Eugene Maurice Orowitz was born on October 31, 1936, in Forest Hills,
New York. He was the second child of Eli Orowitz and Kathleen O' Neill.
Their first child was Evelyn, who was born in 1933. His father was
Jewish and his mother Irish Catholic. His mother was a popular
comedienne and showgirl who worked in Broadway and changed her first
name to Peggy. His father was a studio publicist and theater manager.
In 1941, the Orowitz family moved to Collingswood, in Southern New
Jersey. When Eugene was going to Collingswood High, he participated and
excelled in track and field, especially throwing the javelin, thus
earning himself a scholarship to USC in Los Angeles. He graduated in
1954, and in the class of 301, he was the 299th student, but with a
genius IQ of 159. His record javelin throw of just over 183 feet, was the highest measured in 1954, for a high school student in his senior year.
In 1955, when he was 19, his straight blonde hair was turning darker
and extremely wavy, with a sprinkling of gray. It would get
progressively grayer as the years went by. These same changes occurred
with Evelyn's straight blonde hair a few years before, but she would
lighten it with lemon juice and lay out in the sun. Eugene resembled his Jewish father's facial appearance, with no resemblance to his mother. His older sister looked more like her then he did.
Having moved to Los Angeles in February 1955, he enrolled at USC. His fellow teamates were jealous of him and that long hair. One day on the field, they pinned him down and cut it off. This would mark the end of his stay at USC. He honestly believed growing his hair longer would physically make him
stronger, after he saw the 1949 film "Samson and Delilah", with Victor
Mature and Hedy Lamarr. Although he really didn't grow his hair out very
long until some thirteen years later, it apparently had some kind of
strengthening on his physical condition for a little guy.
Now depressed and emotionally hurt, he went back to the field one day
and was throwing the javelin and tossed it so many times, he tore an
elbow ligament in his left arm. He lost interest and dropped out of USC.
The damage to his left elbow healed up some weeks later. He took a
number of odd jobs, and one day while working at a warehouse, one of his
co-workers who was a budding actor, invited him to an audition, so he
could play opposite him in a scene in "Home of the Brave."
The year was 1956 and Eugene was hoping to be discovered, he took a
job pumping gas across the street from Warner Brothers Studio. One of
the studio's talent scouts spotted him in true Hollywood fashion. He
joined the studio's acting class the next day and attended for months.
In his spare time, he worked as a salesman selling blankets
door-to-door. It was an invaluable experience because it taught him to
communicate with all kinds of people.
It was during that time in 1956, that he met Dodie Levy-Fraser, a
26-year-old widow with a seven-year-old son, Mark. She was a legal
secretary and widow. Her husband had been killed in an automobile
accident some years before. He was drawn to her warmth, motherly
instincts, her ability to nurture without being controlling, and he
liked the way she treated her son. They married in December 1956. His
parents did not attend the wedding ceremony. After that, Eugene
distanced himself from his mother, and after the death of his father in
1958, he saw his mother less than half-a-dozen times just prior to her
death in 1981.
Although he had been slowly making his way into motion pictures,
appearing in live TV dramas such as "Playhouse 90" and "Studio One,' and
in forgettable "B" movies, life continued to be a struggle. Dodie's
paycheck as a legal secretary was the breadwinner of the family and
Eugene worked odd jobs and auditioned for roles he thought he might have
a chance at winning. He even took to the stage, garnering an impressive
review for his work in a West Coast production of "Tea and Sympathy."
By this time he had changed his name. Eugene Orowitz was hardly marquee
material in the Hollywood. He went looking through the telephone book
and chose the name Michael Lane. However, there was already an actor
enrolled in Screen Actor's Guild by this name. So, he went back in the
telephone book and saw the name Alf Landon listed. The name Michael
Landon was born.
His career begun to gain momentum. He had a small role in the film
"God's Little Acre" and then he landed his first starring role. Having
spent 2 years waiting for a break, Michael failed to recognize it when
it finally arrived. No one would have suspected a low-budget horror film
filmed entitled "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" would be the vehicle to offer
any real success, but it was. Produced by Herman Cohen, the 1957 film
became an overnight sensation and remains a cult classic today.
He accepted the role because he needed the money, and because the lead
role in any film could only help his career. Werewolf earned him instant
fame and marked the first giant step in an acting career that ultimately
would make him a multimillionaire and major TV star. The following year,
in 1958, Michael landed small roles in films such as "High School
Confidential," "God's Little Acre" and "Maracaibo". He also had the lead
in "The Legend of Tom Dooley," a low-budget Western film. On the second
day of shooting, while doing script rehearsals, he received a frantic
phone call from Dodie. His father had died of a fatal heart attack.
After Eli's humiliating experience at Paramount, where he couldn't even
get past the gates, witnessed by his son, he knew his days a publicist
were over. Eli settled for the only job he could get, as the manager of
a movie house on Vermont Avenue in the Los Feliz area of Hollywood. Eli
had his lunch everyday at approximately the same time and at the same
restaurant adjacent to the movie house he managed. He was a creature of
"I'll try your soup of the day," he'd always say. Then, once it was
served, he'd take a sip and say, "That's very good." One day, according
to Michael, his father sipped the soup, said "That's very good," and
dropped dead of a heart attack. "I hope that's the way I go," Michael
told his listeners. "Fast, no pain, no suffering. Just the blink of an
eye, like my dad. He never knew what hit him."
Eli's fatal heart attack was the first time Michael experienced the
death of a loved one, and although he knew his father wasn't in good
health, it was still a shock. Although his mother and sister were living
in Los Angeles, the responsibility of the details of his father's burial
fell on Michael. He was grateful he had become close to Eli the year
just prior to his death.
Still stunned by his father's death, he returned to finishing "The
Legend of Tom Dooley," a film he termed "one of the most disastrous
jobs" he ever worked on.
The first mishap was when he went to cut a rope with a scout knife and
accidentally stabbed himself in the face. He was also shot at close
range by a gun with blanks and later broke his foot. He went to a Jewish
physician by the name of Dr. Edelstein, who performed plastic surgery in
three layers on the left lower cheek, without any scarring. Few weeks
later he went to a party and some of the young actors were disappointed
he wasn't disfigured and didn't wind up looking like Frankenstein. He
said, "They were really depressed I wasn't ruined."
In March of 1959, producer David Dortort was looking for a handsome,
young, virile actor to portray the youngest son of Ben Cartwright in an
hour-long color television series he was creating for NBC. The show was
called "Bonanza". Michael had worked with David Dortort in his first
TV-series "The Restless Gun," in the pilot episode, entitled "Duel at
Lockwood" in 1957. Dortort made the mistake of killing off his
character, and Michael could never get a regular lead role in a TV
series until "Bonanza" came his way.
Michael Landon had become financially secure with "Bonanza" and had a
steady job. For Michael, the role of Little Joe would prove to be a
hearty fourteen year gallop from rags to riches. "When it ended it was
painful for everybody," Michael would confess, "it really was."
Set during the Civil War years, "Bonanza" starred Lorne Greene as Ben
Cartwright, the patriarchal owner of the Ponderosa, a 1,000-square-mile
ranch nestled on the shore of Lake Tahoe, with nearby Virginia City,
Nevada. His sons were played by Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker, and of
course, Michael. In what turned out to be perfect casting, Pernell
Roberts landed the role of the eldest son, Adam. Dan Blocker portrayed
Hoss, a kindly, gentle bear of a man, with a simple mind and sunny
disposition. And Michael played Little Joe, the youngest, most handsome,
and impetuous of Pa's three boys.
Little Joe was the most beloved, by the audience and the heart and soul
of "Bonanza". He was regularly involved in pranks and ever more
frequently falling madly in love! He was looked on by his father and
brothers with affection, and was usually at the center of the most
humorous episodes. After the first few years, when the series became
successful, Michael had surgery performed on his ears that would stick
out in his earlier career films and also would begin to financially aid
his estranged mother and sister.
His marriage to Dodie was not doing well and in early 1960, he met
26-year-old Marjorie Lynn Noe, a model instructor who would work in live
television in between modeling assignments. He would see her again on the
"Bonanza" set before the first season wrapped and it was by accident.
