Little Joe in Little House Is a Big Man Now
The new NBC series Little House on the Prairie is based on the kid classics by Laura Ingalls Wilder—and on fear itself. Or awe. Awe of the good Lord; of The Waltons’ ratings; and of the star muscle of Michael Landon. In his 14 years on Bonanza, Landon worked himself up from nowhere to some $15,000 a week, to occasional writing and directing credits and to a long-term network contract that guaranteed him executive-producer status on any future property.
That all came to consummation last spring when his two-hour pilot of Little House scored the highest Nielsen of any made-for-TV movie all year and leaped into NBC’s fall line-up. Now shooting the series, has the ex-Little Joe Cartwright, 37, grown too big for his homespun britches?
As Landon’s co-executive producer Ed Friendly puts it, Michael “started to believe the title.” Friendly, the savvy old Laugh-In co-creator who first brought the Little House property to the network, soon began to feel that Wilder’s autobiographical books (which his own daughter touted him on) were being prettied—and phonied—up by Landon. The central character, which was young Laura in the original, had become Pa, played, of course, by Landon in his preening, primitive dramatic style. The kids no longer went to school only in summer and barefoot (the way it was in those pioneering days in Minnesota) because Michael, reports Friendly, didn’t want his co-stars to be “the poorest kids in town.” Similarly, the little house became a comfortable frame because, according to Ed, “one NBC boob said, ‘I find it depressing to live in a sod house.’ ” “How would you know?” Friendly asked the executive in one conference. “I’ve renamed the series How Affluent Is My Prairie?,” Ed quipped in his parting shot. “They have everything but a Cadillac.”
So Friendly lammed from the show, though for all his complaints, he prudently maintained a partial billing credit and his full share of the royalties. Ed’s sum-up of the skills of sole surviving executive producer Landon is: “I think he’s an adequate actor, but that doesn’t make him a good actor. He’s quite a good director. He’s a mediocre writer. He’s not a producer, and he’s not up to the task of adaptation. Other than that, I think he’s perfect.” In short, said the 52-year-old Friendly, “It is as ludicrous for Landon to be executive producer as for me to ask to be star of the series.”
Naturally, none of that internecine, intra-Burbank battle has had any more impact on the Nielsens than did the critics who generally found the series a sort of Sweet ‘n Low Waltons. “The reviews were nothing to me, I never care,” shrugs Landon. “The ratings are incredible.” Certainly, its cushy, early-evening time slot and the G-rated goodness of the show, amidst the creep-back of sex-and-violence elsewhere on TV, helped make Little House one of the interim early hits of the new season. And in artistic defense of his infidelity to the author, Landon contends that they had rights to only seven Wilder books—not much story line if it lasted as long as Bonanza (430 episodes, which, played back to back, would run 18 days and nights).
That show’s long haul left Michael Landon (born Eugene Orowitz, or Oogie to his friends back in Jersey) with not a sod or frame house but a 35-room brick mansion in Beverly Hills just down the street from Pickfair, the fabled Pickford-Fairbanks estate. Behind a high brick wall deer and possum play, and inside, elegant crystal chandeliers and marble fireplaces are juxtaposed with a rathskeller full of Ponderosa props (like the saloon hat rack) Landon scooped up during the final Bonanza shooting. “Lorne didn’t come to work that last day,” Michael explains.
Landon’s own family is Cartwright tight. His wife Lynn is a former model and L&M commercial star. They have three kids, the oldest 12, with a fourth expected in March. By previous marriages, she has one child and he has two (by adoption). Landon rejected movie offers between Bonanza and Little House, or so he claims, because he didn’t want to leave the family for location. “I love sleeping in my own bed,” he says, “and with a series you have that.” Besides, he adds, “By nature, I’m a very jealous person. My wife goes everywhere with me, even if it’s a one-shot in Anchorage.”
An NBC official figures that Bonanza residuals set Landon up for life, but Michael insists he needs the work—which means waking up at 5 a.m. to drive to the simulated Minnesota landscape in California’s Simi Valley. The cinematographers and many of the off-camera people have followed Michael from Bonanza, and the set, he says, is uncommonly happy. “We have no yellers, no screamers.” Landon’s other satisfaction is that, critics aside, he is getting raves by phone from libraries and book stores. “Because of the show,” he beams stagily, “there are going to be an awful lot of kids reading.” Of course, they may be surprised to find that a Little House is not the home they see on TV.