If he hadn’t been so youthful and handsome--and, above all, successful--Michael Landon would have been laughed out of television a long time ago by the cynics of the business.
Here, in the age of hip and cool, was this unlikely, determined fellow who, year after year and in series after series--from “Bonanza” to “Little House on the Prairie” to “Highway to Heaven"--espoused the old-fashioned virtues of hard work, home and family life. He simply didn’t care what was “in” or “hot.”
He went his own way, probably because he knew no other, and when he died of cancer Monday at 54, he was still doing it his way, even to the manner in which he announced his illness and dealt with it as the nation watched.
Miraculously, though his shows were laced with unabashed sentiment, he avoided the maudlin in dealing with his final few months. Instead, he admirably projected in real life the values with which he had instilled his series--straight talk, humor, a belief in something higher and hope.
He was often accused of being saccharine and corny in his shows, but there was none of that in his own public ordeal. It was an amazing final legacy, his finest achievement.
The end came so quickly that it was a shock, though seemingly inevitable from the time he announced his condition in early April. On May 9, he appeared on “The Tonight Show” with his good friend, Johnny Carson, and turned the difficult program into a lesson in style that clearly moved the veteran host.
It was characteristic of Landon’s courageous and graceful departure that, despite his own desperate straits, he called Carson on Monday of last week to console the comedian on the death of his son in an automobile accident.
As an actor, Landon was no Olivier, no Brando. He was not a critics’ favorite. But he knew his craft well, as a writer and a director as well as a performer, and his unmistakable sincerity and total command on the screen branded him not only as a genuine star but also earned him astonishing rapport with his audience for three decades.
In a chancy, cold-blooded business like television, where many a series never gets beyond six episodes, the idea of surviving for three decades as a working star, in a succession of series, is almost inconceivable. Carson has done it, putting in three decades alone on “Tonight,” and perhaps that was a bond they shared.
By many accounts, Landon was not always an angel to work with in his three long-running series for NBC, even though he played one on “Highway to Heaven.” As he grew in popularity as Little Joe Cartwright on “Bonanza” and began contributing as a writer and director, he unmistakably wanted more control, and he got it when he became both the star and executive producer of “Little House on the Prairie.”
This was the show that established his personal trademark as a television advocate of traditional values. Fully aware of the criticism by some colleagues that he was tough to deal with, he once joked, “People still say I’m arrogant, they just don’t say I’m insecure anymore.” At another point, he explained his approach by saying, “I think viewers are hungry for shows in which people say something meaningful.”
It was 32 years ago, in 1959, when the Western series “Bonanza” debuted, eventually lasting 14 seasons and making stars out of Lorne Greene, who played patriarch Ben Cartwright, and the three actors who portrayed his sons--Landon, Dan Blocker (Hoss) and Pernell Roberts (Adam). With Landon’s death, Roberts is the only survivor of the family that was once America’s most famous.
Landon was part of TV history in “Bonanza” because NBC, sensing the visual appeal of the wide open spaces of the old West, decided to produce the series in color--to help its parent company, RCA, take the lead in selling color television sets. A new TV era had dawned.
Like all three series in which Landon starred, “Bonanza” had little sex or violence. There was hardly any gunfighting in “Bonanza.” The relationships of the principal characters and guest stars provided the drama, which often dealt with meaningful themes.
Under Landon, “Little House on the Prairie,” which ran from 1974-1983, followed a similar course. Although also set in the 19th Century and, in a way, technically a Western, it was really a family show in which Landon starred as Charles Ingalls, a homesteader who struggled to give his clan a good life.
It was a good show. And it was notable that Landon’s clout could make it not only acceptable, but also a success, at a time when TV was turning to new, urban, edgier directions with such programs as “All in the Family,” “MASH” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
There was no doubt that Landon was a towering star with grassroots America as he held firm to passing values once treasured. Some felt that his obsession with strong family themes may have been a kind of wish-fulfillment stemming from a difficult childhood in his parents’ tension-filled home in Collingswood, N.J.
But if his own life, which resulted in three marriages, seemed at times inconsistent with what he was preaching on screen, it really made no difference because his followers sensed the conviction that he brought to his shows and his themes. His beliefs also set the tone for another series that he produced but did not star in--the wholesome frontier drama “Father Murphy,” with Merlin Olsen.
Landon’s appeal, however, was tested in his last NBC hit, “Highway to Heaven,” in which he portrayed the probationary angel Jonathan Smith, whose assignment on earth was to bring love and understanding to people in trouble. There were reports of hostility toward the show, and toward Landon as well, from some executives at NBC who labeled his proposed series “Jesus of Malibu.”
NBC was heading in other directions. “Miami Vice” would debut that fall season of 1984. “Hill Street Blues” and “Cheers” were new NBC trademarks. Would the public want to see another corny series from Landon? The answer was yes. He won again. His track record helped get the show on, and it ran for five years.
All of the networks learned a lesson in the fall of 1984 because, in addition to “Highway to Heaven,” two other gentle new series also made their presence felt--"The Cosby Show” and “Murder, She Wrote"--as the public delivered a message about what it wanted.
Landon was on top again. He had been there virtually all his adult life, through most of the history of television. And when tragedy took it all away, he went out with style, in his greatest role.