The casting director hired Lynn, thinking she was a movie extra, when
she was a TV extra. They fell in love and secretly dated in 1960. Lynn
was a divorcee with a young daughter, Cheryl, from her first marriage
that lasted from 1953 to 1957. After her first marriage ended, she was
out in Hollywood dating men around town.
Michael and Dodie decided to adopt a second son, an infant named Josh
in 1960. However, their marriage was failing and Michael was dating
Lynn, who at one point married a Hollywood garment salesman named Manny
Baire to make Michael jealous and leave Dodie for her. He was young and
confessed to Dodie he was with another young woman and summoned the
courage to ask her for a divorce. In the midst of this fiasco, they had
adopted a third child named James and then decided under the
circumstances to return him to the adoption agency.
When Michael was still married to Dodie and seeing Lynn, she got
pregnant and their first daughter, Leslie Ann was born on October 10,
1962. The year of Leslie's birth was changed to 1963 in some
publications, since there was a scandal brewing. This would fool the
public into believing Leslie was born after Michael and Lynn married in
1963. Sometime after the initial wedding in Mexico, Michael and Lynn were officially married in Reno, Nevada. Dan Blocker served as Michael's best man at the wedding.
Michael's divorce with Dodie was final in December 1962. He and Lynn
eloped to Juarez, Mexico and they were married on January 12, 1963. The
justice of the peace barely spoke english and the ceremony was like a
On June 20, 1964, Lynn gave birth to their first son, Michael Graham. When they tried for another child,
Lynn suffered a miscarriage and Michael got a vasectomy until they had
their third child, Shawna Leigh in 1971 and later Christopher Beau in
February 1975, a few years after the series had ended. Michael wanted to
legally adopt Lynn's first daughter, Cheryl Pontrelli, but her
biological father wouldn't allow it.
Michael bonded with his co-stars Lorne Greene and Dan Blocker. They
just drifted together and became this real-life family of their own,
while portraying the Cartwright family on "Bonanza". The eldest son,
Adam, played by Pernell Roberts was unhappy with his career on the
series and after six years left the show, feeling the show was beneath
his dignity. His TV father told him not to be a "damn fool" and stay
another year, so he could make his million and then build his own
theater so he could play all the stage roles he wanted. During the later years of the series, Joe matured into a fine young
man. Although Joe was always happy to be his father's son, Michael was
the one to grow in stature and maturity. In the early years of the
series, producer David Dortort said of Michael's acting abilities, "The
most highly intuitive set of natural acting responses I've ever seen in
a young actor."
In the summer of 1962, during the start of the fourth season, a man
named Kent McCray was assigned to the series as its new production
manager. Kent had been working at NBC since 1951, as a live-unit
production manager. In 1959, he served as associate producer for the MGM
film "Alias Jesse James" and also served as the associate producer for
the new NBC TV-series "Outlaws," from 1959 to 1962.
In the formative years of the series, the production ran out of scripts
and was going to shut down. Michael was driving home that night and
envisioned a story about the Cartwrights getting framed for robbery and
murder. He wrote the story in longhand on yellow legal pads and titled
it "The Gamble" in February 1962. Monday morning, he gave it to David
Dortort and they broke it down for a teleplay, written by Frank Cleaver.
It was a good story and garnered rave reviews. But Michael would not
write another story for the next four years. In the 1966-67 season, he co-authored three teleplays for the episodes, "Ballad of the Ponderosa", "Joe Cartwright, Detective" and "The Wormwood Cup". It was early 1967 and the ninth season was fastly approaching, so Michael wrote his first complete script entitled, "It's a Lot of Bull". This was a comedy story for Dan Blocker, but NBC rejected it, because they stated in a memo, the Indians weren't supposed to be speaking English. This infuriated Landon to no end. Subsequently, he co-authored "Six Black Horses" for the 1967-68 season. It was telecast on November 26th of that year.
