Landon's TV image went to the heart of American values

July 02, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It will not be easy for some of us to let go of Michael Landon, who died of cancer yesterday at 54. Landon's television image is directly connected to some of our most powerful emotions and beliefs.

Family values. The civilizing of the frontier. Doing good works. Happy endings. For more than 30 years in some of the most successful shows in TV history, Landon's characters were linked in profound ways to those aspects of our national identity.

Our first video connection to Landon was as Little Joe Cartwright "Bonanza," the youngest of the three Cartwright boys who were helping their father settle and run the mighty Ponderosa ranch. The series ran from 1959 to 1973. Among westerns, only "Gunsmoke" ran longer or was watched by more viewers.

It might be hard for some to remember what a heartthrob Landon was in the early 1960s. Just as television itself is the mainstream and safe popular art when compared to rock and roll and film, so Landon was the non-threatening TV version of the teen idol Elvis Presley represented in rock.

Landon moved directly from the Ponderosa of Virginia City, Nev., to Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie," the 19th century Minnesota homestead run by Landon's Charles Ingalls. Landon, who was also executive producer, left "Little House" in 1982.

In 1984, Landon returned to television in "Highway to Heaven" as Jonathan Smith, an angel whose mission on earth was to bring kindness and love into the lives of people faced with big trouble. He created that series. Some of his Hollywood colleagues jokingly referred to Landon as "Jesus of Malibu," more for the sweetness of that show than the California oceanfront community Landon lived in. But the actor had another hit of the heart with a show that is still going strong in reruns.

The key in both "Bonanza" and "Little House" is that they were about the frontier. But they were not about the taming of the frontier with "Marlboro Man" cowboys, bloodshed and great violence. They were about the civilizing of the frontier -- which took place after the taming.

That meant family values -- which were the bedrock of American television and made for perfect TV from a programmer's standpoint. Landon's characters -- with their emphasis on kindness and caring rather than blazing guns -- were a new kind of male frontier figure. This proved especially attractive to members of a generation that had done all the shooting they ever wanted to do during World War II and now were intent on raising families.

The great irony is that the real Michael Landon, like Bing Crosby, was much different than the television persona we so loved. He was married three times, and one of the divorces was a bitter and public one. He was, by almost all accounts, arrogant and difficult to work with. He suffered bouts of drug dependency, including an addiction to tranquilizers during "Bonanza."

But there seemed to be a point somewhere in the psyche where the two Landons met. The son of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, he remembered his childhood as being an unhappy one, with his mother often attempting suicide. He attributed his desire to act in and to create TV shows about happy families to his own unhappy childhood.

"I'm a driven man," Landon once said, "because from the time I was a kid, I wanted to show myself and others I was somebody."

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