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Hall of Fame
November 21, 2017

Michael Landon: Hall of Fame Tribute

Rip Rense

There is a moment in the life of the late Michael Landon that is the stuff of myths. When he was about 17, in gym class back in Collingswood, New Jersey, the coach invited the kids to try throwing an old metal javelin. None of the boys had probably ever seen one up close before, and each took a crack at flinging the wobbly missile a few yards. The big kids managed to get some fairly good distance. Then it was Landon's turn — or rather Eugene Orowitz's, for that was his given name.

The skinny, left-handed lad who hoisted the stick was somewhat introverted — long oppressed by a terribly abusive and downright weird life in his two-story red-brick home. His parents (as Gene would later reveal in interviews with the press) sometimes didn't speak a word to each other for months; his mother staged elaborate suicide attempts in front of Gene and his sister, and beat them routinely. The kids often had to wait for permission to eat their meals — bite by bite.

Young Gene cocked that spear and let it fly. He didn't even take much of a running start. He just launched the thing. It soared far down the field, way past the spot where the big kids' markers were — in fact, past the entire field. By the time it came down, it was bouncing and clanging around in the bleachers some 30 feet beyond the next best effort.

Whatever was in that throw — sheer life force, or years of pent-up frustration, or both — is the same stuff that carried Gene out of New Jersey, across the United States (on a track scholarship to the University of Southern California), and into a career that is without parallel in television history.

Michael Landon went his own way, and he went far.

There have been a few figures in TV's four-plus decades who were so bankable that practically anything they did was a success: Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Bob Newhart come to mind. There have been even fewer who succeeded — spectacularly and repeatedly — outside the industry establishment. Those who have can largely credit a single factor: audience loyalty. Landon must be counted near the top of this group.

A segment of the population simply never stopped loving the feisty, playful, gutsy, sensitive, somewhat hotheaded Little Joe Cartwright, having grown up with him during the 14 years (!) Landon played him on Bonanza. A lot of that audience showed up again when Landon became the wise and resolute patriarch of a pioneer family in Little House on the Prairie for its 10-year run in the 1970s, and for Highway to Heaven for five years during the 1980s. When Landon first approached Brandon Tartikoff at NBC in 1984 about portraying an angel named Jonathan Smith in Heaven, that proven audience appeal was the determining factor in Tartikoff's decision. Jay Eller, Landon's close friend and business manager of three decades, remembered:

“Brandon, who chose the story himself — was the first one to admit that he thought the concept of Highway to Heaven was ludicrous … But because it was Michael Landon's concept, they went with it, and it turned out to be very successful. No matter what product Michael came up with, the public loved him and would tune him in.”

There was another reason Tartikoff bought the project, of course: as intimately as Landon's fans felt they knew him, Landon knew them equally well. He knew that a large segment of the population still preferred a well-told story-with-a-moral over dazzling special effects, gratuitous sex scenes, and gruesome violence. As his widow, Cindy, put it: "I think that Michael really knew how to touch peoples' hearts with simple stories. He knew how to do it so well, and he knew there was definitely an audience for it."

Added Eller: “Michael was an observer. He walked through a lot of life before he ever got into the industry. He saw a lot, and understood a lot. The single most important thing he had going for him was the understanding of what people are all about, what the people wanted to see and know about.”

It's corny to say, but the more you hear about Landon, the more you are apt to wish you could have known him. Perhaps this is what kept his fans coming back; perhaps they sensed that the man on screen had much in common with the man off­screen; that they were getting a likeable, warm­hearted, sincere, and authentic presence. Those who knew Landon describe an astonishingly knowledgeable (he was addicted to reading), affable soul with a facile, retentive, relentlessly curious mind — and a sense of humor as honed as his flair for cinematic crafting of a poignant tale. Like his characters, he was good to people, he was modest, he exalted decency and devotion to work and family — really. Receiving awards, or being inducted into a hall of fame, one friend offered, simply didn't interest him. Working was his reward — conceiving an idea and executing it successfully. He departed this existence with many plans left unfulfilled (a new series, Us, about a wrongly convicted ex-con turned wandering journalist, plus more directing) — but he lived, it would seem, as fully as he recommended in a Life magazine article published shortly before his death from cancer at age 55 in 1991:

While life lasts, it's good to remember that death is coming, and it's good that we don't know when. It keeps us alert, reminds us to live while we have the chance. Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.

Although he was a gregarious man with a great love of people (he was father and stepfather to nine children in two marriages), it's not surprising that Landon wound up as an independent producer. He had a streak of loner in him — certainly a consequence of his rather solitary childhood, a time when his best friend was probably his shadow. Landon's sister, Vickie King, told how young Gene would spend entire days in a park across the street in Collingswood, fishing in a little lake, looking at comic books, sailing balsa wood model airplanes, talking to himself, even doing something that seemed to foreshadow his acting career.

"Once," she said, "when he was about six years old, he really convinced my mother that there was an elephant coming down the street, like 10 blocks from the main street to where our house was. He was very, very convincing."

Such prodigious imagination was much more than consolation for an aloof, confused child — it became the centerpiece of Landon's inspiration as an actor, director, and writer. The writing part started early — and illustrates another famous facet of Landon's character: the prankster. (One of his most famous stunts was a variation on the old elephant theme; he actually had one delivered to the home of his great friend, the late Bonanza co-star Dan Blocker, who died of a heart attack in 1970.) Landon's sister remembered: “When it would come to any book report he would have to do in school — grade school or high school — he wouldn't read any books. He made them up! It was absolutely fantastic. He especially opted to do oral book reports. He'd just make them up on the spur of the moment, and always get an A-plus. And the teacher would say, “God, that's a fantastic story — I don't think I've ever heard of that author before.” He could make up better stories than they had in the library!”

