Michael Landon had the idea for his spiritually inspired TV series Highway to Heaven while he was sitting in traffic on the way to pick up his kids. “Everyone was honking their horns and cursing,” he recalled. “I thought it would be good to do a show where people could see how much better and healthier it is to go through life being nice.”
In his decades on TV, Michael championed the underdog, paid homage to the beauty of family life and called kindness a virtue, not an affliction. He had overcome a terrible childhood and emerged believing in the goodness at the heart of every person, even if he sometimes struggled to live up to his own ideals. “He gave us the best of what he had to give, and what he had was considerable,” said stepdaughter Cheryl Landon.
Born Eugene Orowitz to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Michael grew up in southern New Jersey. “We were one of two Jewish families in a working-class town that had its share of antisemites,” said Michael, who was singled out by bullies until he discovered the power of humor. “He started becoming the class clown, and people started to hang around him,” his widow, Cindy Landon, explained. “He became very popular.”
Acceptance at school couldn’t change his difficult home life. Michael’s parents bickered constantly, and his mother, Peggy, suffered from severe depression. “She kept making dramatic attempts to commit suicide,” said Michael. “I’m this little boy and I’d walk into the kitchen and find her with her head in the oven and the gas turned on.”
Peggy also believed that humiliating her son by hanging his soiled bed sheets out the window would cure his bed-wetting. Michael used this memory as the basis of the 1976 TV movie he wrote and directed, The Loneliest Runner.
As an adult, Michael felt compelled to create the happy family he missed out on as a child. When he wed first wife Dodie Levy-Fraser in 1956, he became an enthusiastic father to her son, Mark. The couple also adopted another son, Josh, in 1960. “I hate it when someone calls them ‘adopted,’” Michael said in 1962. “They’re my sons, and I’m their father until they die — or I die.”
Michael had urged his parents to stay together when he was a boy despite their unhappiness, but when his union to Dodie began to fray, he initiated their divorce. “There’s nothing worse than people who obviously should not be together,” he reasoned.
Michael met second wife Marjorie Lynn Noe, called Lynn, on the set of Bonanza. In 1963, the couple wed and Michael adopted her daughter, Cheryl. “I don’t think my dad could refuse us any material thing,” said Cheryl, who was a teenager at the height of Michael’s Little House fame.
Michael took his commitment to all his children seriously. When Cheryl was badly injured in an auto accident, he took time off from work to sit by her bedside. She later developed an addiction to prescription drugs — something Michael had experienced himself in the 1960s — and he supported her through a two-year rehab stay. “I was his child, and he was responsible for me — it was as simple as that,” she said.
Michael and Lynn had four more children whom the actor doted on. “I’ve been close to my father all my life, and I love him more than anything,” said daughter Leslie in 1982. “I can come to him with any problem. He’s not a phony.”
Michael always followed his heart, so when he fell in love with Cindy Clerico, a makeup artist on Little House, he felt it was time to end his 19-year marriage to Lynn. Despite the tabloid circus the divorce created — and the $26 million it cost him — he wed Cindy in 1983. “As a husband and a father, he was fantastic,” said Cindy, mother of his two youngest kids. “He loved to teach the children to learn.”
Michael was preparing to bring a new inspirational TV series, Us, to TV when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given three months to live in 1991. “If I’m going to die, death’s going to have to do a lot of fighting to get me,” he vowed.
He passed away at age 54 on July 1, 1991, with Cindy and his nine children holding vigil in his home together. Fans who had been inspired by Michael’s messages of love paid homage to a man who always tried his best. “I believe in God, I believe in family, I believe in the power of love,” Michael said. “So, I don’t see why I should fear death — and I don’t.”