Born Eugene Maurice Orowitz on October 31, 1936 in Forest Hills, NY, second child of Eli Orowitz and Kathleen O’Neill. No one could have known this second child would become known as: Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza, Charles Ingalls on Little House On The Prairie and Jonathan Smith on Highway to Heaven.
February, 1955, he enrolled at USC, but his fellow teammates were jealous of his long hair. On the field, one day, they pinned him down and cut off his hair. After seeing the 1949 film Samson and Delilah, Eugene honestly believed long hair would physically make him stronger. This turn of events proved to be devastating. He went back to
His father was Jewish and his mother Irish Catholic. Kathleen was a popular comedienne and showgirl working on Broadway. Eli was a studio publicist and theater manager.
In 1941 the family moved to Collingswood, New Jersey. Eugene attended Collingswood High and excelled in track and field with an expertise in Javelin throwing. This earned him a scholarship to USC in Los Angeles, CA. Although he was only 299th in a class of 301, he graduated in 1954 with a genius IQ of 159.
In the field and was throwing the javelin when he tore an elbow ligament in his left arm. He totally lost interest and dropped out of USC.
On The Road To Success:
In 1956 Eugene was hoping to be discovered for film and television roles. Realizing his name Eugene Orowitz was not exactly a great marquee name, he started looking through the telephone book for a more suitable name. He decided on Michael Lane until he discovered there was an actor in the Screen Actor’s Guild with that name. Upon continuing his search, he ran into the name Landon and Michael Landon was born.
In 1956 he met a married Dodie Levy-Fraser, a 26 year-old widow with a 7 year-old son. Her husband had been killed in an automobile accident a few years before.
While pumping gas across the street from Warner Brothers Studio, one of the studio’s talent scouts spotted him. He joined the studio’s acting class the next day. In his spare time he sold blankets door to door and believed this an invaluable experience because it taught him to communicate with all sorts of people.
After spending over 2 years waiting for a break, little did he know it was right around the corner. No one ever could have thought that a low budget horror film entitled “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” would start him on the road to unbelievable success!
In 1958, Michael landed small roles in “High School Confidential”,”God’s Little Acre” and “Maracaibo”. He then landed the lead in “The Legend of Tom Dooley” which was a low-budget western film.
In March of 1959, producer David Dortort was searching for a handsome, young actor to portray the youngest son of Ben Cartwright in the hour long series for NBC called “Bonanza”. Remembering Michael from 1957 when they worked together on David’s first TV series “The Restless Gun” in the pilot episode “Duel at Lockwood”, Michael was the perfect choice for the role of Little Joe Cartwright.
Bonanza ran 14 years from 1959 to 1973 making him financially secure bringing him from rags to riches. The show also starred Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright, Pernell Roberts as Adam Cartwright and Dan Blocker as Hoss Cartwright.
In the earlier years of the series, David Dortort referred to Michael’s acting abilities as “The most highly intuitive set of natural acting responses I’ve ever seen in a young actor.”
In 1960, Michael’s marriage was on the rocks when he met 26-year old Marjorie Lynn Noe, a model instructor who worked on live television between modeling gigs. His divorce from Dodie was final in December, 1962 and he married Lynn on January, 1963.
In later years, the show ran out of scripts bringing a great threat of the show being shut down. Michael came up with a story about the Cartwrights being framed for murder and robbery. He wrote the story on yellow legal pads and handed it over to David Dortort. They broke it down into a teleplay, written by Frank Cleaver and was garnered with rave reviews. The story was titled “The Gamble” in 1962.
Michael co-authored three other teleplays for the series “Ballad of the Ponderosa”, Joe Cartwright, Detective” and “The Wormwood Cup”.
By the end of the 1971 – 72 season, Bonanza was out of the top 10 ratings and quite honestly the cast and film crew were growing tired. Both Michael and Lorne knew the show was winding down and their future was uncertain. The sudden death of Dan Blocker was an unexpected blow for both the show and cast members. He died just two weeks after gall bladder surgery on May 13, 1972. His death happened just 19 days before the 1972-1973 season production would start.
The final season of Bonanza started production in June, 1972. Michael wanted to tell a story “Forever” for his best friend Dan Blocker to showcase his acting talents. With Dan’s unexpected death, this was impossible to do. Michael rewrote the script for Joe instead.
On Michael’s birthday, October 31, the Neilson ratings came in with a disastrous No. 53 and the series was canceled on November 3rd. The cast was only given 2 days notice that they would stop filming on the 8th. NBC’s decision left David Dortort in tears and Michael disgusted with NBC.
Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983)
In 1974, Little House on the Prairie pilot film was completed at NBC as a premiere movie. Taking it to a testing house for viewers to rate, it turned out to be the highest tested viewing and rated NBC Movie of the Week. This gave the show the green light and 13 episodes started filming in June of 1974.
