel, particularly after he began to write and direct.
My wife and I never missed an episode of Little House on the Prairie, Highway to Heaven, or anything else in which Landon was involved, and it was no secret among friends, relatives, and even a few casual acquaintances, that I considered him the most creative person in the television industry. One morning in 1979, driving to an appointment in Beverly Hills, the friend I was riding with pointed out a handsome estate and said, “Remember all those Bill Cosby records we used to listen to? That was his place once.” He paused for effect before adding, “That’s where your hero Michael Landon lives now. Want to stop and say hello?” “Yeah, right,” I replied. “Besides, he’s probably out shooting in Simi Valley.”
In 1990, when the telefilm Where Pigeons Go to Die was in production, I received a business-related call from a woman in Kansas who, though unaware of my high regard for Landon, said, “Guess who I saw today? Michael Landon! He’s here making a movie.” “I don’t suppose you talked to him,” I ventured. “No, he was too busy,” she replied. “And he seemed to be tired.” I remembered that final remark a few months later, when my wife informed me that a friend had actually met Michael and Cindy Landon while skiing in Utah shortly after Christmas, but that “he didn’t look well.” Everyone knows the rest of the story.
I wrote letters of appreciation to Michael Landon on a couple of occasions — after the broadcast of his Bonanza landmark “Forever” in 1972, and the poignant Little House episode “Remember Me” in 1975 — never expecting a reply. The man, I knew, was simply too busy. At least the letters were never returned, so I like to think he may have read them eventually.
After poring through a substantial archive of printed material, viewing nearly all of his appearances prior to Bonanza, and studying virtually everything he wrote and wrote/directed, I feel almost as if I had met Michael Landon. He certainly made his mark, leaving behind an unforgettable visual bounty for all of us that will doubtlessly never be equaled.
David R. Greenland
This is not a book about the private life of Michael Landon. If there is an exception, it is only when he used incidents from it to enhance his art. Even the most high profile figure, whether they are a president or an entertainer, deserves the right to keep their personal space off-limits to the general public. Everyone should be known only by their public actions and whatever thoughts they choose to share with the rest of the world. Landon was no exception, yet he became perhaps the most scrutinized television personality in the history of the medium. Ironically, a man so opposed to judging others was unfairly judged all too frequently, often by people who never met him. To the end of his life, he castigated tabloid journalism — rightly so. It may be only natural for one to develop a certain measure of curiosity about what a favorite performer does behind the scenes, but if a fan sincerely respects that performer, there is a line that should not be crossed. Avoiding the gossip rags is an excellent place to start. (Considering Landon’s staggering amount of activity — acting, writing, directing, producing, recording two solo singles and two albums (with his Bonanza co-stars), hosting community service specials, narrating nature documentaries, making personal appearances on telethons and at rodeos, participating on game shows and variety programs, sitting for countless filmed and print interviews, raising children — my one curiosity has always been: When did he sleep? No wonder he said he was fond of rising with, or even before, the sun.)
Like any creative person of genuine substance, Landon, more often than not, communicated chiefly through his work, be it his convictions regarding education or ecology, politics or religion. He believed in nurturing the family institution and strengthening its place in society, but above all he stressed the importance of love, a theme that runs continuously throughout the 330 hours of programming he produced. Of course, there are many other Landon hallmarks, written and visual, scattered consistently among the more than 300 hours of television he wrote and/or directed. That such a monumental achievement has never before been examined in detail is a situation this book seeks to remedy.
In addition, until now very little has been written about Landon’s accomplishments as an actor before Bonanza, or outside his three classic series, but nearly all of them are discussed here. It becomes apparent while viewing any appearance he made prior to landing the role Ben Cartwright’s youngest son that he had, in the words of David Dortort, “the most highly intuitive set of natural acting responses I’ve seen in a young actor.” Consequently, Landon’s portrayal of Little Joe emerged fully formed, whereas it took his three co-stars a while to develop their characters. Blessed with a wide range of acting skills — the most vital of them believability — he was able to avoid being typecast, transitioning comfortably and credibly into the boots of farmer Charles Ingalls and the modern garb of Jonathan Smith.
Genius is a word subject to many interpretations, as well as a term used far too loosely in the world of entertainment. One definition is “a great mental capacity and inventive ability, especially great and original creative ability in some art, science, etc.” With an IQ of 159, Michael Landon was an authentic genius, and he used that gift to make discoveries where no one else thought of looking. As the late Ted Voigtlander, a director of photography, once said, “Many writers can ‘see’ things that maybe you can’t photograph. Well, after getting to know the camera and the lenses, Mike can write things that you can actually do.”
