Michael Landon is best known for his acting roles in the television series' Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven. His athletic build and rugged, boyish good looks contributed to his popularity. His eventual writing, directing and producing of television shows with a family oriented Christian message led many to believe Landon came from a loving, faith based family. The truth is far different.
Landon was born on Halloween in 1936. He was named Eugene Maurice Orowitz. His father, Eli Maurice Orowitz, was a movie theater manager and an actor. Eugene’s mom, Peggy (nee O’Neill), was Irish Catholic, and had a part time career as a dancer and actress. Eli and Peggy argued a lot. Peggy was mentally unbalanced and made several suicide attempts during Eugene’s childhood. Once the family went on vacation and Peggy tried to drown herself. Michael rescued her. Peggy did not thank him or explain herself. She pretended nothing had happened.
In 1941 the Orowitz’s moved from Queens to suburban Collingswood in New Jersey. Four year old Eugene’s new neighbors were all Protestants. His older sister Evelyn remembered:
"The original mayor of the town had written in his will that there would never be any 'Jews' or 'Negroes' or any other minority living in Collingswood. My father knew about that, but he liked the house and it was convenient for his work so he sent my mother in to talk to the real estate agent. My mother had blonde hair and blue eyes. My father told her to ask almost immediately where the Catholic Church was! They naturally assumed we were Gentile.
“The children constantly called us 'Christ Killers' and when I would ride my bike to school they would say 'kick her off her Jew bike'. I got so bruised that I walked to school for the next year. My brother was only 4 years old when we moved there, but when he started school, he would come home with bruises and my mother asked him what happened. He said, "they called me a lousy Jew". She said to him, "Oh, no, you're not a Jew-your father is a Jew-I had you and your sister secretly baptized." Even though my brother and I were being discriminated against, we were being taught bigotry at home."
Eugene was a loner in high school. He later said he ate lunch alone and never dated, partly out of shyness but also because parents tended to not let their daughters date non-Protestant (that is, Jewish) boys. He read comic books and took long walks by himself. Lonely, depressed, anxious about his mother’s mental health, Eugene often wet his bed. His mother’s reaction was to hang Eugene’s sheets outside his window, apparently believing she could shame her son into better behavior. Of course this also advertised Eugene’s problem to the neighbors. The teenaged Eugene ran home after school to pull down his stained sheets so his classmates wouldn’t see. Michael Landon made autobiographical reference to this in a 1976 made for TV movie he scripted and directed, The Loneliest Runner.
Eugene and his older sister Evelyn attended Temple Beth Sholom, a conservative synagogue located near Collingswood in an area that only recently allowed Jews to live there. Eugene bicycled to Beth Sholom almost every day to practice reading Hebrew and learn to chant properly.
But when Bar Mitzvah time came, Eugene ran into a problem. While the Jewish Orowitz’s were ostracized by their Protestant neighbors, Jewish rabbis had their own, less obvious ostracism: they did not perform Bar Mitzvahs for children who did not have a Jewish mother. Eugene had spent years learning Hebrew and Jewish chanting in anticipation of his Bar Mitzvah, but now it seemed all his effort would be for naught.
Rabbi Albert Lewis founded Temple Beth Sholom (“House of Peace“). His was a conservative synagogue emphasizing the authority of Jewish scripture. Rabbi Lewis’ heart was not similarly attached. He broke custom and presided over the Bar Mitzvah of Eugene Orowitz. This was a crucial event in Eugene’s life. An adult Michael Landon identified himself as Jewish his entire life.
The one thing Eugene excelled in was throwing the javelin. In 1954 he had the longest toss by a high schooler in the country. He received a sports scholarship from USC around the same time his father decided to move the family to Los Angeles. The Orowitz family seemed at last to be in sync with the outside world.
As head of RKO publicity in New York, Eli Orowitz assumed he would be able to find similar work from his employer in California. Once the family had moved to Los Angeles, however, Eli just couldn’t get his foot in the door. In a 1962 interview with TV Guide Michael Landon said of his father:
“He ended up carrying film cans up five flights of stairs to a projection room in a crummy downtown Los Angeles theater. He had come to the West Coast looking for good fortune, believing that everyone here would remember what he had done for them [back in New York]. The problem was that he couldn't get anybody at the studios to talk to him.”
Eugene had similar bad luck. He tore ligaments in his shoulder in practice, thus ending his sports career. The Orowitz family sunk into their familiar pattern of depression seasoned with a sense of failure. Eugene worked part time jobs to make ends meet. One of the jobs was at a gas station across the street from Warner Brothers Studio. As the story goes, the young, handsome Eugene filled the gas tank of an executive with the company (before today’s self-service stations, gas attendants would fill the tank, check the oil, and clean the car windows). In return, the executive advised Eugene to enter Warner’s acting school.
Acting school led to bit parts in a series of television shows and movies. The most memorable one was 1957’s “I Was A Teenage Werewolf.” One day Eugene looked through the phone book and picked a name for himself: Michael Landon.
Landon’s big break came in 1959 when he was cast as “Little Joe” Cartwright in Bonanza, the first television series to be broadcast in color. Bonanza enjoyed a fourteen year run, with several years as the top rated show on television. The show featured the all male Cartwright clan and their Ponderosa ranch in Nevada, in the time period during and after the American Civil War. The patriarch, Ben Cartwright, was played by Lorne Greene. Greene and Landon developed a father-son relationship based in part on a shared Jewish heritage (Greene’s parents were Russian Jews who immigrated to Canada).
The timing of their relationship was interesting because Landon’s real father, Eli Orowitz, died of a heart attack in 1959, just as his son’s star began to rise.
Little Joe Cartwright was the show’s heartthrob. Landon leveraged his position to begin writing and directing Bonanza episodes. His creation of a special two hour show, “Forever,” was recognized by TV Guide as one of the best specials ever to appear on television. Bonanza was the second longest running western in television history (Gunsmoke was first). In the last five years Landon’s writing and directing style seemed overbearing to some. He began to develop a work reputation as a “my way or the highway” personality type.
One year after Bonanza was cancelled Landon created a pilot movie for another television series called Little House on the Prairie. Landon wrote, directed, and served as executive producer of the series, which ran for eight years on NBC. The show presented an idealized version of a western family. “The main values of Little House on the Prairie," Landon said, "are the little things that nobody seems to care about anymore: the simple needs of people and how difficult it was in those days out West to supply them." Little House was nominated for Emmys and Golden Globe Awards. The popular series ended in 1983.
In 1985 Michael Landon gave an interview in which he talked about his mother, who finally succeeded in committing suicide in 1981. She was not remembered fondly by her son, who said:
"She was a stabber, a kicker and a wacko. She was off her rocker. She was very abusive. My mother would sit on the sofa in her nightgown…holding a Bible, asking God to kill me. My mother was sad-she never got better and she always kept me a little off balance.”
There are thousands of photographs of Michael Landon, but no pictures of his family, or of him as a small boy or baby. Yet Michael Landon’s parents did pass on positive traits to their son: he inherited their love of entertainment and their acting talents. Perhaps it was his own miserable childhood that drove Landon to develop a specific vision of an idealized family life and to singlehandedly make that vision a reality with Little House. Michael Landon’s personal life, however, was quite unlike Charles Ingalls.
He was married three times, divorced twice, and had nine children (three were adopted). His first marriage lasted from 1956 to 1962, when Landon filed for divorce. His second marriage was from 1963 to 1982, and included four children. Landon’s third marriage was to Cindy Clerico, a makeup artist on Little House. Landon reportedly had an affair with her and divorced his second wife to marry Cindy in 1983. They went on to have two children.
After marrying Cindy, Landon wrote, directed, produced, and starred in Highway to Heaven. With a nod to It’s a Wonderful Life, Landon played Jonathan Smith, a “probationary” angel trying to earn his wings by helping people. In 1984 a reviewer in The Christian Science Monitor wrote:
"Highway to Heaven is all the things its critics will say it is: simplistic, saccharine, gushy, sentimental, ingenuous, unsophisticated. But it is also unique in contemporary television. It is a warm and loving and compassionate show for the whole family."
The show was successful for several years, and ended in 1989.
Michael Landon’s contribution to television was significant. For three decades he produced family oriented shows for American audiences. Although nominated for numerous awards, he never won an Emmy. He was loyal to the people he worked with, often bringing them along to the next new series. Merlin Olson, an actor on Little House, became the star of a Landon spin off show called Father Murphy. In return, his co-workers invariably described him as affectionate, friendly, a man who found humor everywhere, and an immense practical joker.
In April 1991 Landon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Then doctors discovered his liver was also cancerous. These forms of cancer are often caused by excessive use of alcohol and smoking. Landon drank heavily and was a chain smoker. His friend Bill Kiley recalled, "We used to bet his socks smelled smoky because he inhaled so deeply."
Earlier in his career Landon became dependent on tranquilizers, but was able to quit. The cigarettes and alcohol were tougher to give up, and ended up being the cause of Michael Landon’s death at the age of fifty four. He spent his final days at his home in Malibu, surrounded by family. On July 1 he spent his last minutes of life alone with his wife Cindy. Today Michael Landon rests in a Los Angeles Jewish cemetery near the gravesite of his father figure, Lorne Greene.
Michael Landon, Eugene Maurice Orowitz, requiescat in pacem.
Philadelphia Daily News (PA) - July 2, 1991, Obituary of Michael Landon.
Grave Hunter.net Michael Landon.
1987 Redbook interview with Michael Landon by Toni Reinhold.
New York Times obituary for Michael Landon, July 2, 1991.
TV Guide, "Michael Landon's Final Days" (July 20, 1991, p. 3)
Landon Wilson, Cheryl (1992). I Promised My Dad: An Intimate Portrait of Michael Landon by His Eldest Daughter. New York: Simon & Schuster.