Michael was excited to be working on the pilot with Ed Friendly, even though they had earlier had a falling out over the adaptation of the series. Michael felt the series would be way too dark and depressing if they stuck by the books, turning the viewing audience off. NBC backed up Michael and agreed to his adaptation changes.
Michael now playing a compassionate, caring, hard-working father and husband was a big change from his years on Bonanza. Loosely based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, Little House was filled with warmth, heart-filled lessons and a significant alteration in landscaping.
In 1976, the show was at its peak of popularity and success. Unfortunately, Victor French had a falling out with the studio over a contractual dispute and left the show at the end of the 1976-77 season. He returned in an episode in 1979 “The Return of Mr. Edwards” in a dramatic story-line dealing with Edwards’ logging accident that leaves him disabled and losing the will to live.
While filming Little House in 1980, Michael fell in love with a much younger woman through the camera on the set. Cindy Clerico, 23 year-old makeup artist and stand-in for Melissa Sue Anderson and other stars in the series. Although wracked with guilt, he said his 19 year marriage to Lynn was on the rocks for some time.
His relationship with Cindy proved to be professionally ruinous. Not only was he being barbecued by the press, but NBC questioned his ability to portray Charles Ingalls, devoted father and happily married man. An even bigger blow followed when Kodak announced they were removing him as their television spokesman. Even with all controversy, Michael and Cindy married on Valentine’s Day, 1983.
The final season of “Little House on the Prairie” ended on March 21, 1983 with “Hello and Goodbye”.
Highway to Heaven (1984-1989)
Shortly after the finale of Little House, Michael was launched into another project close to his heart. His concept on a new project for NBC was partially based on his favorite movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” and a promise he made God, when his eldest daughter Cheryl was seriously injured in a car accident in 1973. He named the series “Highway to Heaven” and Tartikoff gave him the green light. He wrote the pilot in 4 days, handed to the network and they bought it. Highway started shooting in April, 1984.
The story-line is about a convicted angel, Jonathan, who comes to earth in order to make people’s lives better. Mark Gordon, an ex-cop who worked out of Oakland, is saved from ruin by Jonathan and becomes his partner.
NBC wanted a good-looking co-star for the part of Mark. Michael told the network, the part would be played by his long time friend Victor French or no one at all! As happened so many other times with the network, Michael won!
Upon completion of the pilot, it was sent on to the network’s testing facility where several hundred viewers sampled it. The response was huge, the viewer response sent it sky-high (no pun intended). Highway to Heaven garnished the highest tested show of any pilot on NBC before or since.
Highway to Heaven aired on Wednesday, September 19, 1984 with a 2-hr episode. The pilot kicked off the first of a successful 5 seasons.
“Highway to Heaven” spanned 109 first-run episodes on NBC, with Michael directing 90 episodes and writing 18. Victor French directed 11 episodes. There were nine 2-part episodes as well as a 90 minute episode on November 12, 1986.
Michael canceled the show in December, 1988. Four months later, April 1989, his friend Victor French returned from directing a film in Ireland. He was feeling ill and thought he had the flu. He checked into Sherman Oaks and was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Michael was at his bedside for an all night vigil with Victor’s family on June 15th. Victor passed away from the cancer, he was only 54 years of age.
Highway received 7 Emmy nominations and 11 Young Artist nominations over the five years. Michael received the People’s Choice Award for his work on the series.
The End of the Road — Rest In Peace:
Michael planned a trip to Park City, Utah with his family the last week of March, 1991. Suffering from severe Abdominal pains, the trip was cut short. He had not told anyone that he had been experiencing these pains since February, including his wife.
Knowing something was seriously wrong, he flew back to Los Angeles on April 2nd and checked into Cedars-Sinai on April 3rd or an MRI which revealed a large tumor in his abdomen. Cindy and the children returned to Los Angeles and on April 4th a biopsy was performed with a grim diagnosis.
On Friday, April 5th, the doctor called Michael, giving him the bad news. He had adenocarcinoma, the medical name for cancer of the pancreas. It had spread to his liver and lymph nodes and was inoperable.
Michael held a press conference on April 8th at his Malibu home, looking quite ill and showing a great weight loss.
“I think I have it because for most of my life, though I was never a drunk, I drank too much. I also smoked way too many cigarettes and ate a lot of wrong things. And if you do that, even if you think you’re too strong to get anything, somehow you’re going to pay”
Michael’s one-time TV big brother, Pernell Roberts issued a statement with his reaction: “I am deeply grieved”
On July 1, 1991 at 1:30 pm, Michael passed away at his Malibu home. Services were held at Hillside Memorial Park in West Los Angeles on July 5th.