In memory of Michael Landon | EW.com

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In memory of Michael Landon

In memory of Michael Landon -- From ''Bonanza'' to ''Little House'' we take a look at the life of America's beloved TV star

In memory of Michael Landon

Eugene Maurice Orowitz grew up a miserable boy in a troubled family. His parents fought bitterly. His father’s career as a movie publicist crumbled. His mother, a former actress, was suicidal. He was a skinny, angry, half- Catholic, half-Jewish kid taunted in school by pint-size anti-Semites, and he was a late bed wetter whose mother humiliated him by hanging his wet sheets out the window for all of hometown Collingswood, N.J., to see.

But he had these things going for him: He threw a mean javelin. And he grew a great head of hair.

The javelin got Orowitz away from his depressing neighborhood and out to the West Coast on an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California. And the hair — well, the hair became his source of strength, his signature, the embodiment of the easy good looks by which Eugene Orowitz became Michael Landon.

And Michael Landon became a television man.

For three decades Landon epitomized wholesome family values on the medium the whole family watches. His was a talent perfectly suited to the small screen in the living room. Sure, there was his movie career: He first found fame as Tony, the skinny, angry, hairy star of the 1957 camp classic I Was a Teen-age Werewolf. And he was hard to ignore in God’s Little Acre (1958) and ITALIC {The Legend of Tom Dooley}] (1959).

But it was on TV that we felt we knew him-and followed him from his first appearance on Bonanza in September 1959, when he was almost 23, right up until the weeks before his death on July 1 at age 54.

Landon was Bonanza’s Little Joe Cartwright for 14 years, and America believed him as an ideal son in the honest, wide-open spaces of Nevada’s Ponderosa ranch, circa 1860. He was Charles Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie for eight years, and America admired him as an ideal dad in the honest, wide-open spaces of Walnut Grove, Minn., circa 1880. For that matter, he was Jonathan Smith on Highway to Heaven for five years, and America bought him as an ideal angel who could travel wide-open spaces in search of people in trouble, spreading the gospel of coping through love.

It reached a point where the classic Michael Landon photo featured 1) clear blue skies in the background and 2) his hair. And that was fine with his fans. That’s what we liked about him. He was this handsome television guy whose specialty was selling an American dream. And he knew it. Talking about Highway to Heaven in an interview three years ago, Landon looked sentimentality right in the eye: ”There are very few shows that can, on a regular basis, give the audience a good cry,” he said. ”I know I can do that-and if I do it well, they will be back.”

The audience came back. They bought the premise. Mushy? Sure. Sentimental? Ditto. That’s how Landon got to be the holder of this prodigious stat: No other TV star has had three back-to-back dramatic series spanning a longer period of time (1959-89).

Because he was a gifted storyteller, we paid more attention to Landon the family man-the father of nine children, via three wives-than to the shrewd businessman who also wrote, directed, and produced his own shows. We liked that he shot a Highway episode at a camp for kids with cancer, and that he drew on his own painful experiences to write, produce, and direct The Loneliest Runner, a sensitive 1976 TV drama about a track star who was also a bed wetter. We cared less about his reputation for prickly perfectionism that often made him a difficult man to work with.

It was appropriate that the series Landon was developing for CBS when he became sick was about family. It was called US, about a man released from prison after serving 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit who renews ties to the father who spurned him and the son who never knew him. It was a Michael Landon kind of story.

In the end, that kind of story became lost in Landon’s own medical drama. When he was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer in April, he did what a man whose miserable early life had been redeemed by TV would do: He went on the air to talk about it. Appearing on The Tonight Show, he joked, he was angry, he was serious, he was charming. He worked like hell. He hugged Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon and told them it took two blood transfusions and a lot % of makeup to get him there. He was amusing, but he wasn’t kidding. He was brave and he was dignified and he made cancer as approachable a talk show topic as the wife and kids.

And for his effort, Michael Landon received a standing ovation from the studio audience. It was the role of his life. On television. Where Michael Landon found a home.