I JUST HAVE TO REMIND MYSELF THAT I’M my own person,” says Michael Landon Jr. You’d need to be issuing yourself such internal memos, too, if you grew up standing in one of the longest shadows in television history. Michael Landon Sr., who died of pancreatic cancer at 54 in July 1991, spent 14 years playing Bonanza’s beloved Little Joe, then went on to become a quadruple threat, as producer-director-writer-star of two other hit series, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. “He did more for television than just about anybody, as far as I’m concerned,” says his 29-year-old son, a handsome, sunny-faced blond.
This Landon would most like to be a director, but so far his only major credit is NBC’s 1991 documentary tribute to his dad. “I’ve been at this 10 years,” says Landon, “and I’m struggling.” That’s why he has decided to gallop down memory lane, playing Little Joe’s grown-up son, Benj, on Bonanza: The Return, a two-hour NBC movie airing Nov. 28. “Getting my first directing shot isn’t easy, and if acting is an avenue, I’ll do it,” explains Landon, who lives in a spanking new three-bedroom home in the San Fernando Valley with wife Sharee, 29, and daughter Ashley, 2. Besides, he adds, “I need the work. I’m not self-sufficient without it. I can’t pay my mortgage without it.” Huh? What about his father’s will, which was once reported to be worth $10 million for each of his nine children? Other than dismissing that estimate as way off base, Landon declines to discuss his inheritance. But his sister Cheryl, 40, claimed in a 1992 memoir that, not long before his death, Landon Sr. revised his will to favor Jennifer, 10, and Sean, 7, the two children from his third—and final—marriage, to Cindy Clerico.
There are glimmerings of Landon’s emotional legacy, as well, in Bonanza: The Return, which has a story line sketched by none other than Michael Jr. Benj, who at first wants to sell off the Ponderosa, resents Little Joe for abandoning Benj’s mom and the kids many years ago, just as Landon Jr. has spent years dealing with the day 14 years ago when his father moved out on Michael Jr.’s mother, Lynn, and in with Cindy, at the time a Little House makeup artist. “I think you can make some comparison between me and Benj in terms of the anger we felt toward our father,” admits Landon, who previously played Little Joe’s son in Bonanza: The Next Generation, a 1988 syndicated TV movie spin-off that he says was much inferior.
Return producer Kent McCray, a longtime friend of Landon Sr.’s and production manager on the original series, says, “Michael [Jr.] had a lot of emotion, more than he let on, and he drew on that emotion for the part.” Landon says simply: “It was tough.”
He prefers to think back to the Little House days in the ’70s. His father (whose first marriage to Dodie Fraser ended in divorce in 1962) had settled down with his second wife, Lynn Noe, and their four children: Michael, Leslie, now 31, Shawna, 21, Christopher, 18, plus Cheryl, the daughter of Lynn’s previous marriage. “We had it so good,” Landon says.
But when his parents split, Michael Jr., then 15, was devastated. Through the rest of his adolescence, he was reckless and rebellious, dabbling with drugs, including marijuana and cocaine. His mom, Lynn, remembers him spending too much time in bed, depressed. He already knew that he wanted to follow Michael Sr. into show business, but he was totally uninterested in grades. He barely graduated from the prestigious, private Buckley School in Los Angeles and lasted only a year at USC. Despite Landon’s denials, a few friends have even speculated that he was the model for the heroin-addicted L.A. brat in Buckley school-male Bret Easton Ellis’s best-selling 1985 novel, Less Than Zero. But even though he saw his dad regularly, “I just didn’t care about anything,” he says. “My old man was everything to me, and he was gone.”
Ultimately his parents’ patience ran out. Both cut him off financially, and his mother finally booted him out of the house. He moved with a friend to a grubby apartment in L.A., then took a job with an industrial video company, working nights as a busboy at a Beverly Hills restaurant. “A very humbling experience,” he says. “The owner would be with a big group of people and tell me to clean something up, like a spilled drink. And as I was walking away, I’d hear him say, ‘That’s Michael Landon’s kid. I’ve got him working for me.’ ”
This sort of humiliation was enough to make Landon come to his senses. When Landon Sr. offered him a job as a film loader on Highway to Heaven, he gratefully accepted. “My dad never opened doors for me beyond that,” says Landon.
But that single door was a crucial one. One day on the set he met Sharee Gregory, whose sister had a part in an episode. Or rather, he heard Sharee talking, he says, “and I thought, ‘If there is a pretty face connected to this voice, I’m going to want to meet her.’ I turned around, and she was the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen.”
They dated for three years and married in 1987. By then Michael was doing film and TV jobs and studying direction at the American Film Institute. And he was working on becoming friends again with his father. The elder Landon was “very appreciative” of one of his student films, he says, and even suggested that young Michael might have the chance to direct future episodes on his planned CBS series, Us.
But Landon Sr. was found to have cancer in April 1991, and he was dead three months later. “We never had that one good talk that resolved everything,” says Michael Jr., although they had made their peace with each other. And the son bid a fitting farewell to his father, before an audience of millions, by directing the TV tribute. “That was a catharsis,” he says.
He regrets, of course, that Michael Sr. didn’t live to see Ashley, his grandchild. Sharee was eight months pregnant at the time of his death. Ashley was born in August 1991. “She’s very bright,” boasts Landon. “She’ll talk about anything you want to talk about. She knows exactly what to do about health care reform.”
This, at least, is one point on which the son resembles his father, whose career so depended on an image of family, perfect or not. “There’s a big kid inside Michael,” says sister Leslie, “just like my dad. I think I see more of my dad in him now that he’s a father.”
Then again, maybe a little less too. “My father didn’t have a smooth life, what with the divorces and what have you,” says Landon. “With all the money and fame in the world, it’s still nothing without your family. And when I started mine, I realized that maybe I’ll just be an ordinary guy. My drive is no less than it was before, but is my life over if I’m not a big success like my father? No.”
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles