Friday, July 1, 2011

Coming in for a Landon

Did you ever enjoy watching Eugene Orowitz on TV in his various successful series? What do you mean you don't know Eugene Orowitz?? What if I tell you that, on the eve of his career as an actor, he searched through the Los Angeles telephone directory and settled on the name Michael Landon instead?

Orowitz was born on Halloween, October 31st, 1936 in Queens, New York, to a Jewish actor and movie theater manager. His mother was an Irish Catholic dancer and comedienne. The couple had a daughter, Evelyn, who was born three years prior. The couple's individual religious backgrounds were inherently discordant, though it was determined that young Eugene be raised in the Jewish faith. When the family moved to a New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia, he studied for and had his Bar Mitzvah, little knowing that he would eventually become a beloved icon of Christians!

His parents were very unhappily married and fought continually. His mother, despite having an on-stage sense of humor, was a perpetual participant in suicide attempts and was known to stick her head in the oven and even tried to jump from a cliff to drown herself once during a family vacation. This behavior shattered young Eugene and helped lead to his nervous habit of bed-wetting. In an effort to humiliate the pattern out of him, his mother would hang the sheets out of his bedroom window for display every day and he would race home like a flash to retrieve them before friends and classmates would see.

This developed his athleticism so much that he became a top track & field member at his school! His specialty was the javelin which, when he threw it 193' 4” on one occasion, set a national record for the year. He was granted a scholarship to the University of Southern California, clear on the other side of the nation, and joined their track team. Sadly, torn shoulder ligaments caused him to lose the scholarship and withdraw from performing.

He, never a strong student despite possessing an IQ of 156, dropped out of college and took work in a warehouse. He and a co-worker secured auditions with Warner Brothers and, amazingly, he was signed on as a contract player! This was when Eugene Orowitz renamed himself Michael Landon, thinking correctly that it would make a better moniker for an actor. Though he had looks and personality, he was not yet an “actor” and would take months of lessons before debuting on screen. He also felt that his slight frame and 5'9” height was a deterrent, but success became his in any event.

1956 was the year that Landon first appeared on television, on a now-forgotten show called Telephone Time, a program that presented 30-minute playlets each week. He swiftly was placed in other programs like Studio 57, Sheriff of Cochise, The Adventures of Jim Bowie and Crossroads. He also had an unbilled film role as a boy in a pool hall in These Wilder Years, a movie that starred James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck.

Landon was also married for the first time that year, to a woman named Dodie. She was a mother of one boy, who Landon adopted, and the couple adopted another boy later (in 1960.)
By 1957, he'd built up enough experience to earn the title role in a B-movie all his own, the hooty camp classic I Was a Teenage Werewolf! As an anguished, troubled young high schooler, Landon could draw upon his own traumatic adolescence and was able to give a committed, heartfelt and sincere performance in what looked, on the surface, to be a cheap, drive-in style movie. His character goes to a psychiatrist (Whit Bissel) for help, but instead is injected with serum and led towards a path of murderous destruction. Thus, Landon could gain sympathy from the audience even while portraying a monster. It was a massive hit.
Plenty of TV appearances continued, but there were also additional feature film roles. Actor-director Cornel Wilde used him in one of his projects, Maracaibo, which (as usual) also featured Wilde's wife Jean Wallace along with Abbe Lane. Landon played the son of Frances Lederer in the tropical adventure drama. Wilde is shown here in the center showing off his shaved torso. Landon was also tossed in with the gaggle of names working in High School Confidential. The movie starred the varied conglomeration of Russ Tamblyn, Mamie Van Doren, Jan Sterling, John Drew Barrymore, Charles Chaplin Jr. and Jerry Lee Lewis and has emerged as yet another camp classic!
A little bit higher up the scale of prestige, though not without its own camp value, was 1958's God's Little Acre. Again acting amidst an all-star cast of Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Jack Lord, Buddy Hackett and Tina Louise, the naturally dark Landon portrayed an albino, complete with shocking white hair! Interestingly, though Landon was tenth-billed, when the movie was re-released to theaters in 1967, he suddenly was second in the credits! (Louise, who'd made her debut in this picture was top-billed in the rerelease, sort of the way cheapo home videos will market a film “starring” Jim Carrey or Kevin Costner when, in truth, their role is small.)

In 1959, he starred in a film called The Legend of Tom Dooley, inspired by a popular song by The Kingston Trio. A quickie western, it was filmed in the same locations and used many of the same sets as the TV show Gunsmoke. He's shown here with lobe interest Jo Morrow.

