Goodbye, Little Joe
TO COUNTLESS TELEVISION VIEWERS OVER THE LAST THREE decades, Michael Landon was the shaggy-haired, ruggedly boyish personification of heartland pieties. As Little Joe Cartwright (Bonanza) and Charles Ingalls (Little House on the Prairie), he radiated the warmth of home, hearth and old-fashioned American neighborliness, as well as a sense of bulldog perseverance against all calamities, natural and man-made. As Jonathan Smith, the angel sublimely aware of earthly troubles in Highway to Heaven, he traced a path toward a community of the human spirit. Moreover, as a writer, director and producer, he became a phenomenally successful entertainment force, one of the few actors to grab the reins of his own career and harness it to his personal vision.
Offscreen Landon represented rougher facets of the American dream. The warmth and sense of familial loyalty were there, to be sure. He fathered six children and adopted three more and clung fiercely to family rhythms—perhaps, in part, because he was the classic unhappy child who determined to make, by sheer force of will, the largest possible imprint upon a hostile world.
And so when it was announced on April 8 that Landon, 54, had fallen victim to pancreatic cancer, a stunned public watched in solemn awe as he turned to make the stand of his life. “If I’m gonna die,” he told LIFE magazine three weeks after his diagnosis, “death’s gonna have to do a lot of fighting to get me.” It was indeed a hard fight but Landon lost, of course, in a final, painful scene that he wished only his wife to share.
After the discovery of the cancer, which had spread to his liver, Landon retreated with his third wife, Cindy, 34, and their two young children to his 10-acre Malibu ranch, where he girded for the battle with a vegetarian diet, a program of vitamins, enzymes and acupuncture. He underwent chemotherapy on April 18. In early May he submitted to an experimental procedure consisting of intravenous administration of a cancer-fighting drug.
These treatments had little chance of success. Only 3 percent of pancreatic cancer patients and 5 percent of liver cancer sufferers survive for five years. According to the American Cancer Society, studies link smoking and alcohol use with these forms of malignancy. Landon has admitted that he indulged too much in both. Says retired NBC publicist Bill Kiley: “We used to say we bet his socks smelled smoky, because he inhaled so deeply.”
As word of his condition spread, thousands of letters of encouragement and sympathy arrived daily. Scores of friends visited the house and stood vigil at the gates of the ranch. “I have X amount of energy,” said Landon, “and what I have, I want to spend with my family.” Landon’s youngest children, Sean, 4, and Jennifer, 7, were “emotionally distraught,” says longtime friend and business partner Kent McCray, “but Michael passed his strength along to them.” According to colleague John Warren, Landon also spent time videotaping his last wishes to family and friends.
Up until the end, says McCray, “his mind was clicking away…. He was telling jokes, he was very lucid, very bright, there was nothing down about it.” When his publicist, Harry Flynn, wondered two weeks ago whether to take a short vacation, Landon said, “Don’t be silly. Have a good time. I’ll be fine.” Says Flynn: “He sounded fine. But then he went downhill in just a few days.”
Over those last days his condition deteriorated rapidly. On his last weekend, Landon gathered his inner circle at the ranch, including Cindy, all nine of his children and 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. Landon’s body was cremated the next day, and at that time, no plans had been announced for a funeral or memorial service.
If his friends and family had solace, it was in Landon’s extraordinary calm. Says Flynn of his old friend’s last hours: “It was like going off a diving board. He knew it was coming, and he was brave to the last.”
Landon was a paradoxical perfectionist who spent a lifetime trying to perform and portray worthy deeds and then kicking tail when anyone got in his way. “Yes, I am perfect. It’s a problem I’ve had all my life.” he reportedly snapped to Ed Friendly, cocreator of Little House on the Prairie, during a fierce 1974 argument. (Friendly was gone before the series aired.)
This sense of solitary righteousness—and frontier methods of inflicting his will—was bred into Landon early. Born Eugene Orowitz on Oct. 31, 1936, in Forest Hills, N.Y., he grew up with his sister in Collingswood, N.J. His Jewish father, Eli Orowitz, was a theater manager and film publicist; his Irish-Catholic mother, Peggy O’Neill, was a minor actress who gave up her career. Eugene watched his parents bicker endlessly. “Tell your father dinner is ready,” Landon recalled his mother saying—though Eli was in the room.
High school boys screamed “Jew bastard!” at Landon from passing cars. In a largely Christian community, fathers wouldn’t allow their daughters to go out with him. The family and social pressures made him a chronic bed wetter. The humiliation was increased by his mother’s practice of hanging the soaked sheets from his bedroom window. (Landon unflinchingly documented his traumatic childhood in the 1976 NBC movie The Loneliest Runner.) In truth, his upbringing informed his deep-felt notion of television as uplifting entertainment. Reared within a wall of silence, he once explained, “I created family relationships where people stay together because they communicate.”
