Little Joe – but not only
Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts and Dan Blocker, whose careers we have recently been looking at on this blog (click the links for those) are known principally, by some exclusively, as stars of Bonanza. The same is not quite so true of Michael Landon (1936–1991). Yes, for many, even most, he was Little Joe Cartwright, the youngest son of the Ponderosa dynasty, and between 1959 and 1973 that’s basically what he did. But many will also remember him for the 1970s and 80s show Little House on the Prairie, which he starred in and of which he was producer, also directing many episodes. And for non-Western fans (for such sad souls do exist) he may be associated with his later role as an angel in Highway to Heaven, and it lasted five years, though was then canceled for low ratings.
Eugene Maurice Orowitz was born in Queens, NY in 1936, of a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother. He later said that his mother was anti-semitic and his father hated Catholics, so that doesn’t exactly sound a recipe for household harmony. He evidently had a traumatic childhood which included trying to save his mother from repeated suicide attempts.
He was good at sports and in fact became a champion javelin thrower, winning an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California. He was noticed by an agent while serving gas near the Warner Brothers studio. That was when ‘Michael Landon’, chosen from the telephone book, was considered more Hollywood-friendly than Eugene Orowitz.
He got a starring role in the epic feature I Was a Teenage Werewolf.
He also had a moderately successful singing career, with teen idol hits such as Gimme a Little Kiss (Will Ya Huh), which doubtless you sang along to at the time.
But most of his early work was in late-50s TV. Western shows he appeared in included The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Cheyenne, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Tales of Wells Fargo and The Restless Gun, which is where he caught the eye of producer David Dortort.
He was 22 when he took the role of Little Joe (beating out Robert Blake in audition). Dortort and his writers needed a young one, probably with the teen market in mind. Roberts as Adam was the tall, dark and sultry one, and rather educated, Blocker as Hoss was the amiable big-ox country boy and Landon as LittleJoe was supposed to be outgoing and boisterous in character, though producer/friend Kent McCray said in a 2016 interview with Jeremy Roberts that in fact Landon “was a very shy person.” Landon was really to be the pretty one the teen girls would sigh over
They did. He received more fan mail than all the others (much of it, I believe, from my second sister). He pressured Dortort to let him write and direct some episodes too. His first writing for the show was in 1962 and he would do the story or teleplay for 21 episodes altogether. Later of course he would write Little House. He directed 14 episodes of Bonanza, between 1968 and ’73.
It wasn’t all sweetness and light at the studios. He famously did not get on at well with Pernell Roberts, which made their scenes together uncomfortable. When Roberts departed, Landon said, “Pernell didn’t like the show and would let you know it, but he rarely cared to do much about improving it.”
In his book Television Western Players, Everett Aaker (not sure if he is a relation of Lee) says, “Colleagues at the network branded him arrogant and difficult. He relentlessly interfered with all aspects of production.” Landon said of himself, “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to show myself and others that I was somebody.” He doesn’t sound like the easiest of co-workers.
Shrewdly, Landon attributed the success of Bonanza to the fact that it gave viewers at home a sense of security and stability, and it stressed old-fashioned family values. That was something that Landon warmed to and no one would accuse him of being cutting-edge in social matters. There was something ‘safe’ and Hallmarkish about his approach to acting, writing and directing. For some reason I know not, he gained the nickname the Jesus of Malibu.
When Bonanza was finally pulled, in January 1973, Landon said he was offered 36 crime series, six medical shows and one sci-fi. He was certainly a hot property – and rather the opposite of Roberts’s post-Ponderosa progress. Producer Ed Friendly approached him with the idea of making a series based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s children’s books about 19th century frontier life. Landon said, “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.”
He directed and starred in the two-hour pilot, aired in April 1974, and he insisted on authenticity wherever possible, to get as close as he could to life in Minnesota in the 1870s. That didn’t seem to apply to his hairdo, though. The show hit the right note in any case because it became one of NBC’s biggest earners. As Landon began to take over, Ed became less Friendly, and withdrew, leaving the show pretty well in Landon’s hands. At its peak, in Season 4, it got to No 7 in the Nielsen ratings. Landon decided to leave the series in 1982 and the title was changed to Little House: A New Beginning but it wasn’t: the new show folded after a single season.
Personally, I liked Little House even less than Bonanza. I found it schmaltzy to a degree. But hey, it had very many fans, and won Emmys, so what do I know? For some reason, as La casa de la pradera it became one of Spanish television’s most popular series.
So, Westernwise, after a few earlyTV shows, it was pretty well Bonanza and Little House. OK, if that’s your thing. Landon did appear in two big-screen Westerns, heading the cast in the Ted Post-directed The Legend of Tom Dooley in 1959, the year Bonanza started, and then later, bizarrely, stunt-doubling DeForest Kelly in a fight on one of those 60s ‘geezer westerns’ AC Lyles produced, Town Tamer, with Dana Andrews.
Otherwise that was about it. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1991. He is said to have smoked four packs of unfiltered Menthol cigarettes a day since 1961, so maybe that contributed. The Reagans attended his memorial service.