By December of 1967, he had written his second complete story entitled, "A Dream to Dream", with guest stars Julie Harris and Steve Ihnat. The 6-day shoot was helmed by veteran director William F. Claxton. They wrapped the filming of the episode a few days before Christmas arrived. For the New Year of 1968, Michael Landon decided that he wanted to direct.
After hounding producer David Dortort for a few weeks, he allowed
Michael to direct his second written script, entitled "To Die in
Darkness," made in February 1968. By May of 1968, he had written his
third script, "Kingdom of Fear," directed by Joe Pevney, made the
following month, but was voluntarily delayed by NBC, due to governmental
concerns involving the assassination of Robert Kennedy on June 5th, 1968
and later aired in 1971.
In the 1968-1969 season, Michael was directing "The Wish," which he
also wrote. Now a mature 32, wearing boots, blue jeans, a sweater and a
solid gold chain with an odd-shaped Egyptian medallion that stands for
enduring life, loosely around his neck. "Bonanza" production manager
Kent McCray says: "Ten years have changed Mike. He's mature. He gives
more of himself. The kid's okay."
Michael Landon presented great pride of authoring "The Wish," which
guested black actor Ossie Davis and aired on March 9, 1969. In the
story, Dan Blocker (Hoss) assists a neighboring black family but
unwittingly becomes the fumbling and insensitive "liberal," in part the
target of Landon's script.
Michael recalled, "Mainly, I wanted to get across the idea to whites
just why black people are angry and frustrated and I wanted to help cool
some of the backlash. One black writer saw the show and said to me.
'You've gotten so close to what it's like to be black, I could hardly
believe it was written by a white man.' For me that was my Emmy."
The next year, he would write
and direct the episodes "Dead Wrong" and "Decision at Los Robles" for
the 1969-70 season. In the 1970-71 season he wrote and directed "The
Love Child," "Terror at 2:00" and directed "The Stillness Within".
During the 1971-72 season, he wrote and directed "Don't Cry, My Son,"
"The Younger Brother's Younger Brother" and "He Was Only Seven".
By the end of the 1971-72 season, the ratings came in and the show was
out of the Top 10 and the death knell was close. The show was tired and
everyone on the film crew, Michael and his co-star Lorne Greene knew it
was winding down and its future was uncertain. Michael was also ready
to move on, as he was the most talented star on the series. Everyone on
the crew could tell. The sudden death of Dan Blocker was an unexpected
blow for the show, when he died two weeks after gall bladder surgery, on
May 13, 1972. His death occurred just 19 days before the production would
start for the 1972-73 season.
The final season of "Bonanza" went into production in June 1972.
Michael had envisioned a story he called "Forever" for his best friend
Dan Blocker, to showcase his acting talents in, while the show was on
hiatus earlier in 1972. His unexpected death in May made this impossible
and Michael had to write the script for Joe in the role of the tragic
bridegroom. David Dortort circled the wagons and brought back Candy, a
rough and rowdy cowboy who was on the series in the 1967-70 seasons. Tim
Matheson was Blocker's replacement, in a character named Griff King, who
was an old friend of Candy. Lorne Greene, now 57-years-old and Michael at
35-years-old, continued with making the series, although very depressed
over Dan Blocker's death.
But Michael did manage to showcase the final season by writing and
directing "Forever," and then "The Sound of Sadness" and "The Hunter" in
1972. The Neilson ratings coincidentally came in on Michael's 36th
birthday, October 31, at a disastrous No. 53 and the series was
cancelled on November 3rd, by NBC-New York. The cast was given only two
days notice on Monday, the 6th, they would stop filming on Wednesday,
the 8th. The cast was stunned and Michael was disgusted with NBC, with
producer David Dortort in tears.
Dortort wasn't able to announce the show's cancellation to the press. Michael was more than happy to do it. He was the "boss" of the three actors and was practically running the show in its last several years. He called NBC publicist Bill Kiley and told him to get to Warner studio for the press conference.
He and the other press agents arrived, but didn't know Mike had rigged himself in a stuntman harness. After he announced the show was cancelled, a shotgun blast blew him over the boxes and he disappeared from sight! If this was the way to mark the end of a television Western, it sure was an unforgettable one!
