An Actor Comes of Age
Landon enrolled in an acting school at the Warner Brothers
studio and picked the screen name Michael Landon from
a phone book. His big break came when he landed the lead
role in the 1957 horror film I Was a Teenage Werewolf. His
portrayal of Tom Dooley in the Western The Legend of Tom
Dooley in 1959 caught the eye of writer and producer David
Dortort, who recruited Landon to co-star in Bonanza. The
show featured the Cartwrights—a father and his three sons
who lived and worked on the Ponderosa ranch. Landon
played the youngest son, Little Joe. Bonanza ran for 14 seasons through 1973 and had consistently high ratings.
In 1974, Landon moved on to star in Little House on the
Prairie, another Western, this one with a family focus. He
played Charles Ingalls, called “Pa” by the Ingalls children,
as a hardworking and honest family man and farmer in
Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Landon wrote, directed and
produced many of the episodes of the series, which was
inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s popular Little House
books. The series aired for nine seasons, ending in 1983.
After Little House ended, Landon created his own television series, Highway to Heaven, which aired from 1984 to
1989. He played Jonathan Smith, an angel on probation who
traveled the country doing good deeds. By this time, Landon
had started his own company, Michael Landon Productions.
He effortlessly switched hats behind and in front of the
camera, recalls his wife, Cindy Clerico. “He was absolutely
a genius,” she says. “He would actually be directing, they
would be setting up a shot, doing the lighting, and he was
sitting in his chair writing. I was in awe of him, truthfully.
I’d think, ‘How does he do it? How does he handle it all?’ ”
Clerico, who was a stand-in for actress Melissa Sue
Anderson on Little House, married Landon in 1983,
becoming his third wife. In all, Landon was father to nine
children: two adopted children from his first marriage to
Dodi Levi-Fraser, one stepdaughter and four biological
children from his second marriage to Marjorie Lynn Noe,
and two more with Clerico.
In 1991, Landon was hard at work on a new television series
called Us. Scheduled to air in the fall, the series would
feature Landon as a man wrongly convicted of a crime who
is released from prison following an 18-year sentence. After
wrapping up production for the show’s pilot, Landon decided
to take Clerico and their two children skiing in Park City,
Utah. He had been experiencing stomach discomfort for
weeks, but during the ski trip, the pain became so unbearable
that he flew home to see a doctor.
Once home, he had a computerized tomography (CT)
scan, which revealed a large tumor in his abdomen.
Landon broke the news by phone to Clerico, who came
home with the children to Malibu. A few days later,
Landon got results from a biopsy performed at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles that revealed he had
inoperable pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver.
Despite reservations, Landon agreed to be treated with
5-fluorouracil (5-FU), a common chemotherapy treatment for pancreatic cancer at the time. He received the
In 1974, Landon moved
on to star in Little House
on the Prairie, another
Western, this one with a
Michael Landon holds actress Lindsay Greenbush, part of his TV
family on Little House on the Prairie. Standing are co-stars Karen
Grassle and Melissa Gilbert. Seated is Melissa Sue Anderson.