Michael Landon created and starred in the historical drama Little House on the Prairie, which was set in the 1800s. Playing husband and father Charles Ingalls, Landon based the series on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
The actor recruited several young actors to play his kids on the show, including Melissa Sue Anderson and Melissa Gilbert as daughters Mary and Laura Ingalls. Anderson worked very closely with the former Bonanza star and shared his real name, as well as some details from his difficult childhood.
‘The Loneliest Runner’ told the story of Michael Landon’s childhood
In 1976, Landon wrote, produced, and directed the TV movie The Loneliest Runner. Based on his own life, the film followed the story of John Curtis (Lance Kerwin), a boy who still had bed-wetting issues. His mother would exacerbate his humiliation by putting his stained sheets on public display.
John found that running after school gave him a form of escape from his abusive mom and his own embarrassment. Throughout the film, John ends up becoming a competitive runner with his eyes on the Olympics. Revealing very personal details from his past, Landon’s bravery at releasing the movie impressed those around him.
“Everyone knows it was autobiographical,” Landon’s friend Bill Kiley commented to People in 1978. “That kind of experience makes you self-conscious and withdrawn.”
Playing the role of Nancy Rizzi, Anderson relished taking on a new part despite the vast shift in time periods.
“The only complaint I had about shooting The Loneliest Runner was the era in which it was set,” Anderson wrote in her 2010 memoir, The Way I See It: A Look Back at My Life on Little House. “But everything else about the shoot was fun and exciting. I enjoyed playing a different character.”
Michael Landon was almost Michael London
The Loneliest Runner highlighted the challenging environment in which Landon was raised. The actor made changing his name a priority and had one in mind, when he had to think of an alternative on the fly.
“I’ve said that Mike was insecure,” Anderson recalled. “Perhaps The Loneliest Runner explains why. He was born Eugene Orowitz and had every intention of changing his name to Michael London until the guy in line ahead of him picked that one. Seriously! So he chose Landon instead.”
Anderson described some of the dysfunctional situations the Bonanza alum was subjected to in his youth.
“He grew up in an environment fraught with anxiety and cruelty,” she explained in her book. “He told me that his mother used to put her head in the oven when she wanted attention. I suppose she wanted to ‘end it all’ with the gas? Perhaps she was a frustrated actress? She certainly was a real drama queen.”
‘Little House’ creator was a star athlete
According to MeTV, Landon was on the fast track to being a top athlete. While in high school and as a USC freshman, he was a star javelin thrower and held the longest throw of any high school student nationwide in 1954. His talent in track and field landed him a college scholarship and gave him Olympic aspirations, until his athletic career was cut short by a shoulder injury.
Landon died in 1991 from pancreatic cancer. Anderson speculated on how her former co-star and boss would perceive the new genre of television shows.
“I often think of what it would be like if he were alive today,” Anderson wrote of Landon. “The business has changed so much. I don’t believe he would have the kind of control that he was used to having. And ‘reality TV’? I think HE WOULD HATE IT!!!”