Iconic actor Michael Landon was a star, popular for several roles, including his appearances on Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven. Landon donned several hats in his career as an actor, producer, writer, and director. According to the Television Academy, he was on the cover of TV Guide 22 times, and the only person who managed to outdo him was Lucille Ball. His contribution to the entertainment world was recognized in 1995, when he received a spot on the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame.
Throughout his career, Landon effortlessly stood out with his good looks and luscious locks. According to Mental Floss, the actor was proud of the way he looked and was always comfortable in front of the camera, gladly appearing on-screen shirtless without batting an eye. He was also a fun co-star to be around and knew how to amuse his colleagues with a bunch of jokes or interesting anecdotes.
However, underneath the jovial appearance, there was a lot more to Michael Landon’s life than most people knew. Here’s a glimpse into the tragic life and death of one of America’s most memorable actors.
Michael Landon’s childhood was hard
Michael 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, wrote about her father’s traumatic childhood in her book, I Promised My Dad. She described how one of his mother’s suicide attempts particularly stood out in Landon’s memory. The family was at the beach. After an argument, Landon’s mom left, walking toward the sea. As 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 into the water and rushed after her, pulling her back to safety. Landon didn’t even know how to swim at that point. Cheryl wrote that her father’s childhood experiences had made him decide early on that he would never follow in his parents’ footsteps as an adult and live differently.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Michael Landon went through some tough moments
Michael Landon’s beginnings were full of tough moments. Per Entertainment Weekly, he was often bullied by his classmates for being half-Jewish. He was thin and angry as a child. Additionally, his mother bullied him and his dad at home. Landon’s daughter, Cheryl, described how exhausting life was for the family in I Promised My Dad. Cheryl 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.
Cheryl wrote that Landon spent a lot of time by himself. "He retreated more and more into his solitary world," she explained. He’d often fantasize about building an identity for himself, away from his current reality. Later in his life, in the 1950s, he faced immense disappointment when his dad tried to get him a gig in Los Angeles through his connections at RKO Radio Pictures (via People). It was an embarrassing moment for the father-son duo, as Landon’s dad couldn’t even get onto the property because of a steadfast security guard. Landon decided, at that point, to make sure that he was independent. "No matter what I did," he said, "I wasn’t going to owe anybody a favor."
Michael Landon was a good athlete
Despite encountering several obstacles early in his life, Michael Landon was undoubtedly talented and discovered that quickly. He was an excellent javelin thrower. According to the Chicago Tribune, Landon’s low grades didn’t stop him from excelling, and he scored an athletic scholarship from the University of Southern California after graduating from high school. He was at the university for a year, during which he worked on his skills and also supported himself by holding down odd jobs (via The Washington Post).
As Cheryl described in I Promised My Dad, Landon was determined and had always been fascinated by acting. While harboring dreams of competing in the Olympics, he also decided to be a part of his university’s speech and drama department. Unfortunately, more bullying followed at the university, and Landon sustained a serious injury on the field. Unable to cope as his athletic performance suffered, he decided to take a break and rebuild. Landon continued to make a living through odd jobs and focused on getting by, even working as a babysitter at one point and eventually working in a soup factory, followed by a ribbon factory. He was determined to excel, no matter what he was doing.
Michael Landon was an accidental actor
While it’s true that Michael Landon enjoyed acting, he didn’t plan on pursuing it professionally. Nevertheless, he found himself doing exactly that through a series of unexpected events. According to Cheryl’s account in I Promised My Dad, while Landon was working at the ribbon factory, a colleague asked him to assist him with an audition for Warner Bros. Landon was happy to help and found himself enjoying the acting process. He still needed to make ends meet and decided to take a job at a gas station near the Warner Bros. studios. He hoped that being close to the studio would help him in terms of networking. It did. He was spotted by an executive who motivated him to sign up for acting classes.