This was the era of the TV western. Landon guest-starred on Cheyenne, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Tombstone Territory, Frontier Doctor, Zane Grey Theater, The Rifleman and others. Viewers simply could not get their fill of cowboys, gunfighters, saloons, cattle drives, etc.... In 1959, in an effort to promote the sale of color televisions, a series was developed that would be meant to further that goal. Few people knew that this show would develop into one of TV's most enduring classics and run until 1973!

Color television was very slow to catch on and was expensive as well. It wasn't until the mid-'60s that most series flipped from black and white to color. Bonanza, however, was shot in full color from the start. It starred Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright, patriarch of the Ponderosa ranch, a massive, profitable spread which he ran with his three sons. Pernell Roberts played the eldest son Adam, Dan Blocker was next as the hulking Eric (known, however, by the nickname “Hoss”) and Landon was cast as the youngest, Joseph (or, more famously, as “Little Joe.”) What is that you say? The Cartwright brothers don't look like actual brothers? This was explained away by having each of them born by a different mother. Greene was thrice a widower (which didn't prevent occasional female guest stars from trying to lead him down the aisle once more!) A Chinese cook called Hop Sing completed the regular cast. Even though he was playing “Little” Joe, Landon allegedly wore lifts in his boots in order to not be completely dwarfed by his costars who were from 3-1/2 to 6 inches taller than he.

The outdoorsy setting, paired with costumes that employed plenty of blues, pinks and even magenta, were geared to impress anyone who was considering a color television. In any case, the show was successful even among viewers who could only see it in black & white. The Cartwrights were initially portrayed as territorial and confrontational, but soon morphed into more amiable gentlemen, doling out advice, support and sometimes money to their troubled neighbors and visitors. None of the boys could hold onto a girl, either, as their love interests inevitably died of illness, were murdered, jilted them or left town. Once, Landon was asked about the sexual proclivities of the Cartwright brothers living all alone together for so long on the Ponderosa. His response was that, no the Cartright boys were not gay, but thank God Hop Sing was!
Landon's Little Joe was the cutie pie. He roughhoused with his brothers and was quick-tempered, yet possessed a soft, tender side, earning him legions of female fans. Also responsible for earning him fans was the fact that as the series progressed, he took to wearing a pair of taupe-colored pants that had a habit of revealing the fact that “Little Joe” really wasn't so little! It seems silly now, but for some reason many westerns color coded the stars, having them wear the same basic clothing in almost every scene! (This was generally so that stock footage of them riding their horses to and fro, over and over, could be played frequently and still match up with what the character was wearing in the given episode's scene.) Roberts was suddenly always in black from head to toe. Blocker was in a white shirt with tan vest and Landon was forever in those taupe pants and a green jacket.

Term papers could be written about those taupe slacks. In those chaste, limited, male sex-symbol starved days, many a little gay boy sat transfixed before an otherwise pedestrian episode of Bonanza, waiting and watching for a bulge from Little Joe Cartwright. Rarely would he end up disappointed! The phenomenon wasn't completely secret and undiscussed. Insiders claimed that Landon inadvertently became semi-aroused from the friction of his synthetic trousers against the saddle of his horse. Others suggested that he “fluffed” a little in order to draw attention to himself. Maybe he was just young and hormonally inclined! Whatever the case, it was not a “problem” that anyone felt the need to solve through costume changes or any other means. It continued until the day the series ended!

In 1962, Landon and Dodie divorced. The next year, he married for a second time to tall, blonde, somewhat severe-looking model Lynn Noe. Noe had two daughters from two previous marriages and Landon was only able to adopt one as the eldest's father didn't permit such a thing. In 1964, his first biological child, a son, was born. The couple proceeded to have two more children, a daughter and a son, bringing the number of his children and step-children to seven!

Landon had already started a battle with graying hair at age twenty, the same time he entered show biz. Therefore, from the very start, he had to color his hair in order to match his age. His hair was unbelievably thick, though, in contrast to Greene and Roberts, who wore toupees and Blocker, who began wearing one in 1968. As the series progressed and Little Joe was no longer the boy of the series (Mitch Vogel and, briefly, Tim Matheson eventually took on that mantle), Landon stopped coloring his hair and began to sport a salt and pepper look. He would later begin coloring it again for his subsequent series. (This pic to the right, by the way, is a good example of "Mike Jr." making an appearance on the show!)

He began writing some of the episodes and eventually directing them, too. The act of creating and working behind the scenes appealed to him more than appearing before the camera, but the simple truth was that acting paid far more money, so he continued to do both. Roberts left the series, almost at the height of its popularity because he didn't care for the material and had been in dispute with the producers almost from the start. The show remained a massive hit without him, but things at Bonanza took a major nosedive in 1972 when Blocker died following gall bladder surgery. A change in time slot, paired with the loss of the beloved “Hoss,” led to the demise of the series after fourteen years.

