Michael Landon

Active - 1956 - 2013  |   Born - Oct 31, 1936 in Forest Hills, New York, United States  |   Died - Jul 1, 1991   |   Genres - Western, Drama

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Biography by Hal Erickson

The son of a Jewish movie-publicist father and an Irish Catholic musical-comedy actress, Michael Landon grew up in a predominantly Protestant New Jersey neighborhood. The social pressures brought to bear on young Michael, both at home and in the schoolyard, led to an acute bedwetting problem, which he would later dramatize (very discreetly) in the 1976 TV movie The Loneliest Runner. Determined to better his lot in life, Landon excelled in high school athletics; his prowess at javelin throwing won him a scholarship at the University of Southern California, but a torn ligament during his freshman year ended his college career. Taking a series of manual labor jobs, Landon had no real direction in life until he agreed to help a friend audition for the Warners Bros. acting school. The friend didn't get the job, but Landon did, launching a career that would eventually span nearly four decades. Michael's first film lead was in the now-legendary I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), widely derided at the time but later reassessed as one of the better examples of the late-'50s "drive-in horror" genre. The actor received his first good reviews for his performance as an albino in God's Little Acre. This led to his attaining the title role in 1959's The Legend of Tom Dooley, which in turn was instrumental in his being cast as Little Joe Cartwright on the popular TV western Bonanza. During his fourteen-year Bonanza stint, Landon was given the opportunity to write and direct a few episodes. He carried over these newfound skills into his next TV project, Little House on the Prairie, which ran from 1974 to 1982 (just before Little House, Landon made his TV-movie directorial bow with It's Good to Be Alive, the biopic of baseball great Roy Campanella). Landon also oversaw two spinoff series, Little House: The New Beginning (1982-83) and Father Murphy (1984). Landon kept up his career momentum with a third long-running TV series, Highway to Heaven (1984-89) wherein the actor/producer/director/writer played guardian angel Jonathan Smith. One of the most popular TV personalities of the '70s and '80s, Landon was not universally beloved by his Hollywood contemporaries, what with his dictatorial on-set behavior and his tendency to shed his wives whenever they matured past childbearing age. Still, for every detractor, there was a friend, family member or coworker who felt that Landon was the salt of the earth. In early 1991, Landon began work on his fourth TV series, Us, when he began experiencing stomach pains. In April of that same year, the actor was informed that he had inoperable pancreatic cancer. The courage and dignity with which Michael Landon lived his final months on earth resulted in a public outpouring of love, affection and support, the like of which was seldom witnessed in the cynical, self-involved '90s. Michael Landon died in his Malibu home on July 1, 1991, with his third wife Cindy at his side.

Movie Highlights

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  • Grew his hair long after watching the 1949 movie Samson and Delilah, because he believed it would make him strong.
  • Set a national high-school record in the javelin toss.
  • Lost his athletic scholarship to USC after suffering a torn ligament in his shoulder, and subsequently dropped out of school.
  • Chose his stage name by picking it out of a telephone directory.
  • Often acted alongside his children, including sons Michael and Mark and daughters Leslie and Jennifer, throughout his career.
  • Released the 1962 single "Gimme a Little Kiss/Be Patient With Me" on the heels of his success on Bonanza.
  • Received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1984.
  • Appeared on the Tonight Show With Johnny Carson in 1991 to publicly discuss his pancreatic-cancer diagnosis and dispel multiple tabloid rumors.
  • Inducted posthumously into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 1995.
  • Landon's Little House on the Prairie costar Melissa Gilbert named her son, Michael Garrett Boxleitner, after him.