Little Joe was young, hot-headed, charming and ever the ladies’ man! Charles Ingalls was wise, loving with an endearing sense of humor. Both characters were family men, in their own ways, Joe the brother and son, Charles, the caring father and devoted husband. In reality, Michael Landon’s early family life and aspects of his adult life were far from idyllic.
Born Eugene Maurice Orowitz on October 31, 1936 in Forest Hills Queens, a New York City borough, Landon chose his now famous professional name from a phone book when he began his acting career. At the age of four, his parents, Eli, an actor, publicist and movie theater manager, and mother, Broadway actress/comedienne Peggy O’Neill, moved their young family from New York to Collingswood, a suburban south New Jersey town.
Today, Collingswood is a bustling diverse community with a thriving arts scene. But, in the 1940s, the son of a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother would have trouble fitting in the, then, mostly Protestant blue collar town. Consequently, Landon was a loner, spending time taking long walks and reading comic books. In interviews and various biographies he tells of enduring anti-Semitic taunts and being chided for his straight-A grades. It didn’t help that his mother battled depression, was suicidal, and that young Landon himself was the one to save her life more than a few times. The stress took its toll physically, as he was prone to wetting his bed well into his teen years. Having no sympathy, and perhaps thinking embarrassment was the cure, his mother would hang the soiled sheets out the window for all the neighbors and his classmates to see.
By high school, his unpopularity haunting him, Landon made a conscious effort to fail. His grades dropped precipitously, but Landon soon found an outlet for all the energy he wasn’t putting into his studies: sports. He went out for track and field and excelled at the javelin throw. His record-breaking toss in 1954 earned him an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California. That year, he graduated from high school close to the bottom of his class, but with a genius IQ.
It didn’t take long for the hopes and dreams of life in sunny California to come to a screeching halt. In his freshman year, Landon performed poorly in the javelin, well under his record performances in high school. His scholarship at stake, he tried desperately to throw at his previous distance. The effort resulted in torn ligaments in his arm, ending his athletic career. He continued his studies after the injury, but at the end of his freshman year, Landon left college for good. He took odd jobs to make ends meet, working as a stock boy, selling blankets, unloading freight trains at a warehouse.
Then in a single act, his life would change forever. A friend from his warehouse job, an aspiring actor, asked the struggling Landon to help him with an acting school audition by playing opposite him in a scene. Acting was in Landon’s blood. When they arrived at the audition, he got in, and his friend didn’t. At that point, college dropout, Eugene Orowitz transformed into actor, Michael Landon.
After appearing in a few small roles in television Westerns and drama series, Landon was cast in the 1957 film, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, which quickly became a hit, and to this day, is a cult classic. A year prior to landing this role, Landon had met and married widowed legal secretary Dodie Levy-Fraser. He adopted her child, Mark, and the couple had a son, Josh, in 1960. Landon began getting small roles, but still not enough to support a family, and now his handsome boy image was in jeopardy, as his long wavy locks began to turn prematurely gray. Clairol Ash Brown to the rescue!
“I saw Samson and Delilah, with Victor Mature, and got the idea that if I let my hair grow long, it would make me strong. And you know, I still believe it did.”
In 1959, Landon’s career took yet another fortuitous turn. Having worked for David Dortort on a pilot two years, earlier, Landon was cast as the youngest Cartwright son, Little Joe, in Dortort’s new Western series Bonanza. Finally, he was financially secure on a hit series, where the Cartwright clan was closer to him than his own family. His father, Eli, had passed away, and Landon was grateful to have reconciled their relationship in the year before a heart attack took his life. His mother and older sister remained estranged after Eli’s death, but as Landon brought in steady money, he supported them, in spite of their bitter differences. Now, Landon, often called the heart and soul of Bonanza, was becoming a household name. But in his own house things were not so pleasant. His marriage to Dodie was falling apart.
Early in 1960, Landon began secretly seeing divorced model and actress, Lynn Noe. Michael and Dodie divorced in December 1962. In January 1963, Landon and Lynn eloped in a hasty justice of the peace wedding in Mexico. The Landon family was growing with Lynn’s daughter, Cheryl, from her previous marriage, and the couple’s children: Leslie Ann, Michael, Jr., Shawna Leigh and Christopher Beau.
Over the years, starring on Bonanza, Landon continued to hone his acting skills, and expand his horizons, testing the waters as a writer and director. Then after 14 years, the inevitable came to be. The series was losing steam, no longer in the top ten, and with the sudden death of Dan Blocker, a depressing pall hovered over the set. The show was cancelled in November, 1972 with the final episode airing in January, 1973. By now the young, mostly unproven 22-year-old boy who walked into a starring role had matured into a confident 36-year old man, an actor, writer, director with a solid foundation and a promising future in show business.
Landon took some time off following the cancellation of Bonanza, returning to work in April, 1973, co-starring with Bonnie Bedelia in the romance/drama series, Love Story.
But in May of that year, tragedy struck. Landon’s step-daughter, Cheryl, while away at college in Tucson, was the only survivor in a deadly car crash, leaving her in a coma, with little hope she would ever regain consciousness. Landon flew to the Arizona hospital, where doctors tried to convince him she was gone. Still, he remained at her bedside, talking to her. In that room, he made a pact with God, praying. If Cheryl lived he said, “I would do something useful with my life, something to make the world a little better because I’d been there.”