He continued supporting himself through random work gigs as he made his way through acting school, determined to see it through. He changed his name to Michael Landon, choosing the name from a phone book, and broke into the acting scene in the mid-1950s. Landon wasn’t an overnight success, though, and worked hard to get parts, auditioning whenever he could and doing small roles until he got his first real break.
Michael Landon’s first break was in 1957
Michael Landon’s first major break was a 1957 horror film called I Was A Teenage Werewolf, which helped him get noticed. Per the Orlando Sentinel, the movie was unconventional, and Landon went all-out in his role as a teenager who was troubled and had a hard time coping as things escalated around him, much like his own life. In I Promised my Dad, Cheryl wrote that her father didn’t have high expectations at first. "With a title like that, Dad didn’t expect much, but it was a starring role and he was getting paid," she reflected. "The strange thing is, the film has become a cult classic…" she added.
After I Was A Teenage Wolf, things started looking up a bit for Landon, according to Cheryl. He pursued several roles in movies like High School Confidential, The Legend Of Tom Dooley, and a film based on Erskine Caldwell’s book, God’s Little Acre.
Bonanza helped Michael Landon become a household name
As illustrated by The New York Times, things took off for Michael Landon in 1959, when he was hired to play Little Joe in Bonanza. Aged 22 at the start, he was Little Joe for a long time onscreen — 14 years, to be precise — and he was loved for his portrayal of the ideal son in a ranch-like setting in Nevada (via Entertainment Weekly). Bonanza was the first TV Western to be broadcast in color and wasn’t initially expected to be such a raging hit.
It really took off after NBC started showcasing it to audiences over the weekends, and by 1964, it was ruling viewers’ hearts. The show enjoyed a loyal fan following and maintained its popularity for years until it concluded in 1973. Without a doubt, Bonanza made Landon a force to be reckoned with, paved the way for his robust acting career, and helped him find his niche and identity in the cutthroat entertainment industry.
Michael Landon was shaken by his dad’s death
While Michael Landon was busy working on his career and trying to make a name for himself as an actor, he suffered a major setback in 1959. His father was accustomed to a routine that he usually followed: Grab lunch next to a theater he was managing and sample the soup of the day every time he dropped by (via I Promised My Dad). One day, though, he said the soup was good, as usual, right before suffering a major heart attack.
According to Cheryl, Landon was shaken by his father’s unexpected passing and mourned his loss. He also started to believe that his fate would be similar — that he’d go early because of a heart attack. He tried to grieve and make sense of his loss in his own way. "Typical of Dad, he took this upsetting conviction and changed it into a kind of comedy routine in which he’d suddenly grab his chest, call out ‘Adiós!’ and drop to the ground," Cheryl wrote.
Landon took care of his father’s funeral costs and also ensured that he was looking out for his mother’s and sister’s financial needs throughout his life. Losing his father left him shaken for days, and he had a hard time when he got back on set while filming The Legend Of Tom Dooley. He was still grieving and learning to live with his loss.
Michael Landon drew criticism for his perfectionism
Later in his career, Michael Landon wished to take control and oversee his work, an aspect of his personality that irritated many co-workers. According to The New York Times, when Landon turned to directing a few episodes of Bonanza and even writing them, he was his own worst critic and believed that some of the episodes weren’t as good as what they’d already done. Additionally, because he was always chasing perfection, he ended up having a few disagreements with those he worked with.
David Dortort, who was Bonanza’s executive producer, once remarked, "Landon developed very quickly as a good director. Then, as an actor, he began to criticize what he thought were errors being made by other Bonanza directors. It was the same with Mike Landon, the writer. He’d challenge nearly every line, every scene, every setup in other writers’ scripts. It got increasingly bitter toward the end." Landon was labeled as arrogant and stubborn at times, but he said that he didn’t want to blame others for his mistakes and would rather take responsibility in case an episode didn’t work as expected.