David Dortort was stunned upon hearing Michael's meeting with the press. Some days before the show was cancelled, Michael had signed a new contract at NBC as executive producer for new and future TV projects. This way he'd have total control and wouldn't have any network interference and insensitivity befall him.
"The Hunter" was the final episode chosen to air on January 16, 1973. The series had wrapped production the month before in December 1972. Michael directed a total of 14
episodes from 1967-72. He co-wrote "The Gamble" in 1962 and co-wrote 4
more episodes in the 1966-67 season, a total of 5 co-writes. In the
1967-72 seasons, he fully wrote 16 episodes, for a grand total of 21
written stories on the series. By the end of the series' run, Michael's hair was much grayer and
longer than in past years. He began dying his hair when he was 19, on
and off over the years, and by 1968, grew it long. He stopped dying it
in 1969 and let it go natural. By 1973, it would turn all silver in
color with white roots.
Michael's first post-"Bonanza" project was in April of 1973, which
reunited him with actress Bonnie Bedelia for the new NBC drama-romance series
"Love Story". He wrote and directed the pilot episode "Love Came Laughing" later
broadcast on October 3, 1973. She played Alice Hartman in the pilot episode. Bonnie had worked with Michael the year
before on "Bonanza" when she was cast to play Alice Harper in "Forever".
She had made her initial appearance in the 1969 episode entitled "The
Unwanted" as Lorrie Mansfield.
In May of 1973, his eldest daughter, Cheryl was involved in a serious car accident while attending the University of Tucson. 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 were
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.
Michael was notified of this and flew to Arizona and the doctors gave
her up for good. She was in a coma and it was in the hands of God.
Michael was with her at intensive care for days and made a pact with God
while at her bedside.
The most important promise I ever made, was a promise to God and I made
it while holding the hand of my step-daughter Cheryl, who was lying
near-death in a hospital near Tuscon. She'd been in a terrible accident
and her body was 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 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. Michael
Having taken most of 1973 off, later in November of that year, a man
named Ed Friendly contacted him for a project that would be his biggest
landmark achievement in television. Friendly had bought the rights to
the series of books written by the beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder. It took
him a few years to wade through the red tape, and now he was ready for a
serious television series. Friendly and Michael were no strangers; they had
lived down the street from one another in Encino and Ed was a close
friend of actor Lorne Greene. In fact, Ed and Michael had dinner at
Lorne's house quite a few times in the previous years before "Bonanza"
was cancelled. Friendly had seen the 1969 "Bonanza" episode "The Wish"
when it aired and was highly impressed with Michael's direction of the
His next project was to direct a television movie for NBC, entitled
"It's Good to Be Alive" starring Paul Winfield and Lou Gossett, Jr. It was telecast on March 30th, 1974. It
detailed the life of baseball player Roy Campanella. It aired on
February 22, 1974. Michael also served as executive producer and
director of another television movie entitled "The Jackie Robinson
Story" aired on NBC in 1974, about the famous baseball star. Meanwhile, editing of the "Little House" pilot film had been completed at NBC as the premiere movie. They took it to a testing house where people could view it. It turned out to be the highest-tested and rated NBC Movie of the Week at the network. They gave the show the green light and ordered the first 13 episodes to start filming in June of 1974.
However, Landon and Friendly had a falling out, which was over the
adaptation of the series for television. Michael was thrilled working on the pilot and Ed Friendly was highly
impressed with it, but that wasn't the last word. Landon maintained the series
would be too dark and depressing going by the books, and presented in
this fashion it would be a turn-off to audiences at home. NBC agreed
with Michael's instincts and backed him up. Friendly wanted to be executive producer of the series, but Michael already was. Friendly's name would be listed at the end titles as "An NBC Production, in association with Ed Friendly", for the entire run of the series. In the case of Michael winning the argument from Friendly, it was a matter of making the correct creative decision.
The series was an instant hit and audiences were thrilled to see
Michael Landon now playing a mature man who was responsible,
compassionate, sensitive, caring and the hard-working father and husband
every week on television. "Little House" was filled with heartwarming
adventures and life-affirming lessons, loosely based on Laura Ingalls
Wilder, significantly altering the landscape of television. The series
filming was done in two states, in California and Arizona, and local
exteriors were filmed at Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley, which had been
used in "Bonanza's" later years, with other locales such as Bronson
Canyon and Golden Oak Ranch in California.
