Landon was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz on October 31, 1936, in Forest Hills, a neighborhood of Queens, New York. His parents were Peggy (née O'Neill; a dancer and comedian) and Eli Maurice Orowitz. Eugene was the Orowitz family's second child; their daughter, Evelyn, was born three years earlier. In 1941, when Landon was four years old, he and his family moved to the Philadelphia suburb of Collingswood, New Jersey. He attended and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Temple Beth Shalom. His family recalls that Landon "went through a lot of hassle studying for the big event, which included bicycling to a nearby town every day to learn how to read Hebrew and do the praying." He attended Collingswood High School.
During his childhood, Landon was constantly worrying about his mother attempting suicide. Once, the family vacationed at a beach. His mother tried to drown herself, but Michael rescued her. Shortly after the attempt, his mother acted as if nothing had happened. A few minutes later, Michael vomited. He said that it was the worst experience of his life.
Stress overload from the suicide attempts of his mother caused Landon to battle the childhood problem of bedwetting, which was documented in the unauthorized biography, Michael Landon: His Triumph and Tragedy. His mother put his wet sheets on display outside his window for all to see. He ran home every day and tried to remove them before his classmates could see. These events later inspired Landon to write and direct the 1976 made-for-television movie The Loneliest Runner.
In high school, Landon was an excellent javelin thrower, his 193′ 4″ toss in 1954 being the longest throw by a high schooler in the United States that year. This earned him an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California, but he subsequently tore his shoulder ligaments, ending his javelin throwing career and his participation on the USC track team.
Landon decided on his surname by choosing it from a phone book. His first starring appearance was on the television series Telephone Time, in the episode "The Mystery of Casper Hauser" (1956) as the title character. Other parts came: movie roles in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Maracaibo (1958), High School Confidential (1958), the notorious God's Little Acre (1958), and The Legend of Tom Dooley (1959), as well as many roles on television, such as Crossroads (three episodes), The Restless Gun (pilot episode aired on Schlitz Playhouse of Stars), Sheriff of Cochise (in "Human Bomb"), U.S. Marshal (as Don Sayers in "The Champ"), Crusader, Frontier Doctor, The Rifleman (in "End of a Young Gun", 1958),The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Johnny Staccato, Wire Service, General Electric Theater, The Court of Last Resort, State Trooper (two episodes), Tales of Wells Fargo, The Texan (in the 1958 episode "The Hemp Tree"), The Tall Man, Tombstone Territory (in the episode "Rose of the Rio Bravo", with Kathleen Nolan), Trackdown (two 1958 episodes), and Wanted: Dead or Alive, starring Steve McQueen (in episodes "The Martin Poster", 1958, and "The Legend", 1959). Landon also appeared in the Zane Grey Theater episode "Living is a Lonely Thing" with Michael Rennie" in 1959.
Landon can be seen in an uncredited speaking role as a cavalry trooper in a 1956 episode of the ABC/Warner Bros. television series Cheyenne, an episode titled "Decision." Two years later, Landon returned to that same series in "The White Warrior". He was then cast as White Hawk a.k.a. Alan Horn, a young white man who, like Cheyenne Bodie, was raised by Indians after the slaughter of his parents. White Hawk rises to the occasion to help Cheyenne as he heads a wagon train to California amid the threat of the Apaches.
In 1957, Candlelight Records released a Michael Landon single, "Gimme a Little Kiss (Will "Ya" Huh)"/ "Be Patient With Me" during the height of his notoriety for role in the film, I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Some copies show the artist credited as the "Teenage Werewolf" rather than as Michael Landon. In 1962, both the A- and B-side of the record were re-released on the Fono-Graf label that included a picture sleeve of Landon's then-current work on Bonanza as Little Joe Cartwright. In 1964, RCA Victor Records released another Landon single, "Linda Is Lonesome"/"Without You". All of Landon's singles have since been issued on compact disc by Bear Family Records as part of a Bonanza various artists compilation.
In 1959, at the age of 22, Landon began his first starring TV role as Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza, one of the first TV series to be broadcast in color. Also starring on the show were Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, and Dan Blocker. During Bonanza's sixth season (1964–1965), the show topped the Nielsen ratings and remained number one for three years.
