As my ol’ Toronto Sun colleague Jim Slotek reminded me the other day, critics used to call Michael Landon, “Jesus of Malibu.” With his long flowing hair and decades of playing good guys (on Highway to Heaven, for example, he talked to God), Landon was a one-man, family-friendly, entertainment messiah.
I felt very fortunate to land an interview with Landon in 1991. He was making a big leap at the time, departing NBC after three back-to-back hits (including Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie) and about to launch his next series on rival network CBS.
Landon, in fact, had just received, along with Milton Berle and Bob Hope, NBC’s “Lifetime Achievement Award.” As you’ll hear him say on the “From the Vault” podcast episode you can link to above, about the only way to follow that is to “die so they can air a tribute special.”
That, sadly, is exactly what happened. I interviewed Landon in his office on the Columbia lot in Culver City, Calif., in March of 1991. He was very generous with his time, resulting in the 45 minute conversation you can hear today. We talked about so many things and his stories about former Bonanza colleague Lorne Greene had me in stitches. Landon, as anyone who ever saw him guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, was a very funny man.
He could also be very serious, especially when the conversation shifted to the real reason he was leaving NBC: a fallout with the main business division at the network. After making them millions, Landon wasn’t about to stand for any second-best treatment.
I did the interview and headed straight to the airport and back to Toronto. About a week later, the first of many reports caught my ear on the radio: Michael Landon had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. About four months later, he was dead at 54.
He seemed robust and healthy when I spoke with him. As you’ll hear on the podcast, we open with talk about going to the gym. If there was a health issue giving Landon any concern at the time, he never let on and it is doubtful he would sit with a reporter for any length of time if something like that was on his mind.
Despite his three-decade run at the top of the network TV game, Landon never won an Emmy. His reward, as he says on the podcast, was getting to do work that he loved and share it with a loyal crew. His camera operator, he pointed out at the time, had been with him 31 years.
Now it is 31 years since Landon’s passing. He is relaxed, friendly and spirited on this podcast and towards the end, his observations about changes in America are astounding. He talks of the division in the States and how political correctness is stifling freedom of speech. It sounds as if he is taking about 2022, not the America of 1991.
To give Landon a listen, simply click here or on the big blue and white arrow above.