As Bonanza’s Little Joe, Little House on the Prairie’s kindly homesteader Charles Ingalls or Highway to Heaven’s angelic drifter, Jonathan Smith, Michael Landon always specialized in happy endings. Now he needs one himself. On April 5 the 54-year-old actor was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas, which had spread to the liver; according to the American Cancer Society, only 1 percent of patients with this dire combination survive as long as five years. At a press conference at his Malibu home, Landon was brave and touchingly honest. “We each have our own miracles,” he said. “I’m still hoping to beat it.”
Landon began experiencing stomach cramps seven weeks ago and cut short a family vacation in Utah the first week of April to return to L.A. and check into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Doctors at first suspected an ulcer. Instead, tests revealed tumors.
The diagnosis caught Landon completely by surprise. “At first you just don’t believe it,” the actor said. “Right after I heard there was a possibility, I began doing push-ups, just to make sure I was as strong as the day before.” To drive home that point he did a few push-ups for reporters. “I feel terrific,” he said. “The only difficulty I have is in digesting food, so I have become a papaya juice lover.” The 5’11” actor says he has lost 4 lbs., but pointed out that “you don’t gain a hell of a lot of weight drinking papaya juice.”
Landon’s attempts to lighten the mood were belied by more than a hint of sadness in his eyes. He announced that he would immediately undergo chemotherapy. “If the chemo shrinks [the tumors] to where they are operable, then they’ll do it,” he said.
“He’s a strong guy, and he’s got a great attitude,” says Ron Wise, a Cedars-Sinai spokesman, “in my experience, that has a lot to do with how things go.”
Landon had been planning a trip to the Galágos this spring and a later one to Africa, which he described as “my favorite place, aside from home.” Those are now on hold, as is US, a new CBS series slated for the fall in which he was to play a newspaper columnist.
Landon, who lives with two of his nine children (the youngest is 4; the oldest, an adopted son, is 42) and his third wife, Cindy, 34, spoke of the prayers the family says together. “Life has been good to me,” he said. “I had a pretty good lick here.” Then, turning to reenter his house, he raised a defiant fist in the air.
—David Grogan, Lois Armstrong in Los Angeles