“I came home and found my 12-year-old daughter devouring the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Then I discovered that my wife had devoured them too when she was a girl, and was reading them again. So I went to NBC and told them Little House was it.”
Cheryl pulled through, and in November, Landon got the opportunity to make good on his promise: as the Executive Producer, Director and star of the pilot movie based on the series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was a huge success, and Little House on the Prairie got the greenlight for 13 new episodes to premiere on NBC on September 11, 1974.
Playing the wise, funny, loving, compassionate and hardworking Charles Ingalls, devoted husband to Caroline, and doting father to daughters Laura, Mary, Carrie and Grace, and later to adopted children, Albert, James and Cassandra, Landon became America’s most beloved family man. While the show had many lighthearted, even comedic moments, the writers and Landon did not shy away from heavy topics and emotional themes, including prejudice, faith, poverty, alcoholism, domestic abuse, physical disability, and terminal illness, among others. Each week, viewers became immersed in stories that touched the heart, and life lessons that confirmed core family values. Audiences responded, as Landon’s portrayal of Charles Ingalls was the rock everyone could count on, even in his own times of weakness.
By 1980, Landon’s star was shining bright. The series was at its peak, but in his personal life, his 19-year marriage to Lynn had been deteriorating for quite some time. On the set, one day, he saw young make-up artist, Cindy Clerico, and he fell in love. At 23, she was half his age, but the gap in decades meant nothing to the duo, who soon became a couple.
For the second time, Landon filed for divorce, but this time, it would be a bitter and angry affair. And the press ate it up. His subsequent marriage to Cindy didn’t calm the media. His image became tarnished to the point that he lost advertising endorsements and some executives at NBC even questioned whether or not he could continue to play such an upstanding, family man as Charles Ingalls, given this scandal.
Landon responded to the outrage, “The relationship lasted 19 years. I don’t consider that a failed marriage. I don’t think it was a disaster. We produced some terrific kids. We just didn’t grow in the same direction. We became different people. We both changed. Lynn and I fought a lot, about jealousy, about my being tied up with my work. I’d go into depressed moods, and then I’d go around screaming at people at home and in the studio…Nobody’s perfect. Not Charles Ingalls. Not Michael Landon.”
Indeed, they were very different people. When the dust settled, Landon’s bank account was 26 million dollars lighter, with Lynn keeping the 3.5 million dollar, 35-room mansion, while Landon and Cindy moved into a modest 5-bedroom beach house.
“Lynn is a very aristocratic woman while I’m basically the blue-collar worker,” Landon had remarked at the time, relishing his new simpler life with the woman who would be his true love.
Landon weathered the storm of disgrace, divorce and in the middle of it all, in 1981, the death of his estranged, eccentric mother, and his sister’s nervous breakdown. With the divorce behind him, his marriage to Cindy strong and soon to include the births of daughter, Jennifer, and son, Sean, things were looking up. Over the years Little House on the Prairie had been nominated for 16 Emmy Awards, winning four times (two each for music and cinematography), nominated for three Golden Globes, winner of two People’s Choice Awards in addition to many more, both American and international honors.
In 1983 in a mutual decision between the network and Landon, the beloved series was slated to end, and another chapter in Landon’s life would close—with a bang! Literally! The series ended with the people of Walnut Grove blowing up their homes, stores and other buildings to prevent a ruthless land baron from stealing their property.
According to a New York Times article from February 6, 1984, the day the final episode aired, Landon stated they had an agreement with the owners of the property where filming took place, to restore the land to its original state. The sets would have to be hauled off and destroyed, so why not make a statement and blow them up? Other sources say Landon was adamant that no one else would use his sets for another series or remake Little House while he was alive, that it was his own personal statement, a loud message to Hollywood. One could only speculate, knowing his sharp sense of humor and what a prankster he was on the set.
After Little House on the Prairie, Landon went on to produce, direct and star in another much-loved series, Highway to Heaven, and wrote and directed the TV film, Where Pigeons Go to Die. In 1991, Landon had a new family-oriented pilot in production, when friends and relatives noticed he was looking tired. He assured them it was just because he was working hard to get his new show underway. At the end of March, he cut short a Utah ski trip with Cindy and their children because he was having severe abdominal pains. On his own, back in Los Angeles, he checked into Cedars-Sinai Hospital for an MRI, which revealed a large tumor. A biopsy confirmed the worst news.
“Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.”
After a brief stay in the hospital at the end of May to treat a blood clot, Landon made peace with his fate, and decided to live out his remaining days at home with his family. In the coming months, he spoke with his sister on the phone regularly, repairing that tenuous relationship.
On the afternoon of July 1st, surrounded by his family and close friends, he passed away at his Malibu home. His ashes were placed in a mausoleum close to the grave of his beloved TV father, Lorne Greene.
Michael Landon left behind a legacy in a body of work that pays tribute to the American Spirit, the strength of family, a solid work ethic and the infectious joy found in optimism and laughter.
October 31, 1936 – July 1, 1991
In a 2014 Fox News interview, Michael Landon, Jr. was asked which of his father’s TV series did he like best.
“Little House, hands down,” he said, “It was because of the time we got together as a family. It was a bonding experience and I was so proud of my father and the work he did. When he was ill, the amount of letters that poured in thanking him, it was overwhelming. He touched so many people’s lives in such a good way. How many people are able to say that now?”