Receiving more fan mail than any other cast member, Landon negotiated with executive producer David Dortort and NBC to write and direct some episodes. In 1962, Landon wrote his first script. In 1968, Landon directed his first episode. In 1993, TV Guide listed Little Joe's September 1972 two-hour wedding episode ("Forever"), as one of TV's most memorable specials. Landon's script recalled Little Joe's brother, Hoss, who was initially the story's groom, before Dan Blocker's death. During the final season, the ratings declined, and NBC canceled Bonanza in November 1972. The last episode aired on January 16, 1973.
Along with Lorne Greene and Victor Sen Yung, Landon appeared in all 14 seasons of the series. Landon was loyal to many of his Bonanza associates including producer Kent McCray, director William F. Claxton, and composer David Rose, who remained with him throughout Bonanza as well as Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven.
The year after Bonanza was canceled, Landon went on to star as Charles Ingalls in the pilot of what became another very successful television series, Little House on the Prairie, again for NBC. The show was taken from a 1935 book written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose character in the show was played by nine-year-old actress Melissa Gilbert. In addition to Gilbert, two other unknown actresses also starred on the show: Melissa Sue Anderson, who appeared as Mary Ingalls, the oldest daughter in the Ingalls family, and Karen Grassle as Charles' wife, Caroline. Landon served as executive producer, writer, and director of Little House. The show, a success in its first season, emphasized family values and relationships. Little House became Landon's second-longest running series.
The show was nominated for several Emmy and Golden Globe awards. After eight seasons, Little House was retooled by NBC in 1982 as Little House: A New Beginning, which focused on the Wilder family and the Walnut Grove community. Though Landon remained the show's executive producer, director and writer, A New Beginning did not feature Charles and Caroline Ingalls. A New Beginning was actually the final chapter of Little House, as the series ended in 1983. The following year, three made-for-television movies aired.
Melissa Gilbert said of her on- and off-screen chemistry with Landon, "He was very much like a 'second father' to me. My own father passed away when I was 11, so, without really officially announcing it, Michael really stepped in." When not working on the Little House set, Gilbert spent most of the weekends visiting Landon's real-life family. She once said, "The house was huge. We ran like banshees through that house, and Mike would hide behind doorways and jump out and scare us."
After producing both "Little House" and later the Father Murphy TV series, Landon starred in another successful program. In Highway to Heaven, he played a probationary angel (who named himself Jonathan Smith) whose job was to help people in order to earn his wings. His co-star on the show was Victor French (who had previously co-starred on Landon's Little House on the Prairie) as ex-cop Mark Gordon. On Highway, Landon served as executive producer, writer, and director. Highway to Heaven was the only show throughout his long career in television that he owned outright.
By 1985, prior to hiring his son, Michael Landon, Jr., as a member of his camera crew, he also brought real-life cancer patients and disabled people to the set. His decision to work with disabled people led him to hire a couple of adults with disabilities to write episodes for Highway to Heaven. By season four, Highway dropped out of the Nielsen top 30, and in June 1988, NBC announced that the series would return for an abbreviated fifth season, which would be its last. Its final episodes were filmed in the fall of 1988. One aired in September, two in December, one in March 1989, and the remainder aired on Fridays from June to August. Co-star French would not live to see Highway's series finale make it to air; he died of advanced lung cancer on June 15, 1989, the disease which was only diagnosed two months before. Landon invited his youngest daughter, Jennifer Landon, to take part in the final episode.
In 1973, Landon was an episode director and writer for the short-lived NBC romantic anthology series Love Story. In 1982, he co-produced an NBC "true story" television movie, Love is Forever, starring himself and Laura Gemser (who was credited as Moira Chen), about Australian photojournalist John Everingham's successful attempt to scuba dive under the Mekong to rescue his lover from communist-ruled Laos in 1977. The real Everingham was cast as an extra in the film.
Sam's Son was a 1984 coming-of-age feature film written and directed by Landon and loosely based on his early life. The film stars Timothy Patrick Murphy, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, Hallie Todd, and James Karen. Karen previously worked for Landon in the made-for-television film Little House: The Last Farewell.
After the cancellation of Highway to Heaven and before his move to CBS, Landon wrote and directed the teleplay Where Pigeons Go to Die. Based on a novel of the same name, the film starred Art Carney and was nominated for two Emmy awards.
