Family Is Michael Landon's Real Highway to Heaven, but He's Had a Devil of a Time Along the Way
Photos of him cavorting with his family out on his 10-acre ranch in Malibu say it all: Michael Landon is the picture-perfect husband and dad. After 14 years of Bonanza, eight with Little House on the Prairie and now the promise of several seasons with his new one, Highway to Heaven, it’s tough to imagine Landon as anything but the ultimate Mr. Nice Guy—which is, of course, an intolerable state of affairs.
So where’s the chink in the armor? You can’t pick on his looks. At 48, Landon still has the athletic body he displayed in his 1957 starring film debut, I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Only the fangs are missing. Okay, the teeth are probably capped, but the hair is real and it just keeps growing. Landon, to his credit, is the first to laugh at his too-good-to-be-true image (“My body may go, but my hair will last”). At a meeting in his Culver City office, dressed in jeans, an open work shirt and a tan leather jacket that looks like it was made from John Wayne’s saddle, Landon also reveals a surprisingly feisty side.
It is possible to get him angry by reminding him of reviewers who have dismissed Highway—in which he stars as a do-gooding angel, Jonathan Smith—as treacle and of those cynical Burbank execs who call the show “Jesus of Malibu.” “What the hell do those guys know!” he sputters. His ire is fierce but, finally, also likable—not to mention the fact that he’s apparently right. Highway’s ratings have been celestial; between them, Landon and Bill Cosby have pulled NBC out of the ratings cellar into a solid No. 2 spot. “Michael Landon makes my life easier,” says NBC entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff. “I like him a lot. My dream network would be 22 hours of talents like his.”
Tartikoff’s trade-off is power; Landon, like Cosby, functions as co-executive producer. Landon often writes and directs his show as well. “I have control,” Landon says. Maybe this is where you bring up his rep for having a big ego. “Me?” asks Landon, genuinely nonplussed. “You couldn’t find one person who has worked with me any length of time who could say that.” Wrong. Though his Highway crew calls him “unspoiled” (he handed out almost $200,000 in bonuses at season’s end when the show came in under budget), listen to Hall Bartlett, who directed Landon and Priscilla Presley in the 1983 movie Love Is Forever. “If Landon is trying to get by with another Jesus Christ painting of himself, then let me say that Landon is the biggest liar I’ve ever met in the picture business.” Bartlett says that while he expected Charles Ingalls (the character Landon played on Little House), what he got was a camera hogger who used vulgar language, mocked Presley for spending too much time on her hair and tried to take over the direction.
Landon calls Bartlett’s charges “pathetic.” His defense: “I was a co-executive producer on that film. I had control.” Landon sees himself as a victim of the rumor mill. “I’ve heard that I’ve starred in homosexual films, but I’m certainly not getting any residuals,” he says with a grin. “Anybody who is successful in this business, they figure something is rotten in his past or he knows somebody. I don’t know another big star really well except Lorne Greene. I don’t know any executive at any studio except the guys I work with at NBC, and I bet we don’t talk more than twice a year. I’m your typical old-time work guy and I like it that way. I don’t owe anybody anything.”
Except his family. And here is where your image of Michael Landon could get turned around. A conservative who has made a career of purveying achingly wholesome fare and who has chopped wood with Ronald Reagan, Landon has had his full measure of domestic turmoil. He has fathered five children and adopted three (ages 1 to 35) in three marriages. Landon conjectures that his Little House character probably wouldn’t have stayed married either, “except that it was a long way to the next house in those days.” The failure of his short first marriage to Dodie Fraser can be blamed on youth. What rankles Michael is the assumption that he left his second wife, Lynn Noe, after 19 years for Cindy Clerico, 28, just because he wanted 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. It’s not just difficult for the wife. It is painful for the husband too. But it is far better than letting it stay the way it was.” Landon insists that Lynn is a “much happier person now than she was.”
Lynn partly agrees. “I was too busy being the kind of wife he wanted me to be. I lost myself little by little. I made Michael my god.” Since the divorce she has built a business (an L.A. boutique called Trio’s). As for her relationship now with Landon, she says, “We speak without talking. Our conversation consists of, ‘When will you pick up the children?’ ” Still she’s not bitter over the third Mrs. Landon. “If it hadn’t been Cindy, it would have been somebody. He had reached that point in his life.”
For her part, Cindy speaks with equal enthusiasm for Michael’s love of his kids (including their baby Jennifer) and of his virtues as a husband: “I give him his leeway and, in return, I get mine too.”
Life with Cindy (they met when she worked as a makeup artist on Little House) is much like life with Lynn and Dodie—a family affair. Lynn remembers that Landon even had a reverse vasectomy during their marriage when he spotted parents with a new baby at a party. For Landon, marriage and children remain an undisguised attempt to have what he missed as a child.
Born Eugene Orowitz, he grew up in Collingswood, N.J., the youngest son of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father who fought bitterly in front of their child. “I always wanted to get away from my family,” he says. Mother was a “childish person [who] was always attempting suicide. She would stick her head in the oven but she always had kneepads on the floor, or one window open. [In a family like that] you get to thinking, ‘Gee, if it’s Tuesday it must be suicide.’ ”
Young Eugene was an outsider: His classmates taunted him as a “Jewish bastard,” and the shy, skinny adolescent ate lunch alone in the school cafeteria. A chronic bedwetter, he retreated into a fantasy world, finding solace in comic books and solitary walks.
After embarking on a short-lived singing career, he landed a track scholarship to USC, where he dropped out after his freshman year. A spate of tiny parts in B-movies followed until he landed Bonanza and it hit hard. “I thought I was prepared,” he once said, “but I wasn’t.” Stressed out by the show’s second season, he found himself popping up to 50 or 60 tranquilizers every three days: “It was murder.”
Landon conquered his drug dependency himself, with the help of God and second wife Lynn. Still his sense of being an underdog never left him. The perfectionism that spurred him to become one of TV’s most successful producers was a reflection of his struggle to leave behind the hapless Eugene. So was his fierce devotion to his family. “I never wanted to have a family even close to what [my parents had], and I never have,” he says.
Although his family has seen its share of trauma, Landon has a way of finding silver linings in everything, including the bulimia his daughter Leslie, 22, suffered in college and conquered in group therapy, and the drug addiction of his stepdaughter Cheryl, 31, who spent two years (1975-77) in a California drug center to kick her dependency on prescription drugs. “Cheryl’s clean now,” says Michael proudly. Last year Cheryl and manufacturer’s rep husband James Wilson made Landon a grandfather for the first time.
As Michael tells it, it was Cheryl’s involvement in a tragic auto wreck in 1973 that laid the foundation for Highway: “She was coming home from a fraternity-sorority gathering with four friends in a little Volkswagon, and they were struck by a Ford going in excess of 80 miles an hour,” he says. “It killed everyone but her, and it broke everything in her—all her ribs, her neck, you name it.” At that point Landon cut a foxhole deal with God: If his daughter could be spared, he would “do my best to make a product to help people.”
Appropriately enough he was sitting behind the wheel of his car in Malibu about 10 years later when he was reminded of that promise—and this time it led directly to Highway. “I was driving over to pick up my kids and ran into bumper-to-bumper traffic. Everyone was honking their horns and cursing…and I thought it would be good to do a show where people could see how much better and healthier it is to go through life being nice.”
There is something just a touch too sweet about all of this happily-ever-aftering, but Landon is backing his social concerns with his own money and succeeding with a large and grateful public. Don’t knock it. Maybe he didn’t like his mom much and acted like an arrogant slob around Hall Bartlett, but nobody’s perfect. And Michael Landon never said he was Jonathan Smith.