Michael Landon was the buoyantly handsome actor who grew up before America's eyes during the 14 years that he portrayed Little Joe on the expansive television Western "Bonanza."
Landon was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz in Forest Hills, N.Y., to publicist and theater manager Eli Orowitz and former Broadway musical comedy actress Peggy O'Neill.
His skills on the athletic field brought him a scholarship from USC. But, at the end of his freshman year when injured ligaments in his arm ended his athletic career, he left USC. He sold blankets, worked as a stock boy and was unloading freight cars at a warehouse when a would-be actor asked him to help him prepare for an audition.
Eugene Orowitz was so intrigued with the idea of acting that he signed up for instruction at Warner Bros. When the audition was held, it was Landon — not his freight-car colleague — who was asked to join the studio's acting school.
Landon wanted to scrap his given name for Mike Lane, but the Screen Actors Guild told him the name was taken. After scanning a telephone book, he picked Michael Landon. Four months later, Landon was cast in a starring role in television's "Telephone Time."
Landon made his movie debut in 1957 in "I Was a Teen-Age Werewolf," now a cult classic.
After a number of smaller television roles—including a part in the Western series "Restless Gun" (1957-59) — he was cast as the romantic, spontaneous and mildly irreverent Little Joe Cartwright in "Bonanza."
Landon wrote and directed several segments of the highly respected Western where interaction among characters was given precedence over plot and violence.
When "Bonanza" went off the air, Landon looked for a series over which he could have more control.
He chose "Little House on the Prairie," which ran from 1974 to 1983. Landon played Charles Ingalls, a stalwart, loving homesteader struggling to make a living for his family in the late 1870s in Walnut Grove, Minn. When the series opened, the Ingalls family had recently moved from the plains of Kansas to Walnut Grove.
When "Highway to Heaven" came along, Landon not only played Jonathon Smith, the probationary angel bringing love and understanding to earthlings, he also took control of the show as co-executive producer.