Michael Landon, actor, director, 'Little Joe Cartwright,' dead at 54

July 02, 1991|By Peter B. Flint | Peter B. Flint,New York Times News Service

Michael Landon, who won fame as Little Joe Cartwright in the classic television series "Bonanza" and enhanced his celebrity as a creator, writer and director of other television hits, died yesterday at his ranch in Malibu, Calif. He was 54.

His death was announced by a spokeswoman for his lawyer, 12 weeks after Mr. Landon disclosed he had inoperable cancer of the liver and pancreas. "I am going to fight it," the boyishly handsome entertainer told reporters on April 5, adding, "Live every minute, guys."

Mr. Landon, at that news conference, said he would begin undergoing chemotherapy and would have to cancel a forthcoming television series, "US," in which he was to portray a traveling columnist.

The entertainer, an athletic man with thick, curly hair, grew up in "Bonanza." He went on to play the idealized frontier father in "Little House on the Prairie" (1974-1982) and the altruistic angel assigned by God to aid mankind and spread love in "Highway to Heaven" (1984-1988).

The three NBC series, along with several television plays and "Father Murphy," a 1981-1984 series that he supervised, made him one of the dominant shapers of prime-time family fare for nearly three decades.

Detractors assailed Mr. Landon's shows as sentimental, happy-ever-after contrivances. Admirers praised him for sincerity in striving to deal honestly with sentiment and social concerns and for integrity in using his own company, Michael Landon Productions, to back his shows.

Mr. Landon, whose original name was Eugene Maurice Orowitz, was born on Oct. 31, 1936, in Forest Hills, Queens, to Eli Maurice Orowitz, a movie theater manager, and the former Peggy O'Neill, an actress.

His childhood was marred by parental quarrels and schoolmates' anti-Semitic taunts, he recalled in interviews. Though slight, he became a champion javelin thrower, but otherwise he was an outsider who found solace in comic books and solitary walks.

He won a track scholarship to the University of Southern California but dropped out after a year. He worked at many jobs, studied at the Warner Brothers acting school and began his career as Michael Landon, a name he picked from the telephone book. In his film debut, in 1957, he played the title role of "I Was a FTC Teen-Age Werewolf." His big break came at 22 when he was cast as Little Joe in "Bonanza."

His penchant for perfection led to disputes. David Dortort, the executive producer of "Bonanza," said in 1974 that "Landon developed very quickly as a good director."

"Then, as an actor," Mr. Dortort continued, "he began to criticize what he thought were errors being made by other 'Bonanza' directors. It was the same with Mike Landon, the writer. He'd challenge nearly every line, every scene, every setup in other writers' scripts. It got increasingly bitter toward the end."

In his later work, Mr. Landon insisted on overseeing virtually every aspect of production, prompting some associates to call him arrogant, obstinate and abrasive.

Mr. Landon's first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, Cindy, a makeup artist, whom he married in 1983; five sons; and four daughters.

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