Remembering Bonanza’s Michael Landon |

Remembering Bonanza’s Michael Landon

Chic DiFrancia
For the Nevada Appeal
Courtesy of Fourth Ward School Museum/Virginia CitMichael Landon was in Reno in 1964 to pick up his "Silver Spur Award." Founded in 1949 and sponsored by the Reno Chamber of Commerce, the award was given annually to a film star who best kept the western spirit alive. Here to congratulate Landon are Virginia City High School basketball stars: Tom Berry, Larry Etter and Rollie Hess.

Every so often a personality comes out of Hollywood that leaves a lasting impression on us throughout our life. Over the years a legion of fans have come to admire the work and courage shown by Michael Landon, especially during the last two months of his life. Landon died from pancreatic cancer 20 years ago.

Born Eugene Maurice Orowitz, in Forest Hills, Queens, N.Y., on Oct. 31, 1936, young Eugene headed west in 1954 when he earned an athletic scholarship at USC, for being the best high school javelin thrower in the country. When a shoulder injury ended his track & field career, Eugene scanned a telephone book, found the name Michael Landon and started finding small parts in television work. His breakout film was the 1957 cult classic “I Was A Teenage Werewolf,” but on the night of Sept. 12, 1959, millions of TV viewers would know Michael Landon as Joseph {Little Joe} Cartwright when “Bonanza” premiered on NBC television.

“Bonanza’s” ratings at first were dismal, when the show aired on Saturday night against CBS’s “Perry Mason.” “Bonanza’s” big break came at the start of its third season in 1961, when it was moved to the 9 p.m. time slot on Sunday night. “Bonanza” became a big hit, especially in Virginia City, where many of Bonanza’s episodes had a Virginia City connection written into the story line. As the Cartwright Clan of the Ponderosa Ranch, Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon all became television mega-stars, but it was Landon who got the lion’s share of fan mail.

In May 1962, Virginia City businessman Don McBride led a committee of Comstock locals to bring the Cartwrights to Virginia City for a “Bonanza Days” celebration. Over 140,000 people attended the three-day event as the fans couldn’t get enough of the Cartwrights, and especially Michael Landon. Landon returned to Northern Nevada in 1964, when he and Bonanza co-star Lorne Greene were Grand Marshals for the Nevada Day Parade in Carson City. Nevada celebrated its 100th birthday that day, while Landon celebrated his 28th on a horse, waving to his many fans along the parade route. Also that year Landon was in Reno to accept his Silver Spur Award given by the Reno Chamber of Commerce. The award, initiated in 1949 was bestowed annually on a western film star, who best exemplified the spirit of the American West. Lorne Greene was also a recipient of the award in 1963 and Dan Blocker became a two-time winner, taking home the trophy in 1962 and again in 1965.

Landon had a great ride as Little Joe Cartwright for 14 seasons, but when “Bonanza” was canceled in January 1973, Landon had to find other work to support a growing family. In 1974 he became the executive producer and director of “Little House On The Prairie,” which aired until 1983. In 1981 he created “Father Murphy” starring his friend and former NFL football great Merlin Olsen. “Highway To Heaven” followed in 1984 and had a five-year run ending in 1989. All these shows aired on NBC, but in 1991 Landon went to CBS to begin a new series titled “US.” A two-hour pilot aired, but when Landon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early April, the show never went into production.

Pancreatic cancer is a cold calculating killer with survival rates dipping into the single digits, and Michael Landon knew the battle that awaited him. The tabloids at the time were in full bloom and were already writing him off. With two months to live, Landon went on the “Tonight Show” with his old buddy Johnny Carson, and showed us courage and dignity in epic proportions.

Michael Landon died at his Malibu, Calif., home on July 1, 1991. He was 54. Landon lived a full life and left quite a legacy. Three wives, nine children, four successful television series, and a sundry of other television projects. The quality of the man can be seen in the honesty and integrity in the work he left us, and in the end that’s how we’ll remember him.

You can see Michael Landon and the Cartwright Clan on “Bonanza” reruns airing daily at 2 p.m. on KAME-Me TV.

Book Shelve: “Bonanza, the Definitive Ponderosa Companion,” By Melany Shapiro-Cyclone Books, 1997.