Vintage Hunk: Michael Landon

By: Mike McCrann

Michael Landon was a huge TV star whose three successful series ran back to back from 1959 to 1989. Generations of young gay men first saw the sexy Landon in the epic western Bonanza then as the hot father in Little House on the Prairie and finally the more mature hunk as an angel in Highway to Heaven.

The future TV mega-star was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz in Queens, New York. His dad was Jewish and his mom Irish and the future Michael Landon was raised Jewish. Although his family seemed solidly stable and middle class, Landon's mother was suicidal and young Michael suffered from bedwetting and other problems all of which were documented in his later book and Emmy nominated TV film The Loneliest Runner. After an athletic scholarship to USC ended with a shoulder injury, Michael Landon (he picked this surname from a phone book) pursued an acting career.

There were early TV appearances and movie roles including the camp classic I Was a Teenage Werewolf. This hilarious B film would follow Landon for the rest of his career. In 1959 at age 22 Landon landed the role of Little Joe Cartwright on the epic TV Western Bonanza. Landon - who appeared shirtless in a number of episodes - was the sexy lure for girls and gay men as the other 3 stars Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts and Dan Blocker were on the little screen for their dramatic not physical attributes. Bonanza ran for 14 seasons and firmly established Michael Landon as a TV star. He was also flexing his artistic muscles being allowed to direct episodes of the popular series.

A year after Bonanza made its final roundup; Michael Landon went into another smash hit, Little House on the Prairie. This homey show preaching family virtues clicked with the American public and it ran for nine years. While not as overtly sexy as Little Joe, Landon was still pretty hot as the father we all wanted and very few got. Landon moved from saintly father to saint in the making in the mystical Highway to Heaven. The show was pretty hokey, but once again Landon struck TV gold.

Everything looked golden for Michael Landon. On the marital front there were three wives and nine children. Landon could do no wrong in selecting TV hits. But in 1991 life came calling with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Michael Landon went public with his cancer battle and there was a flurry of public and fan support. Nevertheless, three months later on July 1, 1991 Michael Landon died. He was only 54 years old. Michael Landon's death caused a media frenzy. He never won a major acting award, but he was as popular as any star in TV history and made the cover of TV Guide 22 times in his long, rich career.

Michael Landon was sexy, built and desirable whether as a cowboy, a rancher or a probationary angel. Off screen and on, people simply liked the man and the actor. Little House on the Praire co-star Melissa Gilbert later stated: "He was very much like a 'second father' to me." Millions of young TV viewers felt exactly the same way.