rom his first appearance at age
22 on the new Western Bonanza
in the fall of 1959, Michael
Landon was a constant presence on television for more than
three decades, appearing in
long-running series like Bonanza,
Little House on the Prairie and
Highway to Heaven. Landon won
over the hearts of many view-
ers by playing salt-of-the-earth,
steadfast characters like his most
celebrated role, Charles Ingalls
on Little House. Landon was
more than an actor, however. Later in his career, he was
a writer, producer and director on programs wholesome
enough for the entire family to watch together.
“If you look at television now, there is nothing like what
he loved to do and what he created,” says Susan McCray,
a longtime friend who was casting director for many of
Landon’s productions. “More often than not, I hear people
say, ‘I wish I could sit down with my family and watch a
show that makes me feel good and makes me laugh.’ ”
Landon’s career and life took an unexpected turn in
April 1991 when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Shortly after the diagnosis, he invited reporters to his
10-acre ranch in Malibu, California, to break the news. He
was upbeat and cracked jokes throughout.
“I think you have to have a sense of humor about everything,” Landon told reporters at the April 8 press conference when he went public with his illness. “I don’t find
this particularly funny, but if you’re going to try to go on,
if you’re going to try to beat something, you’re not going to
do it standing in the corner.”
Landon was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz on Oct. 31,
1936, in the borough of Queens in New York City. His
father, Eli Maurice Orowitz, was a publicist and radio
announcer; his mother, Peggy O’Neill, was a Broadway
showgirl. His parents were frequently at odds.
“He told the story about how his mom would never
speak to his father and vice versa,” says McCray. “Mike
used to tell me he had a place that he would go to, and he
would act out certain things. He’d pretend or he’d think
of stories or ways to escape.”
When he was 4 years old, the family moved to
Collingswood, New Jersey, near Philadelphia. As one
of the few Jewish children in the neighborhood, young
Orowitz was often on the receiving end of anti-Semitic
comments by peers. In addition, he lived in constant
fear of what his mother, who frequently threatened to
kill herself, would do next. Landon used his experiences
with his mother as the basis for a 1976 made-for-television
drama he wrote and directed, called The Loneliest Runner.
The movie tells the story of a bed-wetter who becomes
a track athlete and competes in the Olympics. Landon
himself was a bed-wetter until his early teen years; his
mother hung urine-stained sheets out the window in an
effort to embarrass him and make him stop.
In his freshman year of high school, Landon discovered
he had a talent for javelin throwing. He worked hard at
perfecting his skill and earned a track and field scholarship
to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Unlike the character in The Loneliest Runner, Landon’s
real-life dreams to compete in the Olympics were dashed
by an elbow injury. He dropped out of college at the end of
his freshman year, remained in Los Angeles and took jobs
selling blankets door to door, working at a ribbon factory
and loading freight cars.
One day, Landon was helping a friend go over lines for
an audition. The scene called for a young soldier to cry,
but his friend had trouble sobbing on command. Landon’s
tears came easily.
“It was the first time I had ever tried anything like that,”
he said. “And I suddenly realized that it was a great release
for me. I could cry when I was someone else and get a lot of
things out of my system that I couldn’t get out on my own.”
S Michael Landon, center, poses for a publicity shot with Bonanza
co-stars Dan Blocker, left, and Lorne Greene.