Michael Landon: His Troubled But Beautiful "Bonanza" Life On And Off The "Prairie" And After "Heaven"

Herbie J Pilato

Photo byThe Classic TV Preservation Society

The life of Michael Landon, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1991, was not always easy. But the star of TV classics like Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven, still made his mark in the world. To this day, decades after he played Little Joe, Charles Ingalls, and Jonathan Smith on those shows (respectively), millions of people around the world continue to enjoy his work as an actor, producer, writer, and director.

As documented on Grunge.com, Landon was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz to Jewish and Catholic parents in 1936. His dad struggled as a movie publicist, while his mom was an actress who harbored suicidal thoughts. Landon's parents constantly fought with each other. Crumbling under the pressure, Landon, as explained by Entertainment Weekly, used to wet his bed, and his mom would humiliate him by hanging the bedsheet to dry outside. 

Landon's daughter, Cheryl Landon Wilson, recalled her father's troubled youth in her book, I Promised My Dad. As Grunge.com reported of an incident on the beach with his mother, "Landon tried to control the situation, he looked outside the window and saw his mother. He realized she was going deeper and deeper into the water and rushed after her, pulling her back to safety. Landon didn't even know how to swim at that point. Wilson wrote that her father's childhood experiences had made him decide early on that he would never follow in his parent's footsteps as an adult and live differently."

Entertainment Weekly also documented the traumatic experiences of Landon's youth. He was frequently bullied by his classmates for being half-Jewish. He was frail and angry as a child. Additionally, his mother bullied him and his dad at home.

Cheryl Landon Wilson further described how exhausting life was for the family in I Promised My Dad. Wilson wrote, "She [Landon's mother] bullied everyone, including her husband. Dad felt his father shouldn't have allowed such things to happen." Landon believed that it was a bit too much for his father, who eventually grew weary of it all.

Decades after he died, the details surrounding Landon's health, were investigated.

As documented in the Reelz Channel Landon-geared episode of Autopsy: The Last Hours of…"For nine years, Little House on the Prairie was filmed just 15 miles away from the Santa Susana Nuclear Laboratory."

According to costar Karen Grassle, who played Caroline Ingalls, "it took months and months for us to find the right outdoor location" to film the show, which ran from 1974–83. "Finally, this ranch was found out in Simi Valley," she explained to People Magazine in 2019. "It was perfect for us."

But "when hundreds of local residents started suffering from cancer, scientists discovered that the Santa Susana lab had been the site of the worst radioactive disaster in U.S. history and that years of contamination had prompted a cancer epidemic," the narrator said in the clip.

As a result of the "cancer epidemic," numerous studies were performed in the area.

According to People, on March 27, 1992, the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) "released a report that examined the incidence of cancer among residents of Los Angeles (1978 to 1988) and Ventura Counties (1988 to 1989)," according to the government website.

As documented in the report, residents "living near the SSFL were not at increased risk for developing cancers associated with radiation exposure."

In either case, in his final days, Landon's condition got worse. As People Magazine concluded:

"On his last weekend alive, Landon gathered his inner circle at the ranch, including Cindy, all nine of his children, longtime friend and business partner Kent McCray, and his wife. They kept a vigil in Landon's upstairs bedroom, where very near the end, according to McCray, Landon said, 'I love you all very much, but would you all go downstairs and give me some time with Cindy.' She was the only one with him when he died, at around 1:20 p.m. on Monday, July 1, 1991. Landon's body was cremated the next day."

But Michael Landon's heart and soul remain in his work, which will be beloved and cherished by his fans forever.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including RETRO ACTIVE TELEVISION, THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS, 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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