‘Little House on the Prairie’ star Michael Landon did something useful with his life
Michael Landon endures as television’s most popular star. For a staggering 32 consecutive years, you could see Landon emblazoning short-tempered ladies man Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza, hardworking family man Charles “Pa” Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie, or a stubborn angel named Jonathan Smith who was sent down to Earth to help people in need so he could finally receive his wings on Highway to Heaven. In 2004 TV Guide published a list of the 50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time. Landon came in at No. 4 with — you guessed it — Little House on the Prairie. Besides acting, he produced, directed, and wrote. He did it all so effortlessly. And on top of that he was a good looking guy who kept smiling in the face of potentially devastating adversity.
His childhood was definitely not easy by any stretch of the imagination. His dad was Jewish, his mom was Irish Catholic, which created a heated family atmosphere. Landon was a bed-wetter, and his mom would hang the wet sheets outside their New Jersey apartment in an attempt to “cure” her son. He would rush home from school and try to take down the sheets before his friends saw them and made fun of him.
Peggy Landon was also mentally ill. Landon would walk into the kitchen and find his mom with her head in the oven and the gas turned on. When the family went on summer vacation to the beach, Peggy would walk into the water and try to drown herself. Landon would be frightened to death and race in after her. She would act as if nothing had happened once Landon had dragged her back to shore.
When Landon turned 22 years old, his dad Eli was eating soup in a restaurant one afternoon. He told the waitress, “That’s very good,” and dropped dead of a heart attack. He never knew what hit him.
Landon won an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California based on his javelin throwing ability. He grew his hair long like Samson in the Bible and set a distance record for the javelin. Unfortunately, his teammates grew jealous of his talent. One day they pinned him to the ground and cut off his hair. Landon tore a ligament in his shoulder soon after and was unable to throw the javelin any longer. He always felt the hair cutting incident was the real reason why he lost his ability to throw.
Landon had nine children. Three of those were adopted. His eldest step-daughter, Cheryl, was involved in a serious car accident while attending the University of Arizona. One night, without warning, a reckless driver crashed full force into the Volkswagen she and her three friends were in and everyone in the car except Cheryl was killed. They were struck at 80 miles-per-hour by the other driver and the vehicle flipped over and over until it landed and stopped. Landon was notified of the horrific accident and flew immediately to Arizona.
In his own words, here’s what happened. “The most important promise I ever made was a promise to God,” remembered Landon. “I made it while holding the hand of my step-daughter Cheryl, who was lying near-death in a hospital near Tucson. Her body was just shattered. She was in a deep coma, and the doctors gave her no chance at all. But I wouldn’t — I couldn’t give up.
“So I stayed with her in intensive care. Day after day, holding her hand, telling her that I loved her, that we all loved her. The nurses said it was useless, that she couldn’t hear me. But I didn’t listen.
“When Cheryl finally woke up, she told me things that I’d said to her. And I spoke to God. I promised God that if he would let her live, I would do something useful with my life, something to make the world a little better because I’d been there. Cheryl lived and I’ve tried to keep that promise ever since…”
He was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic and liver cancer when he was only 54 years old. July 1 marks the 27th anniversary of his passing. In an interview that he granted while on his death bed, Landon offered encouragement amidst insufferable pain. “Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying,” revealed Landon. “Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it, I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows” [Author’s Note: In slightly altered form, I relayed the above speech to friends and family at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church during a Father’s Day. A fastidiously researched Bonanza: Scenery of the Ponderosa biography of Landon supplied the vintage quotes].
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