Stages 31 and 32 at Paramount Studios were rented by the production
for the soundstage interiors for "Little House." A & R Livestock was selected for rental of the horses, livestock, and
other equipment for whole run of the series. In the conception of the series, Michael hired his
friend and character actor, Victor French for the role of Mr. Edwards.
They met in the late 60s, while Victor was a guest star on "Bonanza."
NBC wanted a recognized name for the role, but Landon insisted it be
French and he won. French thought Landon wouldn't want him on the
series, since he damn near stole the pilot episode from him, but Michael
insisted Victor stay as a regular. It provided to be great luck for
French's career, since for the past 15 years he was typecast as
murderers, rapists and mob bosses in television and film.
In 1976, while on hiatus from the series Michael produced, wrote and
directed "The Loneliest Runner" for NBC, a television movie which was
based on his teenage youth as an athlete and bed-wetter. It aired
December 29, 1976. Meantime, "Little House" was at the peak of it's
formative years and Victor French quit because of a contract dispute
with the network at the end of the 1976-77 season. He tried to talk
Michael into getting him a raise, and should have known his mentor
better. The two didn't speak after this for the next two years. French
was replaced by football player Merlin Olsen at the start of the 1977-78
season, as newcomer Jonathan Garvey, who bore a likeness to the late Dan
Blocker, who was Michael's best friend while he was on "Bonanza." In
1979, French and Landon talked the issue out and in less than 5 minutes,
it was completely forgotten.
French would make his first return appearance in 1979's "The Return of Mr. Edwards", in a very dramatic, gripping storyline that deals with Edwards' being disabled in a logging accident and loses the will to live. The 1981 episode "Chicago", marks the next appearance of Mr. Edwards, as Charles is summoned to meet him in the city and the two must discover who killed his adopted son, John Junior, in a very sad and heartwrenching story.
While Michael was filming the city street segments for the "Chicago" episode at Fox Studios that summer, Pernell Roberts initially met him for the first time since he left "Bonanza" in 1965. True, he'd been on the Paramount lot after he left the horse opera, working as a guest star in "Mission: Impossible", but that was over 10 years in the past. The two exchanged bear hugs and talked over old times that week in the summer of 1981. Pernell Roberts said of Landon; "It was sure good to see the kid again."
Victor French once again returned as Mr. Edwards for the 1982 two-part episode "He Was Only Twelve", in which he accompanies Charles to find the men who shot his son James in the bank. Landon and French's acting together is totally professional and genuine. This is something that was missed in French's absence from "Little House" after he quit some years before. Not to mention, Michael gave Victor top billing and salary in these "return" appearances in "Little House". No other executive producer in Hollywood would do this for a returning actor, but Mike Landon was a generous and good man.
Since Merlin Olsen was a regular on the series, he couldn't bring Mr.
Edwards back as a regular. By the end of 1981-1982 season the "Little
House" cast were much older and were ready to move on, so Michael wrote
them out after eight successful seasons and wrote in a new cast for the
1982-83 season re-titled "A New Beginning." He had also written out
Merlin Olsen and gave him a series of his own entitled "Father Murphy"
making it's fall premiere on November 3, 1981, about a makeshift family on
the run, with Olsen as an outlaw turned priest. "Little House" was now
serving as a sequel series, as it was the beginning of the end for
Walnut Grove with Victor French finally returning as Mr. Edwards.
Michael was still making "Father Murphy," the spin-off that starred his
former "Little House" co-star and friend Merlin Olsen, along with Moses
Gunn, since 1981. In the way of other projects, Michael made a semi-autobiographical motion picture that was entitled "Sam's Son". He wrote and directed the film and had brief cameos in it. The movie detailed the early days of his youth, that led to his high school years, filmed in late 1983. It starred Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson and Timothy Patrick Murphy. It premiered on August 17th, 1984, as the NBC Movie of the Week. He also made a motion picture entitled "Love is Forever," in 1982, with
filmmaker Hal Bartlett, which was aired in NBC on April 3, 1983. Unlike
his own projects, this movie co-starring Edward Woodward, Priscilla
Presley and Moria Chen, was not exactly a good project at the time, and
the worst came out in him.