Did he have an aversion to reading?

"Oh, no. He found some books interesting, but his stories were much more descriptive. A lot of them were about animals and Alaska, things like that. He read a lot, but he really preferred to make stories up."

No wonder, years later when a script was overdue for an episode of Bonanza, and shooting schedule was threatened, Landon hustled home and knocked out a plot practically overnight. It saved the shoot — his first success in a long career as a screenwriter. As one-time Bonanza associate producer Kent McCray put it, “he just had a knack — he could sit down and write a script in a week. It just came to him. He did not start with an outline. He had a thought, and he would take the thought and go with it. He was terribly gifted.”

McCray, who eventually formed a production company with Landon for Highway to Heaven, said Bonanza was a kind of proving ground for Landon's childhood fantasies — and possibly a therapeutic one: “A lot of his time as a kid was spent imagining different things — stories — and I think Bonanza finally became a release to let all these things come out. He always said he would go back and think about things that he would talk about to himself in New Jersey. He would pull out some of the old things that had happened, some that weren't so nice, and use them in acting.”

The technique remained a constant. During breaks in shooting on Little House and Highway, friends say, Landon would regale cast and crew with hilarious anecdotes in all sorts of dialects — suddenly break away in mid-sentence to shoot a difficult, emotional scene — then just as abruptly return to finish the story. How was he able to turn on the tears so easily? Said McCray: "We used to always ask, 'How can you just cry like that,' and he'd say, 'I think of Dan Blocker.'"

But to get back to that javelin …

As a high school senior, young Gene eventually threw the thing farther than any high school kid in the country. He headed for USC (declaring a drama and speech major), where his future in sports seemed assured. But here enters another part of the Landon myth — something that he borrowed from long-extant mythology in the form of a movie starring Victor Mature. "He had this belief in his hair,” said Cindy Landon. "The longer he grew his hair, the stronger he became. He got this idea after seeing Samson and Delilah. He believed it."

He really did — and that is the reason he had a bushy, full head of brunette hair for the rest of his life (or "medium ash brown," as he joked about the dye color he later used). He believed it so much that when a bunch of jocks at USC wrestled him to the ground and shaved his head as a joke, it ended his track career. He promptly lost his touch, dislocated his elbow, and drifted away from school. Next stop: the San Fernando Valley and a job unloading freight cars.

Next stop: the movies. A pal named Steve Marlow, who was also unloading freight cars, had snagged an audition at Warner Bros. and invited Michael Landon along (he was using his professional name at the time, having plucked it from a phone book). It isn't really very surprising that a guy who could invent oral book reports off-the-cuff and convince his mother that a pachyderm was waddling down the street would pass an acting audition, and land a part. He did. One part led to another — there were appearances in Los Angeles playhouses, The Bell Telephone Hour, bit parts in Westerns. There was the infamous role as the hairy protagonist of I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Did he ever live that one down?

"Yes, he did," chuckled Cindy Landon. “I think that was probably the beginning, one of the movies that made him very popular. Michael and I used to watch it and laugh. He would still do the imitation; make the face, do the growling and the whole bit. He was always cutting up. A lot of people thought he was a serious person because of his shows, but he was a practical joker.” (One oft-repeated stunt concerned Landon courting Cindy. After hearing her extolling the virtues of male chest hair, he set off promptly to make-up and had a "chest toupee" applied that was roughly equivalent to an unmowed lawn.)

He was signed to play Little Joe exactly four years after high school, and became a bonafide star. Shortly thereafter, something happened that was to dramatically reprioritize his life, and shape the rest of his career. As he wrote in Life magazine:

It was a promise to God. I made it while I was holding the hand of my stepdaughter, Cheryl, who was lying near death in a hospital in Tucson. She'd been in a horrible automobile accident. Three people were killed. She was the only survivor … I couldn't bear to see her die, so I stayed with her in intensive care, day after day, holding her hand, talking to her … The nurses said it was useless … Baloney … And I spoke to God, too. I promised God that if he would let her live, I would do something useful with my life, something to make the world a little better because I'd been here. Cheryl did get well, and I've tried to keep the promise. Since that day every script I've written and every series I've produced … have expressed the things that I most deeply believe.

He made good on that promise with many scripts for Little House, Highway and several movies, including Sam's Son, a semi-autobiographical story of a kid who believed in the power of his hair; The Loneliest Runner, about a child's struggle with bed­wetting; and a tender, autobiographical NBC movie-of-the-week called Where Pigeons Go to Die with Art Carney — the story about a boy losing his grandfather.

The whole Highway to Heaven series, when you get down to it, was born of altruistic impulse (it's the story of an angel appearing in different guises to remind people of the goodness in life). McCray explained: "Michael was stuck in traffic. Everybody was honking horns, and people weren't too happy. And he said to himself, 'Maybe there's a way of showing people a better way of life,' and that's where the story came from."

Landon faced his tragic diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer with courage and humor. He fought the disease tooth-and-nail, and tapped into that same kind of mind-over-matter faith that had enabled him to gain strength through belief that it was tied to his hair. He was vital nearly to the end, appearing on The Tonight Show just a few weeks before passing away, looking fit, doing push-ups. He joked to pal Eller that he was particularly irked about departing this earth because one of his nine dogs, a female, reviled him, and, as he said with mock-­bitterness, "That bitch is going to outlive me!" When McCray and his wife went to visit for the last time, Landon — who spent many an hour hashing over current events with the McCrays while they drove to work together each morning — spoke his final words to them, "So what do you think will happen in Afghanistan?"

He was particularly excited about his next series, Us, according to Cindy Landon, because "he got to be a normal human being again. He didn't have to be the angel."

Of course, as it turned out, he did.

This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Michael Landon's induction in 1995.

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