Michael Landon’s family life wasn’t perfect
Unfortunately for Michael Landon, his personal life, particularly in terms of romance, wasn’t perfect. He was married three times as he navigated rocky relationships. As aptly described by People, Landon was often depicted as a family man on one of his most popular shows, Little House on the Prairie, but his reality was different.
The failure of his first marriage can be chalked up being too young, as explained by People’s Pamela Lansden. However, Landon was truly upset when people thought he left his second wife for a younger woman. "You don’t dissolve a relationship to go to bed with someone 20 years younger. You have to have major differences and a deep-rooted need to stop a relationship after as many years as I was married. I would have done anything to make that relationship continue, but I could not," Landon reflected later.
Landon found domestic bliss with the lady he had the affair with, Cindy Clerico, who was a makeup artist at the time. In fact, Landon was so committed to continuing his family and making up for everything he’d lost in his early years that he had his vasectomy reversed after he married Cindy.
Michael Landon had a falling-out with Melissa Gilbert
Melissa Gilbert was one of Michael Landon’s co-stars on Little House on the Prairie. According to ABC News, Gilbert looked up to Landon. "Our relationship was very close, and it grew even deeper when my father passed away [in 1976]. Our families got close. We went on vacation to Hawaii together every Easter. His son Mike Jr. was my prom date," Gilbert revealed.
Unfortunately, their relationship suffered a setback when it was discovered that Landon was having an affair with Cindy. Gilbert was heartbroken. In I Promised My Dad, Cheryl wrote that Gilbert was as surprised as Landon’s own family was when details of the affair came out. Cheryl added that Gilbert had publicly commented that Landon leaving his wife for someone younger proved that he was far from perfect. According to Mental Floss, the affair had a detrimental effect on Gilbert’s relationship with Landon. She stayed polite but wasn’t as friendly with Landon as she used to be, and they didn’t communicate for a long time after the show ended. Gilbert wouldn’t speak to Landon again until 1990.
Despite their long period of friction, Gilbert remembered her on-screen father with fondness later in life. "He was an amazing man, an amazing talent, an incredible director, actor, writer, a great boss, an incredible human being," she said in 2009.
Michael Landon battled cancer
Michael Landon’s life was irrevocably changed when he received a cancer diagnosis in April 1991, though he remained strong and wasn’t scared of dying. According to the Associated Press, Landon said, ″Look, there’s two things that can happen. I can win or I can lose. And I can handle both," in an interview with Life magazine. After begin diagnosed, he devoted a lot of his time to his family while focusing on treatment options like chemotherapy and experimental treatments.
Landon stated that he wouldn’t simply lose hope and would fight back. He also said that he had faith in God and family and wasn’t scared because of his faith. ″So I don’t see why I should fear death — and I don’t. I don’t want to die, and I’m going to fight like hell not to, but I’m not afraid to die," he said.
In I Promised My Dad, Cheryl reflected on one of her biggest regrets: the fact that her father spent much of his final weeks not seeing his children because of miscommunication between her and Cindy. The latter told Cheryl and her siblings that Landon could only see them on the weekends, which was far from the truth. Cheryl wrote that she felt deep pain and regret when she found out the truth and feared that Landon may have misunderstood why his kids didn’t spend more time with him.
Michael Landon’s death was a massive blow to fans
Michael Landon may not have been afraid of death, but when he passed away at the age of 54 in July 1991, he left many fans heartbroken. When he passed, former President Ronald Reagan remembered him, saying, "His tragic battle with cancer touched the hearts of every American, as did his indomitable spirit" (via People). Landon’s funeral was a private affair that had 500 attendees at a memorial park in Los Angeles.
Melissa Gilbert paid tribute to Landon and said that he was a good person. "He was so special and so basically good. With him, you always knew exactly where you stood. The man had integrity," she said. Many years after his passing, Landon’s legacy has stayed thanks to his contribution to American TV shows. As illustrated by People, despite the tragic nature of his death, Landon remained upbeat until the very end and felt he hadn’t missed out on much in his life. "I’ve had a pretty good lick here," he said.