Leslie Landon Matthews pays tribute to her dad, beloved star of Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie, who died of pancreatic cancer at age 54

By Stephanie Emma Pfeffer
July 01, 2021 10:00 AM
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Michael Landon

When Michael Landon died on July 1, 1991, he had walked his daughter Leslie Landon Matthews down the aisle just a few months earlier.

"We just felt like he was a superman," she tells PEOPLE, remembering her dad on the 30th anniversary of his passing. "He was bigger than life."

Landon, who had 9 children, went public with his pancreatic cancer diagnosis in April 1991. It took his life within three months. "He definitely showed his vulnerable side in announcing this illness, but he wanted to stay as hopeful as possible that he could beat it," recalls Matthews, 58. "I think the part that probably was surprising to all of us was how quickly we saw his health deteriorate."

Severe stomach pain led to his diagnosis, but there may have been earlier signs. "When my dad didn't feel good — if something didn't feel right — he tended to ignore it, hoping that it would go away," she says, adding that he was constantly writing, directing and producing.

"He was a busy man burning the candle at both ends. I think his own health got put on the back burner."

The experience taught her and her siblings to prioritize their own wellness: A few weeks ago, her brother, director Chris Landon, went for a routine physical in L.A. and learned his liver enzymes were high. About to leave for New Orleans to shoot a movie, he was told by his doctor to get a scan there if he had the chance.

"He made the time for it and got a scan and ended up having a 2.5 cm tumor on his kidney," says Matthews. Luckily, the cancerous tumor was removed and he did not need radiation or chemotherapy. "My brother is already back to working on his movie."

She uses the example to emphasize the importance of being proactive, prioritizing health and making time for early detection.

"Because we knew how my dad was with his own health, we kids do the opposite," she says. "We're like, 'Something doesn't seem right, let's look into it.' Information is power and it allows you to make choices about your health when you know what you're dealing with. Fear tends to paralyze people."

As for her dad, Matthews says his spirits were high until the end.

"He had truly felt that he had lived this amazing life," she says. "I know he put up the biggest fight that he could. But I can distinctly remember toward the end — he'd become very frail — watching my brother Michael carry my dad's oxygen up the stairs to his bedroom. And it was that moment that it hit me so hard: I wanted him to die, which is a very strange thing to feel. I remember turning to my husband and sobbing on his shoulders because I knew my dad didn't want to live anymore. He had become a shell of who he was and his only existence at that point was suffering."

As for the legacy he left behind, "I feel like the takeaway was loving one another and accepting people for who they are. I think he was very proud of the fact that he could bring families together to watch entertainment that was going to bring a wide range of emotions," Matthew says, adding that her dad was also a family man off-screen. "I think he would be disappointed at how families today disengage from each other. He would tell people, 'Put your phone down. Sit around the dinner table and talk.'"

Indeed, so much has changed since Landon's passing.

"When Michael Landon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer more than 30 years ago, the pancreatic cancer landscape was quite different from today — little was known about the disease, only a handful of researchers were studying it and the five-year survival rate was just 4%," said Julie Fleshman, JD, MBA, president and CEO of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. "Thanks to organizations like PanCAN and passionate supporters and volunteers, we are accelerating the rate of progress through research and advocacy that is advancing new treatments and early detection strategies for the disease."

"It's so hard for us to believe 30 years have gone by," Matthews says. "Sometimes it feels like just yesterday that he was here. But I think that he would be so thrilled to see his loved ones holding up his legacy."