In one sense, the life of Michael Landon is the story of one of showbiz’s great heads of hair — geez, the guy was good- looking, and he knew it. (Not for nothing did Landon always wear tighter pants than anyone else in his shows.) It took the aimless summer channel-surfing discovery of a cable documentary to get me thinking about him, but I’m glad I did, since his is a career worth pondering.
Landon would have been 61 this year; the star of Bonanza (1959-73), Little House on the Prairie (1974-82), and Highway to Heaven (1984-88) — a three-decade trifecta of big-smiling, shaggy-haired TV success — died in 1991 at age 54 of pancreatic and liver cancer. The show I caught (rerunning at 7 p.m. on July 12), part of the E! True Hollywood Story series, is well-done fluff, shaping the actor’s life as a triumph over unloving parents through willpower and his own form of TV therapy.
Recall that Landon was born Eugene Orowitz and you’re off and running. He became a TV star as Little Joe, the rambunctious youngest son in the Western family saga Bonanza, who was always in need of firm guidance, especially from papa Ben Cartwright (played by Lorne Greene) and big brother Hoss (the magnificent Dan Blocker). The year after Bonanza was canceled, Landon, then 37, immediately turned himself into a father figure, adapting Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books for television.
The best interview in the E! special is with Melissa Gilbert, whose own career was made when Landon cast her as Laura on Little House. Her clear-eyed reminiscences depict Landon as an affectionate autodidact who ruled the set with a glare but showered his cast with loyalty and loot and liked to pop live frogs into his mouth to freak out the kids. It was that combination of macho cockiness and a fervent interest in promoting family life — both on screen and, to believe E!, off — that made Landon such an endearing performer. Looking at House and his angel show, Highway to Heaven, now, you may be struck by how stern and unyielding the actor wanted to appear. He wasn’t merely unafraid to make himself look like a rigid taskmaster, he pushed the idea that kids needed a lot of loving discipline — the sort of message millions of once-rebellious baby boomers are currently responding to with the more wet-noodly Touched by an Angel.
Landon was sincere before sincerity got clobbered on TV by terminal irony; that’s why he could pull off sentimental stuff while coming across as a guy you didn’t want to mess with. A true television auteur who produced, wrote, and directed many episodes of his series, he remained in touch with the anxieties of childhood, to the point of making a 1976 TV movie, The Loneliest Runner, about his own traumatic youth as a bed wetter. Landon’s forthrightness allowed him to get away with being self-absorbed, because mainstream America liked the guy so much.
Had Landon lived this far into the ’90s, he might have been gratified to see that his brand of wholesome, lesson-teaching TV is now thriving in series like Angel and 7th Heaven. But more than that, it’s likely he would be starring in his own successful, big-smiling, shaggy-white-haired, ’90s variation on the family-boosting genre. (In fact, the E! special reminds us that shortly before his death, he filmed a pilot for a CBS series called US whose premise was a strong thematic precursor to Promised Land.) Landon’s work fell well outside the realm of innovative popular entertainment, but he provided the kind of emotional nourishment even a critic can appreciate. Today’s feel-good shows are humorless and churlish when compared with the giggly robustness that Landon brought to the form; he’s one definition of TV stardom.