Whatever else he may have held dear, Michael Landon believed in his hair. Such was his Samsonian conviction that, when a gang of short-haired fellow athletes at the University of Southern California trimmed Landon’s undulating mane in 1955, his ability to throw a javelin, he later claimed, withered to such an extent that he not only stopped training, he dropped out of USC altogether.
Thus it was particularly ironic that the chemotherapy doctors prescribed to treat the pancreatic cancer that ultimately took Landon’s life on July 1, 1991, would almost certainly have deprived him of his hair. The famously strong-willed Landon would have none of it. He discontinued the chemo after his first treatment (for reasons beyond the follicular) and looked to alternative medicine for a cure. As he said to life magazine during his struggle, ”If you think I’m getting a haircut now, you’re out of your mind. I’ll look like Moses before this is over.”
When it was over for Landon, at age 54, he had loomed, if not like Moses exactly, certainly very large in the lives of TV viewers and, more specifically, those American families who watched TV together. From the earnest boyishness of Little Joe Cartwright in Bonanza through the square-jawed fatherhood of Charles Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie, to the avuncular benevolence of Jonathan Smith in Highway to Heaven, Landon became — over an unbroken 30-year stretch — an ineluctable symbol of humanism in an increasingly cynical society.
Critics may have scorned the on-the-sleeve sentimentality of Little House and Highway, over both of which Landon had nearly total creative control, but the actor held firm in his dedication to family-oriented programming. ”There are very few shows that can, on a regular basis, give the audience a good cry,” he said. ”I know I can do that — and if I do it well, they’ll be back.”
When it came to his publicly waged struggle with cancer, however, Landon shunned jerking tears for tickling ribs: His final TV appearance came on May 9, 1991’s Tonight Show, and, while refuting tabloid speculation about his treatment, Landon asked the studio audience if anyone had ever taken a coffee enema (which he used to lessen intestinal pain). To the person who replied in the affirmative, Landon said, ”You must be fun to have breakfast with.”
Landon’s own family life was hardly the idyll his TV personas would lead one to assume. Two of his three marriages ended in divorce, and his son Michael Jr. produced an unflattering autobiographical TV movie that raised more than a few eyebrows. But it was Landon’s belief that family life could be different from his own that inspired his craft. And, as in his battle with cancer, it was that belief that was his strength.
Time Capsule: July 1, 1991
At the movies, Leslie Nielsen leads the box office laugh riot with The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear. On television, amid TV’s summer doldrums, ABC’s Family Matters makes a rare finish at No. 1 in the Nielsens. In music, Paula Abdul’s soulfully sedate ”Rush, Rush” continues its run atop the Billboard singles chart. And in the news, President Bush nominates Clarence Thomas to fill Thurgood Marshall’s Supreme Court seat. The judge went on to win the Senate’s vote, but only after a lengthy and scandal-filled confirmation process.