Up through the run of Highway to Heaven, all of Landon's television programs were broadcast on NBC, a relationship of which lasted thirty consecutive years with the network. After the cancellation of Highway and due to a fallout with those within NBC's upper management, he moved to CBS and in 1991 starred in a two-hour pilot called Us. Us was meant to be another series for Landon but, with his diagnosis on April 5 of pancreatic cancer, the show never aired beyond the pilot.
Landon also appeared as a celebrity panelist on the premiere week of Match Game on CBS.
Landon was married three times, and father to nine children.Dodie Levy-Fraser (married 1956; divorced 1962)
Mark Fraser Landon, born 1948 (adopted; Dodie's biological son), died 2009
Josh Fraser Landon, born 1960 (adopted as infant)
Marjorie Lynn Noe (married 1963; divorced 1982)
Cheryl Lynn Landon (born Cheryl Ann Pontrelli in 1953), Lynn's daughter from her first marriage and was nine when her mother and Landon married.
Leslie Ann Landon, born 1962.
Michael Landon, Jr., born 1964.
Shawna Leigh Landon, born 1971.
Christopher Beau Landon, born 1975.
Cindy Clerico (married 1983), a makeup artist on Little House on the Prairie
Jennifer Rachel Landon, born 1983.
Sean Matthew Landon, born 1986.
In February 1959, Landon's father succumbed to a heart attack. In 1973, while a student at the University of Arizona, his eldest daughter Cheryl was involved in a serious car collision just outside Tucson, Arizona. The sole survivor out of four involved in the collision, Cheryl Landon was hospitalized with serious injuries and remained in a coma for days. In March 1981, Landon's mother, Peggy, died.
Landon was by his own admission a chain smoker and a heavy drinker.
In February 1991, Landon began to suffer severe abdominal pain while on a skiing vacation in Utah. On April 5, 1991, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which had metastasized to his liver and lymph nodes. The cancer was inoperable and terminal. On May 9, 1991, he appeared on The Tonight Show to speak about the cancer and to condemn the tabloid press for their sensational headlines and inaccurate stories, including the claim that he and his wife were trying to have another child. During his appearance, Landon pledged to fight the disease and asked fans to pray for him. On May 21, 1991, Landon underwent successful surgery for a near-fatal blood clot in his left leg. In June 1991, Landon appeared on the cover of Life Magazine after granting the periodical an exclusive private interview about his life, his family, and his struggle to live. On July 1, 1991, at age 54, Landon died in Malibu, California.
Landon was interred in a private family mausoleum at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery, in Culver City, California. Michael's headstone reads, "He seized life with joy. He gave to life generously. He leaves a legacy of love and laughter." His son Mark's remains were also interred there upon his death in May 2009.
A community building at Malibu's Bluffs Park was named "The Michael Landon Center" following the actor's death.
Landon's son, Michael Jr., produced a memorial special, Michael Landon: Memories with Laughter and Love, featuring the actor's family, friends and co-stars: Bonanza co-star David Canary said that one word that described Landon was "fearless" in his dealings with network brass. Melissa Gilbert, who played his daughter on Little House said that the actor made her feel "incredibly safe" and that he was "paternal". Often cited on the special was Landon's bizarre sense of humor, which included having toads leap from his mouth and dressing as a superhero to visit a pizza parlor.
In his final 1991 Tonight Show appearance, Johnny Carson related how the actor took him back to a restaurant the two had dined at previously. Carson had been led to believe he accidentally ran over the owner's cat in the parking lot during their first visit. When sitting down to eat the second time, Carson discovered that Landon had helped create a fake menu of dinner items featuring dead cat.
A made-for-TV movie, Michael Landon, the Father I Knew, co-written and directed by his son Michael, Jr., aired on CBS in May 1999. John Schneider starred in the title role as Michael Landon, with Cheryl Ladd as Lynn Noe, and Joel Berti as Michael Landon, Jr. The biopic detailed, from Landon, Jr's point of view, the personal emotional trauma he endured during his parents' divorce, and his father's premature death. The movie spanned a timeline from the 1960s through the early 1990s.
A plaque and small playground referred to as the "Little Treehouse on the Prairie" was erected in Knights Park, a central park in Landon's hometown of Collingswood. In 2011, the plaque was removed from the park by the borough and was later given to a local newspaper by an unnamed person. According to the Collingswood, NJ website, the plaque was removed during a fall cleanup with plans to return it to a safer location. The plaque was reinstated next to a bench in a safer location the following summer.