College only reinforced his sense of isolation. Eugene (who changed his name to Michael Lane in the ’50s and finally to Michael Landon) forged himself into a top-flight javelin thrower in high school and set the national record in his senior year with a record toss of 211 feet 7 inches. That won him a track scholarship to the University of Southern California. But athlete or no, a dreamy kid from New Jersey with curly, shoulder-length hair was not likely to be welcomed on a crew-cut 1950s campus.
His teammates mocked him and even pinned him down and cut off his hair. Landon, furious, threw his arm out on a toss, lost his scholarship and soon quit school.
Even before the haircut and the lost scholarship came a melancholy moment that made an even deeper wound in Landon. In 1954 Landon journeyed to L.A. with his publicity-agent father, who believed that his former colleagues at RKO Radio Pictures, by now at Paramount studios, would offer him a job. “Wait here,” he told his son at the gate. “I’ll be back in a minute.” Thirty minutes later his father returned, crestfallen; he couldn’t even get past the guard.
Years later Landon told a reporter that the humiliating moment spawned a life’s decision. “No matter what I did,” he said, “I wasn’t going to owe anybody a favor. And I didn’t expect anything from anybody that had to do with business…. I wasn’t going to take any garbage from anybody, either.”
As it turned out, he didn’t have to: A film executive spotted him and suggested that he enroll in Warner Bros, acting school. Soon, Landon was performing in prestigious TV productions on Studio One and G.E. Theater. He made his movie debut in 1957 in a cult favorite of the day, I Was a Teenage Werewolf—as its werewolf star.
At about the same time, Landon began a stormy marital career. In 1956 he married legal secretary Do-die Fraser, a relationship that lasted six years. He adopted Dodie’s son, Mark, and another boy, Josh. The couple divorced in 1962. and in 1963 Landon married model Lynn Noe, with whom he had four children (Michael Jr., Christopher, Leslie and Shawna). He also adopted Noe’s daughter, Cheryl.
His acting career really took off two years later when he landed the rule of Little Joe in Bonanza, the first Western series broadcast in color. Landon, Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker and Pernell Roberts made the widowed Cartwright and his boys the first family of the West, and the show enjoyed a 14-year run. Greene took Landon under his wing and once described him this way: “Mike’s a very sweet guy but extreme!) stubborn…. He’s too impulsive. Mike will do a thing one day that he’ll regret eight days later. When it comes to a sense of humor, Mike has a terrific one.”
Roberts didn’t think so. He and Landon—who by the mid-’60s was also directing episodes—clashed on the set. Roberts left the show after six years. (Now Bonanza’s last survivor, Roberts would say nothing more last week but that he was “deeply grieved by Michael’s death.”)
Landon’s single-minded ferocity began to unfold during the Bonanza years. To cope with his emerging fame, during the show’s second season, he began popping dozens of tranquilizer pills a day. He eventually kicked the pill habit. “I still work long days,” Landon once conceded of his tendency toward overdrive. “I’ve always had to work very hard in order to be happy.”
And work he did, before and behind the camera. By the time he jointly developed Little House on the Prairie in 1974, Landon had divined that actors may command the stage but producers own the house. Landon began writing episodes of Little House and demanded—and ultimately gained—creative control of the show. As Jay Bernstein, then Landon’s publicist, summed up: “His whole thing has always been about control…. Glamour never meant anything to him…. He felt that he had a vision that he could use in directing and producing and wanted to make the moves that would put him in a position to do it.”
Twenty-two seasons’ worth of hit shows did just that for Landon. So when he came up with the idea for Highway to Heaven, NBC and its young president Brandon Tartikoff had to listen. Not only did Landon get his show, but Highway, along with The Cosby Show, pulled then-struggling NBC out of the ratings cellar. And, like Cosby, Landon served as his show’s executive producer—and often directed and wrote in the bargain. As Tartikoff put it, “I like him a lot. My dream network would be 22 hours of talents like his.” (The pilot episode for US, a Landon series that was to have dealt with family matters, will air this fall.)
In his last weeks at the ranch, his illness drew the attention of hundreds of thousands of fans, many of them young TV viewers who had grown up with Landon as our culture’s most visible repository of a sense of common decency, of the moral fitness of things. This universal chord struck by Landon was echoed by his old colleague, former President Ronald Reagan, who said, “His tragic battle with cancer touched the hearts of every American, as did his indomitable spirit.” And Landon closed his own book with a stolid grace that refused to succumb to tragedy. “It’s not like I’ve missed a hell of a lot,” he said. “I’ve had a pretty good lick here.”
LOIS ARMSTRONG, JOYCE WAGNER and JACK KELLEY in Los Angeles