Michael Landon was concerned with making this world a better place, and shared his vision with us for over three decades. Recognizing — and celebrating — the filmed legacy he left behind is the purpose of this book.
David R. Greenland
“I spent my whole childhood dreaming. It was my escape.”
Michael Landon to Tom Ito, 1990
Michael Landon not only refused to allow the dismal realities of his early life to prevent him from becoming one of the most successful and beloved icons in popular culture, he bravely tapped into those sour memories while creating a body of work still unmatched in the world of television. In his youthful daydreams he envisioned himself as such disparate figures as a pediatrician, superhero, soldier, cowboy, movie star and champion athlete. What no one — including Landon — could have foreseen was the former Eugene Maurice Orowitz of Collingswood, New Jersey, as an undeniable rarity in the entertainment industry: lead actor, writer, director and producer.
The future Michael Landon was born on Halloween, 1936, in Forest Hills, New York, the second child of Eli Orowitz, in charge of east coast publicity for Hollywood’s RKO Radio Pictures, and Kathleen “Peggy” O’Neill, who three years earlier had given birth to a daughter, Evelyn. Both of Landon’s parents possessed a variety of talents — Eli the author of a book about commercial broadcasting, Kathleen a former dancer and comedienne — and were enamored of Broadway. Unfortunately, how they differed became more important than what they had in common. Eli was a gentle, thoughtful man of the Jewish faith, whereas his younger wife was a loud, rather unstable Irish Catholic. “My mother committed suicide every other week, never accomplishing it,” Landon told Dr. David Viscott during a televised interview in 1990. “I think I was eleven before I realized you put food in the oven and not your mother’s head.” Able to see the humor in his mother’s staged attempts to kill herself, he incorporated these incidents into a couple of his future scripts.
By the time the Orowitz family moved to Collingswood in 1941, Peggy was embittered by having to trade a career in show business for motherhood, and Eli had lost his job with RKO and was managing a chain of New Jersey movie theaters. “I had parents who were children,” Landon said, “and they needed someone to help them, to make decisions for them. When I was nine-years-old I went in and got my dad’s job back that he had quit, that I knew he needed to have back but was too proud to do it.”
While Peggy encouraged Evelyn to consider becoming an actress, she had little use for Michael, whom she seldom missed an opportunity to belittle and once chased out of the house with a kitchen knife. Little wonder he felt closer to his father. “I forget what it was I’d done,” Landon said, “but it wasn’t anything important. But my mother was extremely angry and wanted him to do something. I could hear her screaming in the other room at him, screaming at him to do something. Well, he was so frustrated he came into the room and didn’t know what to do, and hit me. He wore a little pinky ring and it cut my lip. And he cried. And he left the room, and I thought that was great because I saw that he loved me.”
To escape the chaos at 632 South Newton Lake Drive, Landon would retreat to a cave he had carved out in Newton Lake Park, conveniently located across the street from his house. Supplied with snacks, canned goods and comic books, he would spend hours daydreaming, imagining himself as anyone but Eugene Orowitz and anywhere but Collingswood, New Jersey. On occasion he would actually leave home. “I used to go to Philadelphia and stand in line with the bums, with dirty clothes on and a smear on my cheek, and a face that hadn’t been washed in a week — as Edgar Guest would say — and stand there and get tons of money from people going into Gimbels Department Store. And then I’d take all of the rest of the guys because it’s easier for a kid to get money than it is for an older person. And then we’d all go and buy a bunch of Philly cheese sandwiches and sit around and then go back and do it again. And I’d do it all weekend and sleep in a flophouse. And I was twelve.” The memory of this activity would inspire Landon’s creation of the Albert Ingalls character on Little House on the Prairie in 1978.
Much of Landon’s semi-autobiographical 1984 film Sam’s Son was based on his relationship with Eli and, to a greater extent, how he developed into an outstanding thrower of the javelin in high school. Thanks to an almost obsessive regimen of practice — including knocking the slats out of the family’s picket fence — and despite his thin frame, he built up a powerful left arm and, in 1954, set a distance record of more than 183 feet. This accomplishment resulted in a scholarship offer from USC in Santa Barbara, which was fortuitous considering that Landon graduated 299th in a class of 301. Although blessed with a genius level intellect, he felt the best way for a small, unpopular Jewish kid to fit in with a predominantly Gentile student body was to become the class clown. “I studied hard, but I couldn’t get good grades,” Landon revealed several years later in a public service announcement promoting a video seminar entitled Where There’s a Will, There’s an A. A strong advocate for education, he agreed to allow the program to continue being broadcast after his death.
