After more than 30 years on NBC as an actor, producer, writer and director involved in three long-running series--"Bonanza," "Little House on the Prairie" and "Highway to Heaven"--Michael Landon has taken the highway to CBS.
Today, Landon begins filming the two-hour pilot for "Us," the story of a man renewing family ties after 17 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. And with that pilot, Landon, 54, ends what he called in a 1988 interview with The Times an "exclusive" professional relationship with NBC. Although never under contract to develop new series only for that network, "I do it out of loyalty," Landon said then.
That loyalty is over.
In an interview at his office at Columbia Pictures Television--which is producing the "Us" pilot that Landon wrote--Landon said he took the project to CBS because those in charge of NBC's business affairs department rewarded his years of service by being "just plain rude, flat out rude" to him.
"It basically had (nothing) to do with Brandon Tartikoff (chairman of NBC Entertainment Group) or (NBC Entertainment President) Warren Littlefield or any of those guys (in the entertainment division)," Landon said. "It basically had to do with a corporate attitude on the part of West Coast business affairs.
"It was just an attitude--not with me, because I don't really discuss anything with them-- but with people who have been with me since I've been at NBC--my agent, my business manager. Kind of the same kind of attitude you'd give someone who just came in off the street, whom you had never met. . . .
"My post-production people received (an) award every year from NBC for the only show that promptly delivers every single episode without presenting a problem, and instead of having an attitude of 'Hey, that's terrific,' it's the attitude people end up having with their relatives: 'Hey--they're just around.' "
Landon said that he had discussed "a number of series possibilities" with NBC but had been met with unwillingness to listen to his ideas. He said that he never specifically presented NBC with the concept for "Us." He added that Tartikoff and Littlefield tried to persuade him to come back to NBC after hearing of his rift with the business affairs department, but by then it was "too late."
When asked who specifically was responsible for offending the Landon team, Landon gave the name of John Agoglia, president of NBC Enterprises--"who will have no idea what we're talking about," Landon said sarcastically.
Agoglia said that he was, indeed, mystified by Landon's complaints:
"Mr. Landon and I have known each other for a long time; I am a little disappointed by his comments. There are certain jobs in the industry where you are relegated to wear the black hat, and I guess (chief of) business affairs is it. To my knowledge, other than a small finishing-up of old business, we don't have anything outstanding with Michael, nor did we have any major argument or disagreement. . . . Maybe Mr. Landon's anger is misdirected."
As to Landon's charge that NBC was not interested in meeting with him, Agoglia said such decisions are made by the entertainment division, not the business department, and "I can't imagine that Brandon or Warren would not immediately respond to Mr. Landon wanting to present an idea. . . . Michael is a great guy. We'd love to have him back at NBC anytime."
Tartikoff was equally bemused by Landon's anger, but said that it possibly had to do with a financial concern. (Landon said that the disagreement had nothing to do with money.)
"The world has changed; the economics of television has changed," Tartikoff said. "I don't know whether it was fair or not, I don't know specifically what the allegations were, I just know that Landon was being asked to deficit something in a way that he hadn't been asked before, and he was offended by that.
"I don't really have the power to go to those people (the business affairs department) and say: 'You have to give Michael Landon what he wants--I demand it,' " said Tartikoff. "That wouldn't be my style anyway, but that's not the way the company works."
In any case, Landon seems happy to be resurfacing on CBS. The two-hour pilot, which has no scheduled airdate, will kick off the hour drama series, slated for fall of 1991. Landon portrays Jeff Hayes, who gets another chance at life when he is found innocent after 17 years in prison, and begins to travel the country writing a Charles Kuralt-style newspaper column about the people he meets.
Traveling with him are his father (Barney Martin), who must learn to accept him after years of anger over his son's alleged crime, and his 17-year-old son (newcomer Casey Peterson), whom he never had the chance to get to know.
Landon said that his new character would represent a departure from his "Highway to Heaven" character, Jonathan Smith, an angel serving a probationary term on Earth trying to win his way back to heaven by performing good deeds.
"I think this will have a bit more edge to it--it's hard to be flawed if you're an angel," Landon said. "It'll give me an opportunity to do an hour show that doesn't have to wrap up everything at the end of an hour, and clean up all the loose ends. If the family characters are interesting enough--and getting men to talk to each other is a kind of interesting proposition . . . you can have fun, you can have dramatic moments. And I don't have to be on the same sets all the time--we can move around and meet a lot of different people in this country, because it's going to be based on a lot of things that are actually happening, from (stories in) little newspapers you don't hear of very much.
"It's not a show where you're going to be able to guess exactly what's going to happen," Landon added. "It's like life is."