Landon was not idle for long, however. He quickly developed the family-friendly dramatic series Little House on the Prairie, based upon the popular books written by pioneer Laura Ingalls Wilder. Landon produced the series and had practically complete creative control. He played Laura's father, Charles Ingalls. For the role of his wife, Caroline, he settled on a theatre actress named Gabriel Tree. He convinced her to revert to her original name of Karen Grassle for the show, which she did (though he, himself, was content to stay Michael Landon and not Eugene Orowitz!) He then filled in Melissa Sue Anderson (as Mary), Melissa Gilbert (as Laura) and twins Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush (alternating as Carrie) to round out the family.
He didn't stop there. The settlement of Walnut Grove was then populated with a wealth of skilled character actors whose presence added immensely to every episode. Additionally, he created a character (Mr. Edwards) for a pal of his, Victor French, who'd done five episodes of Bonanza over the years. As the series progressed, the actors playing the Ingalls Family and all the townspeople of Walnut Grove became incredibly familiar and endearing to viewers. What started as a fairly simple, period, family show emerged as an almost serial-like series, set in the past, with Landon seeing to virtually every detail of its production. The fondly remembered theme music had actually used previously on Bonanza during a cattle drive sequence. The show was accused at times of being quaint, but it was not without its share of very serious experiences for some of the characters. The eldest daughter Mary, just as she had in real life, went blind from scarlet fever and there was a postively harrowing death by fire in a later episode involving a recurring character and the baby she was holding.

One thing that was consistent from the start, and never changed, was the palpable sentimentality of the stories and the acting. This earned the show as many detractors as it did fans. Michael Landon was one of the very first dramatic television series regulars to be shown crying with some degree of regularity. Men simply didn't do this in 1974 (or now?) But everyone was crying at one point or another, either from heartache or just plain joy. (In fact, viewers in Iceland began calling the series "Crying in the Cornfield!") I will never forget the tale of a coworker of mine at a country club. She was an ironclad chef, with no pity in her at all, who had to go to a Laundromat once when her own washing machine konked out. She came in to work the next day, griping and haranguing about how the Laundromat had “that fucking show” Little House on the Prairie on while she was folding her clothes and how she had no choice but to watch it. While we waited to hear how she kicked the TV in, she instead told us that the episode (about little Laura befriending a lonely hermit who lived in a shack) led her to CRY in the middle of the place! Ha! Such was the series' effect on even the hardest heart.

During the second season of the show, Landon produced, wrote and directed a TV-movie called The Loneliest Runner, the story of a young boy whose shame over his bed-wetting and urine-stained sheets hung out for all to see led to his becoming a star athlete. Lance Kerwin played the title character while Prairie costar Melissa Sue Anderson portrayed a female friend. The personal, semi-autobiographical story served to exorcise Landon of some of the childhood demons he'd suffered while also bringing a sensitive and embarrassing issue to light.

Landon frequently found ways to incorporate his own experiences and belief systems into the show, even touching on his Judeo-Christian heritage. When the character of Nellie Oleson grew up, married and had twins, she and her Jewish husband raised one child one way and the other another. (This rather cutesy approach probably would work better on scripted television rather than in real life, where people tend to take a stronger viewpoint on matters of their chosen religion!)

Prairie lasted until 1983, though Landon departed, from an acting standpoint, prior to cancellation. His and Grassle's characters moved awaty from Walnut Grove and the series was redubbed Little House: A New Beginning, focusing on the second generation, most of who were now grown and married themselves. Tellingly, the series sank like a stone soon after his departure. It did resurface in a couple of made-for-TV movies, one of which involved the complete destruction of the town (as Landon didn't want the sets to be reused for other projects)!

1982 and '83 were key periods in Landon's life for other reasons as well. He divorced his wife of nineteen years and married a makeup artist he'd met during the production of Prairie. This act, considered more than shocking from the man who was playing devoted, devout family man Charles Ingalls every week, caused a rift between Landon and his TV daughter Gilbert. (She was estranged from him for years until seeing him on television battling for his life from cancer. She, herself, proceeded to have one divorce, followed by a second marriage which, as of this writing, is in the midst of legal separation. Glass houses, people...) Landon and his third wife Cindy had two children, bringing his tally up to nine in all!

Landon produced a TV film called Love is Forever, based on the true story of a photojournalist who rescues his girlfriend from Communist-controlled Laos. Priscilla Presley had a small role in it and would later be promoted as a costar in video releases, much the way he'd been treated with God's Little Acre. His primary female costar was softcore actress Laura Gemser who was forced to take a stage name for this network project, lest the movie be tainted by her previous reputation. She went by Moira Chen this time. He also wrote and directed a feature called Sam's Son, starring Eli Wallach and Timothy Patrick Murphy, based, again, on his own experiences as a youth. The film was about a javelin thrower who grows his hair in order to cover what he perceives to be his overly prominent ears (once the late '60s dawned, we scarcely saw Landon's ears again!) He also considers his hair a source of strength in this way ("Samson" anyone?)

