Michael Landon and his TV Triple Threat: "Bonanza," "Little House on the Prairie," and "Highway to Heaven"

Herbie J Pilato

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[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

[Author's Note: All quotes and commentary that appear in this article were culled from interviews the author conducted with those individuals mentioned.]

In the realm of male television icons, they did not come any better looking or more beloved than Michael actor/writer/director Michael Landon.

Landon, who died of pancreatic cancer, in 1991, began his career on-camera with the campy, sci-fi feature film classic, I Was A teenage Werewolf, which was released in 1957 (with a budget of approximately $82,000).

With Landon's striking charisma, accented by his deep blue eyes, razor-sharp cheekbones, full mane of tousled locks, and wide, illuminating smile, the actor won over millions of female viewers of every age. His behind-the-scenes theatrical talents, intellect, creative vision, and sense of humor earned him accolades among his peers of every gender, and further added to and sealed his magnetic appeal.

The extensive amount of time, money, and effort that Landon donated for decades to the televised Easter Seal Telethon (which he periodically hosted) displayed his generosity of mind, heart, soul, and humanity.

Landon enjoyed an astonishing multi-hyphenate career; a success that was all the more impressive given that he was relatively small in stature (5’9″), and retained a boyishness that would have robbed a lesser man of the aura of authority needed to attain his career heights.

Although he never found much motion picture success on the big screen beyond I Was A Teenage Werewolf, Landon became a popular staple on television in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s until his demise at much too young an age of 54.

But Landon will forever be remembered for his triple threat of top television shows all of which aired on NBC: He was Little Joe on Bonanza (1959–1973, co-starring Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, and Pernell Roberts, caring father Charles Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie (1974–1983 co-starring Melissa Gilbert, Dean Butler, Karen Grassle) and Jonathan, the Angel, on Highway to Heaven (1984 to 1989, co-starring Victor French).

Landon received his big break at age twenty-two when he was hired to play Little Joe which was, among other things, television's second-longest running western (fourteen years next to CBS's two-decade-old Gunsmoke), and the first hour-long show western filmed in color.

Toward the end of his days on the Ponderosa (which for a time was not only the title of the Cartwright's on-screen homestead but also the syndicated edition of the show), Landon started directing episodes. That led to his full-time acting, producing, and directing duties on Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven.

Entertainment journalist Ann Hodges, who for years wrote about television for The Houston Chronicle, once assessed:

"The key to Michael Landon's success was his sweetness. And I say that because he started out playing the sweet son, Little Joe, on Bonanza, then later as the sweet angel Jonathan on Highway to Heaven. But in between those shows, he was the sweet father on Little House on the Prairie, which really made him a mainstay on television. And people still love Little House, no matter what generation they are from."

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA
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