Landon was compelled to succeed An appreciation

July 02, 1991|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

BRANDON Tartikoff admitted that around NBC Entertainment, eyebrows were raising and eyes were rolling. Here was Michael Landon, not long from his long-running family hit "Little House on the Prairie," trying to sell another show, one about an apprentice angel who came down to Earth and did nice things for people.

Right, Tartikoff thought, the great American public that in 1984 was putting "Dallas," "Dynasty," "The A-Team" and "Magnum P.I." in the Top 10 was going to sit still for an hour watching Michael Landon play an angel.

But NBC had a series commitment to Landon, so the thought was to let him get this one out of his system. Besides, Tartikoff always had a bunch of potential titles that he wanted to use. One of them fit this show. Probably for that reason, "Highway to Heaven" got the go-ahead.

And, as he did time and again throughout his career, Landon showed that he was the Isaac Stern of the American heartstrings. "Highway to Heaven" started off in the Top 20 and was a strong performer throughout its five-year run, delivering a good, decent, basic moral message, week-in and week-out.

When producer Hugh Wilson had his CBS comedy "WKRP in Cincinnati" on opposite "Little House on the Prairie" -- which ran on NBC, as did all of Landon's series during his 30-year career -- he used to complain that every time "WKRP" gained a little in the ratings, Landon would blind some little girl or cripple somebody over on "Little House" and that gentle drama about a young girl coming of age in the American West would get the audience right back.

It was the type of story Landon would enjoy. Though in interviews he often came off brash and arrogant, with an I'm-the-star attitude, he softened that with a self-deprecating sense of humor. The former Eugene Orowitz liked to point out that some in Hollywood referred to "Highway to Heaven" as "Moses of Malibu."

Even as he announced, in April, the onset of the liver and pancreas cancer that killed him yesterday at the age of 54, he joked about not wanting to lose his magnificent mane of hair during therapy. Harried by the tabloids, he went on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and talked in a straightforward, humorous way about his health and hopes.

Landon could play the Hollywood heavy, letting them know that he was swimming all the way to the bank in the river of tears his heart-tuggers unleashed. And the success of "Little House on the Prairie" and "Highway to Heaven," along with his ownership of the shows, made him an exceptionally wealthy man.

Along with that came the star-crossed life that belied the on-screen image. Though for years he maintained his strong family-man appearance -- fathering six children, adopting three more -- a bitter divorce eventually broke up his original family. A daughter had a struggle with drugs and Landon publicly adopted a "tough love" stance. When he died, he was married to wife number three.

But Landon's shows wouldn't have worked unless somewhere in there was the genuine article, a Charles Ingalls and Jonathan Smith hidden beneath the glitter and glitz. By all accounts, Landon had a tough upbringing in New Jersey facing anti-Semitism at school and a suicidal mother at home. His ability to throw the javelin -- he once held the American high school record -- got him to Los Angeles where he attended the University of Southern California on a scholarship.

Torn ligaments ended his Olympic dreams in his freshman year. He stumbled into acting, made "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," was a fixture on "Bonanza" as Little Joe during its 14 seasons, and moved immediately into his own series. "Bonanza" went off in 1973" and "Little House on the Prairie" came on in 1974. It lasted nine seasons.

He was supposed to be at once a tough taskmaster and fiercely loyal to his cast and crew. He expected everyone to work hard and no one worked harder than he did as Landon had his hands on every part of the operation, producing, writing and directing.

He admitted that he was driven to excess, probably by that childhood. One of his TV movies -- "The Loneliest Runner" -- was a semi-autobiographical account of a young boy who escaped the teasing he got for wetting his bed by excelling in athletics.

Landon seemed to have a need to show everyone in Hollywood that he was as tough and powerful and nearly as rich as any of them. But he got there by letting that nice little boy who never had a chance to show himself back in New Jersey get on television for the whole world to see.

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