The year 1981 was undoubtedly the worst year in his life since he
departed from Collingswood some 27 years before. On March 15, 1981, his
mother died. Michael and his seventy-one-year-old mother had been
estranged for years, even though they were living in the same city, only
miles apart. He felt no obligations to either his mother or his sister,
Evelyn, both of whom had grown increasingly eccentric as the years
His mother, Kathleen O' Neill, who had adopted the stage name Peggy in
her career and his sister Evelyn, who adopted the studio name of Victoria
King during a brief fling as an actress in the 50's, were sharing a
small apartment in a run-down Los Angeles neighborhood area, along with
Evelyn's teenage daughter, when they were robbed in August 1980. The tabloids got hold of the police
report and begun their smear campaign against Michael, without ever
examining the reasons for his behavior. Michael's mother was quoted with
saying: "I don't know where he lives. I never bother him because he
doesn't like me asking questions. He's quite secretive. He keeps me at a
distance. I don't even have his phone number. Why should I? I'm not very
important. I'm just his mother." Evelyn was quoted as having angrily
said, "I never mention his name." It was true that his mother didn't
have his telephone number.
It was true that as soon as either his mother or sister managed to
somehow wrangle his number out of a friend, he would have it changed. He
didn't want them calling him, haranguing him. He didn't want them to
know where he lived for fear they would show up, uninvited, and cause a
scene. The tabloids simply took the words of his mother and sister and
printed them in a damning article. The truth was Michael had been
financially assisting his mother and sister for years. It was even in
his estate's will, with the stipulation, he wouldn't have to see them.
When Peggy broke her hip in late 1980, he had paid for her
hospitalization and, despite his own misgivings, had even gone to visit
her at the hospital.
It was just a coincidence that his former "Bonanza" co-star Pernell
Roberts was filming some segments at the Hollywood Presbyterian
Hospital for his "Trapper John" series and they met and talked over old
times and his mother's predicament in 1980. He also unbegrudgingly paid
Evelyn's medical bills in June 1981, when she suffered burns from an
accident at home. But that was where his involvement with them ended. He
was not going to spend time with them or incorporate them back into his
life. Why should he? As far back as he could remember, his mother had
caused him nothing but grief and aggravation. He had drawn a line
through her name after his first marriage to Dodie, and he'd never
"When I was a kid, I loved her," he confided to a friend. "But when I
grew up it was a different feeling. I felt sorry for her and I had to
divorce myself from loving her because, otherwise, all that pain would
have been transferred to me." It had taken him years to overcome the
guilt he felt about having disavowed his mother and sister. Now he
wanted absolutely nothing to do with either one of them. "I was afraid of
her," and my oldest kids were terrified of her, because you never knew
who she was going to be," Michael recalled several years after his
mother's death. "She spoke with a lot of different accents, and she'd
use them all in one conversation." The irony of all this was that my
mother apparently was a wonderful person to people who didn't know her. I
don't know how many times people have come up to me and said 'Your
mother was the sweetest!'
"I don't know," he had sighed, "maybe she was to them. When they tell
me that, though, all I can think of is the time she came after me with a
knife and there I was in my jockey shorts, jumping fences in front of
the neighbors, trying to escape." Although by his own design, they had
been virtual strangers for years, the death of his mother filled Michael
with a strange mixture of sadness and relief. It was the end of a
chapter in his life, and the end of the family, be as it was. Despite
everything that had transpired in the past, Michael felt a sense of loss.
He realized that Peggy's death had left questions in his mind that would
never be answered.
Less than two weeks after his mother's death, Michael was forced to
deal with his sister, who suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be
institutionalized. Michael had her transported to a private hospital and
paid her expenses. Although the press attributed Evelyn's mental state
to the death of her mother, chances are the real cause behind her
collapse was due to having lived with Peggy all those years.