“Remember me with smiles and laughter,
For that’s the way I’ll remember you all.
If you can only remember me with tears,
Then don’t remember me at all.”
Written by Michael Landon for Season 2 Episodes 7 and 8, Remember Me
Michael Landon’s Early Years
Michael Landon was born on October 31, 1936 as Eugene Maurice Orowitz, and like the original Charles Ingalls he would later portray on television, he was born in New York. He lived in New York for a time until his family moved to New Jersey. He was described as a bit of a loner as a child but found a place for himself in high school with sports and academics.
After his college athletics career ended due to injury, he started working several part-time jobs to make ends meet. His acting career began almost by accident when he helped a friend in an acting audition and ended up securing a place in the acting school. Within a few months of attending acting school, he landed a starring role in the TV show “Telephone Time.” He felt the name Eugene Maurice Orowitz did not quite fit him as an aspiring actor and decided to change it to Michael Landon. 1
Michael Landon’s Early Acting Career
Michael Landon’s career took off through the ’50s and ’60s with roles in shows like Playhouse 90, Crossroads, and Telephone Time. In 1957 he starred as a troubled teenager in the horror film I Was a Teenage Werewolf. The movie became cult hit and catapulted his career.
Michael Landon in I Was a Teenage Werewolf
The role as Little Joe in Bonanza kept him busy from 1959 to 1973. He quickly became the heart of the show and a household name. The show hit #1 in the Nielsen Ratings in 1964 and stayed there for two more years. 2
Michael Landon in Bonanza Season 2 Episode 6
He spent ten years on the set of Bonanza, and throughout that time Michael Landon realized that he was interested in directing and writing episodes of his own. This was a pivotal moment and the start of his directing career. He directed his first episode in 1962. 3
Little House on the Prairie
In the early 1970s, producer Ed Friendly, who had acquired the rights to the Little House books and developed a screenplay with writer Blanche Hanalis, approached Michael Landon about directing the pilot of “Little House on the Prairie”. Michael read the script and loved the story so much that he asked not only to come on board as the director, but also to play the role of Charles Ingalls. This became the second-longest running series Michael Landon was involved in.
The audition process began with readings for executives of NBC and Ed Friendly Productions. After narrowing down the candidates, they read for Michael Landon to determine who would ultimately get the opportunity to screen test.
Melissa Gilbert was one of many girls who auditioned for the role of Laura Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie”. But as you can see in Melissa Gilbert’s screen test above, and according to Michael Landon, there was not a more perfect girl for the role. He knew instantly that she was “the one.”
“Shortly before Michael died, I saw him at Leslie’s wedding and he told me when it came time to show all the screen tests to the network executives, he only showed them mine.” – Melissa Gilbert 4
“I read for him in a room at Paramount Studios. I remember thinking, “Oh gosh, he’s really handsome.” He gave off a different kind of energy than ordinary people. It was a higher wattage. I’d been around stars and thought nothing of it, but Michael was different, and that difference was tangible without him having to say or do anything. It was a power, a mix of charisma and confidence that affected other people.” – Melissa Gilbert 4
Much of the success of the series can be attributed to the relaxed, confident atmosphere on set. Michael made sure that people on the set understood that they were involved in something good, something wholesome. He had a distinct vision of how the show should resonate with its viewers and his personal and heartfelt portrayal of ‘Pa’ Charles Ingalls inspired a generation.
Michael had a somber childhood and a troubled family growing up. He wanted “Little House on the Prairie” to portray his idea of beautiful family life. He worked well with the children on the show, helping them overcome any acting difficulties they had. Melissa Gilbert was quoted explaining how Michael Landon would look at her and say “Do you have any idea how much I love you?” to prepare her for an emotional scene. 5
Michael Landon in “Little House on the Prairie” Season 1 Episode 14
The sense of family on the set was very real, particularly because he worked with five sets of real-life siblings who appeared on the show: Melissa and Jonathan Gilbert (Laura Ingalls and Willie Oleson), Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush (Carrie Ingalls), Matthew and Patrick Labyorteaux (Albert Quinn Ingalls and Andy Garvey), Brenda and Wendi Turnbaugh (Grace Ingalls), and Jennifer and Michele Steffin (Rose Wilder).
“Something that came back to me recently was how much Michael Landon used to tease me on the set of Little House about Miss Beadle being totally oblivious to the safety of her schoolchildren. In an episode called “Little Girl Lost” Carrie falls down an old mine shaft and Mike chalked it up to Miss Beadle – she’d sent the kids on an insect hunt as a school assignment. Then there was the episode called “Blizzard” with the big snowstorm. We started filming at Paramount and Mike looked over at me and said, “Well, Miss Beadle kills the kids again.” – Charlotte Stewart 6
Michael worked in many capacities on “Little House on the Prairie”, as executive producer, producer, writer, director, and actor. “Little House on the Prairie” became one of the most popular dramas in television history and garnered nominations and awards from the Emmys, Golden Globe Awards, and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center.
“Michael was very much a fan of the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy, and if something worked well enough in the first take, don’t bothering tinkering with perfection — just say “print” and move on.” – Alison Angrim 7
Remember Me With Smiles
Michael knew that the fundamental values that the show represented to people would resonate for a long period of time. He knew that people would be watching “Little House on the Prairie” long after so many other contemporary programs had been forgotten. Although the series ended in 1983, there is still a hunger for good family programming, and the series has continued to be broadcast throughout the world ever since. The series is also available in digitally-remastered DVD set, Blu-Ray, and digital streaming versions.
After the series ended, Michael Landon put his focus into a new series, which was different from the western shows that had occupied much of his career. In 1984, Highway To Heaven aired with his friend and collaborator, Victor French. The show follows a probationary angel sent back to Earth who teams with an ex-cop to help people.
The series ran for five seasons on NBC from 1984 to 1989 for a total of 111 episodes and was shot entirely in California. This was the final TV series starring Michael Landon.
Michael Landon in Highway to Heaven Season 4 Episode 17
When it was announced on April 8, 1991 that Michael Landon was suffering from pancreatic cancer at the young age of 54, fans were undoubtedly in shock and devastated. In his press conference announcing his cancer, Michael took the stand of his life. He told LIFE magazine “If I’m gonna die, death’s gonna have to do a lot of fighting to get me,” just three weeks after his diagnosis. 8
“He was a huge television star with huge insecurities, and underneath it all, a huge heart. Mike Landon, the regular guy, was great.” –Melissa Sue Anderson 9
He fought a hard fight, retreating to his ranch to follow a strict diet, undergo chemotherapy, and even an experimental procedure. His business partner Kent McCray described Michael in his last days as very bright and upbeat, telling jokes and very lucid. But his condition deteriorated quickly and he passed on Monday, July 1, 1991.
As families continue to hunger for television shows that are built on strong family values and good principals, Michael Landon’s legacy will live on in the hearts of his family, his coworkers, and his fans. He was very striking and charming. He had a mixture of being the rugged man’s man while being very vulnerable and open at the same time. There was a certain virtue and righteousness in the characters that he depicted that made the viewers yearn for a father or husband like him.
What do you remember about Michael Landon?
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1. Biography.com, source
2. IMDB, source
3. Wikipedia, source
4. Melissa Gilbert, Prairie Tale: A Memoir, pp. 35-36
5. USA Today, source
6. Charlotte Stewart, “Miss Beadle and Me”
7. Alison Angrim, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated, p. 118
8. People Magazine, “Goodbye, Little Joe”
9. Melissa Sue Anderson, The Way I See It: A Look Back At My Life On Little House, p. 96