Landon's 'Highway to Heaven' Is Paved With Good Intentions : Star-Producer Credits Show's Longevity to Scripts With Emotional Truths Instead of Headline Issues

Times Staff Writer

Brandon Tartikoff admits to having been bemused when Michael Landon first came into his office and said he wanted to follow up his nine years on "Little House on the Prairie" by writing, producing and starring in a TV series in which he would portray an angel.

"I said, 'The critics are going to have a field day with this!' " said Tartikoff, NBC's entertainment president.

"But Landon told me, 'I don't much care what they say. There are an awful lot of people out there who are trying to make people laugh; there are very few shows that can, on a regular basis, give the audience a good cry. I know I can do that--and if I do it well, they (the audience) will be back.' "

In the Culver City offices of Michael Landon Productions, Landon verified with a chuckle that NBC executives didn't exactly jump for joy when he proposed the project. "I think they really felt it was just something I had to get out of my system," he said.

But his instincts were right. The show is "Highway to Heaven," currently airing at 8 p.m. Wednesdays. A faithful audience, ignoring the skeptical reviews that Tartikoff had predicted, has been crying along with "Highway to Heaven" since it debuted in September, 1983.

Although the show has never landed in the Top 10, "Highway" consistently corners a respectable share of the audience. Last season it ranked 25th among prime-time series with a 17.2 rating and a 27 share. This season it has dipped to 38th place with 23% of the audience.

Landon, 51, portrays Jonathan Smith, a man who died some 40 years ago and has returned to Earth as an angel on probation, trying to win a place in heaven by performing good deeds. Jonathan's companion is ex-cop Mark Gordon, played by Victor French. Together, the sensitive angel with the flowing brown mane and the morose, cynical Gordon scour the globe for people in need--consoling children with cancer, reuniting families, encouraging the disabled not to give up hope.

"Man really has an opportunity to be quite wonderful," Landon said.

This man is a Hollywood anomaly, less likely to talk of target audiences and ratings points than of his faith in human kindness and his belief in heaven.

"I was driving through Beverly Hills to pick up my kids on a Friday night," Landon said, recalling how he came to create "Highway to Heaven," "and people were honking at each other. There is no worse place for that than Beverly Hills; I think when people have a little bit more money, they really believe that the Red Sea will part and their car will go forward.

'And I thought, 'Why is everybody so angry? If they would just spend that same time being nice . . . . It's obvious the flow of traffic is going to go much better if everybody has his opportunity.' "

French--who co-starred with Landon on "Little House" and often guest-starred on "Bonanza," on which Landon starred for 14years--unabashedly refers to hisjob as "working with the man I love." He said Landon insisted on casting him as Gordon, rather than some handsome young star that the network wanted, and he believes Landon succeeds because he never allows his show to become tongue-in-cheek no matter how sentimental his subject.

"There probably aren't manypeople who would have the guts to do it straight," French said gruffly between takes on the show's set. That day the crew was at Hamilton High School, filming an episode about drug abuse among teen-agers. "I went home (one day) and started watching one of our shows that had a quadriplegic actor in it, and I started crying. I thought, 'Thank God, I'm in a show in which that actor is able to do that (role).' "

Landon said "Highway to Heaven" never runs out of material because the show focuses on universal emotional truths rather than headline issues. "We're not a forum show," he said.

"Everybody is doing the issue story, the AIDS story--we're beaten to death with AIDS, the same way we were beaten to death by this whole period of 'Don't talk to strangers; don't let Uncle Harry touch you.' It went to the point of causing paranoia in children. Writers come in and want to (write scripts about) teen suicide--I'm afraid that can just be a trigger. It's an area that scares me."

Landon's associates say another key to the show's longevity is his ability to apply the smooth-traffic theory to his role as executive producer. Landon believes that treating his cast and crew as a family is the best way to produce programs on schedule and under budget. "Even the guy who brings our coffee reads every script," French said.

The deal for "Highway" staffers is sweet: Unlike the 16-hour days which are routine for most series' staffs, Landon's crew usually makes it home for dinner with their families. Series stars get bigger salaries, but no extra perks or special treatment on the set. Staffers get three weeks off for Christmas and another three-week break during shooting season. And if the show comes in under budget at the end of the season, each staffer takes home a bonus from the surplus cash.

"I know I couldn't do it if I had a larger organization; this is a kind of mama-papa store," Landon said. "I don't have to do much to let my people know I'm angry, but I'm not just angry for the sake of being angry, because I'm bigger than they are and know I can yell at them. To be demeaning is the worst thing you can do to a human being."

But even with a crew as happy as if it was at summer camp, just how does a show about two middle-aged guys with no love interests to speak of, with no guns, no fancy cars and no jokes to tell, manage to remain on the air for four seasons? Landon explains that it's an affair of the heart.

"You're going to laugh or cry, one or the other--you're not just going to watch a car chase," Landon said. "I do the kind of shows that I like to sit down and watch with my family." He has nine children.

Despite his angelic screen persona, Landon is not the most forthcoming interview subject off-screen. Years of scorn from reviewers have left him defensively professing his indifference, yet exhibiting just enough bitterness to belie his words. He can scoff at adoration from the critical community and express anger at not getting it in almost the same breath.

"I could never win an Emmy because I wouldn't enter myself in the competition in a million years; I think it's silly," he said. "When something gets hot and all the media want to cover it, it changes people. I come to work. An awful lot of people don't come to work, they come to go to cocktail parties and do interviews." Then he deadpanned without missing a beat: "Fortunately, I never have to go through that. You're the only interview I've ever had."

Landon had to fight to maintain his dignity long before "Highway"; his "Little House on the Prairie" was the butt of even more jokes in its nine years on NBC. "They were more interested in reviewing my hair, saying that I was prettier than my leading lady," Landon said. "But I don't care, I love what I do. I love the people--that's what matters."

Landon, who has an exclusive arrangement with NBC ("I do it out of loyalty--I don't have lawyers to sue people"), says he is content to remain involved with one show rather than attempting to branch out. During the run of "Little House," he executive-produced another TV series, "Father Murphy," which starred Merlin Olsen as a con man in the Old West who found himself impersonating a priest in order to protect a band of orphans. It failed.

"I realized (then) that if I try to do two shows at the same time, both of them are going to suffer," Landon said. "My problem is I don't delegate authority very well. I'd rather do one project and stay with it until the end.

"I have a thing about control. The only times in my life when I was unhappy is when I didn't have it.

"I like to have it."

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