He was soon onto his next television project, yet another in his long line of TV hits. This show, Highway to Heaven, had him playing an angel attempting to earn his wings with the help of a man played by Landon's close pal Victor French. With the duo interacting with a new set of people in crisis every week, the series won many fans and was a forerunner to the later (and even more successful) Touched By an Angel. Though Landon was careful to tread new ground with stories about cancer, disabilities and other topics, it was, perhaps, becoming a tad preachy and started to lose ratings in its fourth season. Sadly, costar French would die prematurely of cancer at only age fifty-four before the final episode of the fifth season aired.

Landon had always been a heavily-involved and, at times, quite tenacious person when it came to his relationship with NBC, the network that had aired his three highly successful programs. However, the relationship was always mutually beneficial. Thus, it was a shock, after three decades of collaboration, when NBC refused to enter into another series with him. He instead went to CBS with his latest project, a show to be called Us, about a wrongfully-imprisoned man who must rebuild his life after his family has turned its back on him.

Unfortunately, Mr. Landon's days were already numbered. After the death of Victor French from cancer, Michael's wife Cindy convinced him to quit smoking. This was no small feat as Michael Landon had been a four pack per day smoker for his entire adult life! This, paired with a tendency to indulge in drinking and less than healthy food, had resulted in advanced pancreatic cancer. Before it was discovered, it was already working its destruction through his body and would eventually spread further.

With tabloids raging with speculation and gossip columns weighing in, Landon made a memorable (and, sadly, gaunt) appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (a longtime friend) to set the record straight. He spoke of his steely determination and resolve to beat the disease, but he was diagnosed too late. He was dead within three months at only fifty-four years of age. Even during those dark last days, he retained his perverse sense of humor (Landon had an infectious giggle that sometimes showed up in his roles.) He took Johnny to a restaurant that they'd been to years before, during which Carson was led to believe he'd run over the owner's cat. For this last dinner, Landon had had special menus printed that featured items made with dead cat!

After his stunning run of 28 years amongst three hour-long television series (it is nothing for an actor to grow weary of the punishing schedule and leave a drama after just a few years) during a time when television seasons were longer in duration and contained more episodes, he logged more face time than even Lucille Ball and James Arness (who starred in the two-decade long western Gunsmoke.) Landon graced the cover of TV Guide more than anyone else ever has, with the exception of Miss Ball. He was a significant presence on TV for more than one generation of viewers. Yet, he was never once nominated for or presented with any time of Emmy. Ever.

True, his work (especially later in his career) could often delve into the maudlin or the indulgent, but he would not have stayed on the airwaves had he not captivated a significant number of viewers. It's interesting to note that one of his sons (with his second wife, Lynn) is gay and out and makes films that sometimes contain such issues. Landon was dead before this, though he reportedly suspected that the son might be gay as he was bullied in school and accused of it at a young age. This would have been something of a challenge to the “born again” ideals of Landon (and actually was, as well, to the boy's mother), but we'll never know exactly how he would have dealt with it. Considering his strong paternal instincts, we like to think he would have found a way to come to terms with it. The son, Christopher Landon, has inherited his ex-model mother's height and severe cheekbones.
As for Lynn, she did not attend Michael Landon's funeral, allegedly feeling that the divorce (which she hadn't wanted) was a sort of death in itself. One thing I'll say about Cindy is that she was clearly no “fling” and was with him from 1983 until his death. One of his daughters with her went on to become a celebrated (and gifted) daytime soap opera actress. Jennifer Landon won three consecutive Daytime Emmys as Outstanding Younger Actress for her work as Gwen Munson on As the World Turns.

In The Underworld, we do not celebrate absolutely everything that Michael Landon did (I doubt I ever saw so much as one episode of Highway to Heaven as I was quite allergic to heaven by about 1986!), but we enjoyed him on Bonanza and certainly shed a tear or two right along with him on Little House, pitiful sap that we are! Nevertheless, we admire his tireless work ethic and, naturally, his adorable looks (and, oh, those taupe trousers!)


normadesmond said...

he has a roomette at hillcrest.

Waldron Adventure said...

Little Joe- Michael Landon- today 2014, he brings joy to me to see his cowboy days. I wished I had know him as a friend- a true friend. I truly loved him and his humor. I will forever miss him. I wish his family well and hope they will honor him by their personalities and kindness.
I will be happy to meet him when I die. Sherri

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