Landon’s days as a master of the javelin were short-lived. Convinced that his impressive strength was related psychologically to the then uncommon length of his hair — a result of seeing a hirsute Victor Mature as the Biblical strongman in the 1949 film Samson and Delilah — he suddenly lost his “magic” when a gang of goons from the football team held him down and cut it off. Not one to give up easily, Landon was determined to duplicate his personal best, practicing so vigorously that he tore a ligament in his left arm, putting an end to his days as a college athlete and student.
By this time, Landon’s sister Evelyn — now calling herself Vickie — had moved to Los Angeles and was enrolled in classes being conducted by noted acting instructor Estelle Harmon. Landon, then working in a department store warehouse, teased his sister and a fellow student about how foolish their aspirations struck him. In response, the fledgling thespians dared him to audition and see if he could do any better. He accepted their challenge and so impressed Harmon with his naturalistic approach to the craft that he was invited to join the class. Landon, whose only experience had been playing a Japanese houseboy in a Collingswood production of The Bat when he was in junior high, was appreciative but not sure acting was in his future.
A fellow warehouse employee who was hoping to break into show business asked Landon if he would help him try out for the talent school run by Warner Bros. Studio, performing a scene from Home of the Brave, a play by Arthur Laurents concerning bigotry in the military. For the 1949 film adaptation, the persecuted soldier was portrayed by black actor James Edwards, but in the original stage version he was Jewish. Landon’s co-worker did not want to take on the intense role in the two-man scene, so it fell to Landon to do the more serious emoting. His effective characterization resulted in his being admitted to the school. The co-worker returned to the warehouse.
Feeling that perhaps acting was not such a bad idea, Landon took a job pumping gas at a service station across the street from Warner Bros., hoping to interact with some of the studio executives who could be helpful in furthering his career. He eventually signed with Bob Raison, an agent who advised him to change his name to something more theatrical and memorable than Eugene Orowitz. Landon’s first suggestion was Michael Lane, which Raison vetoed. The Screen Actors Guild already had someone by that name registered, a character player who, coincidentally, was, like Landon, about to appear in a number of television Westerns. Raison proposed Michael London, which his client regarded as too stuffy, instead settling on Landon after a perusal of the phone book.
Although he seemed to be on his way, Landon would never totally embrace the often superficial Hollywood lifestyle, due largely to an incident involving his father which occurred, ironically, outside the gates of Paramount Studio, where he would soon attain stardom on Bonanza. Eli, preparing to join his offspring in California, had set up a job interview with some of his old associates, who had moved from RKO to Paramount, located on the adjoining lot. Landon drove his father to the appointment and waited while Eli went to check in with the guard at the studio gate. Nearly half an hour later, Eli returned to the car, visibly shaken. His “friends” said they were too busy to see him. Landon decided then and there that he “wasn’t going to expect anything from anybody that had to do with business, and I wasn’t going to worry about somebody’s friendship if it affected what I did for a living. Unlike my father, I wasn’t going to take garbage from anybody.”
Landon’s first professional job was not in film or television but in a stage production of Tea and Sympathy at the Players Ring Theater in Hollywood. His performance drew critical raves, and casting directors around town, especially in television, took notice, leading to parts on Passing Parade and Crossroads, a dramatic anthology on ABC. He was also cast in his first Western, making a brief appearance as a cavalry soldier in “Decision,” an episode of the Warner Bros. series Cheyenne that would air in early 1956.
Michael Landon’s life on the Hollywood prairie had begun.
Enjoyed this sample?
Find more at BearManor Media
See our complete catalog at www.bearmanormedia.com
Please enjoy the first chapter of Michael Landon: The Career and Artistry of a Television Genius. MICHAEL LANDON: Actor, Writer, Director, Producer For over three decades, Michael Landon's creative gifts touched millions of viewers around the world on Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, Highway to Heaven and in several other productions. This is the first detailed examination of his work both in front of and behind the camera, including information about every Landon script. Among the illustrations are some rarely seen photographs. "I am grateful that one of Michael's greatest admirers has devoted an entire book to a serious study of his productions, and I hope readers will appreciate David Greenland's efforts as much as I do." - CINDY LANDON