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Landon's first starring appearance was on the television series Telephone Time, in the episode "The Mystery of Casper Hauser" (1956) as the title character. Other parts came: movie roles in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Maracaibo (1958), High School Confidential (1958), the notorious God's Little Acre (1958), and The Legend of Tom Dooley (1959), as well as many roles on television, such as Crossroads (three episodes), The Restless Gun (pilot episode aired on Schlitz Playhouse of Stars), Sheriff of Cochise (in "Human Bomb"), U.S. Marshal (as Don Sayers in "The Champ"), Crusader, Frontier Doctor, The Rifleman (in "End of a Young Gun", 1958), The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Johnny Staccato, Wire Service, General Electric Theater, The Court of Last Resort, State Trooper (two episodes), Tales of Wells Fargo (three episodes), The Texan (in the 1958 episode "The Hemp Tree"), The Tall Man, Tombstone Territory (in the episodes "The Man From Brewster", with John Carradine and "Rose of the Rio Bravo", with Kathleen Nolan), Trackdown (two 1958 episodes), and Wanted Dead or Alive, starring Steve McQueen (in episodes "The Martin Poster", 1958, and "The Legend", 1959). Landon also appeared in at least 2 episodes of Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater including "Gift from a Gunman" in 1957 and "Living is a Lonely Thing" in 1959.
Landon can be seen in two uncredited speaking roles as a cavalry trooper in a 1956 episode of the ABC/Warner Bros. television series Cheyenne, an episode titled "Decision." Two years later, Landon returned to that same series as White Hawk in "The White Warrior".
In 1959, at the age of 22, Landon began his first starring TV role as Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza, one of the first TV series to be broadcast in color. Also starring on the show were Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, and Dan Blocker. During Bonanza's sixth season (1964–1965), the show topped the Nielsen ratings and remained number one for three years.
Receiving more fan mail than any other cast member, Landon negotiated with executive producer David Dortort and NBC to write and direct some episodes. In 1962, Landon wrote his first script. In 1968, Landon directed his first episode. In 1993, TV Guide listed Little Joe's September 1972 two-hour wedding episode ("Forever") as one of TV's most memorable specials. Landon's script recalled Little Joe's brother, Hoss, who was initially the story's groom, before Dan Blocker's death. During the final season, the ratings declined, and NBC canceled Bonanza in November 1972. The last episode aired on January 16, 1973.
Along with Lorne Greene and Victor Sen Yung, Landon appeared in all 14 seasons of the series. Landon was loyal to many of his Bonanza associates including producer Kent McCray, director William F. Claxton, and composer David Rose, who remained with him throughout Bonanza as well as Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven.
The year after Bonanza was canceled, Landon went on to star as Charles Ingalls in the pilot of what became another successful television series, Little House on the Prairie, again for NBC. The show was taken from a 1935 book written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose character in the show was played by nine-year-old actress Melissa Gilbert. In addition to Gilbert, two other unknown actresses also starred on the show: Melissa Sue Anderson, who appeared as Mary Ingalls, the oldest daughter in the Ingalls family, and Karen Grassle as Charles' wife, Caroline. Landon served as executive producer, writer, and director of Little House.
The show was nominated for several Emmy and Golden Globe awards. After eight seasons, Little House was retooled by NBC in 1982 as Little House: A New Beginning, which focused on the Wilder family and the Walnut Grove community. Though Landon remained the show's executive producer, director and writer, A New Beginning did not feature Charles and Caroline Ingalls. A New Beginning was actually the final chapter of Little House, as the series ended in 1983. The following year, three made-for-television movies aired.
Melissa Gilbert said of her on- and off-screen chemistry with Landon, "He was very much like a 'second father' to me. My own father passed away when I was 11, so, without really officially announcing it, Michael really stepped in." When not working on the Little House set, Gilbert spent most of the weekends visiting Landon's real-life family. She once said, "The house was huge. We ran like banshees through that house, and Mike would hide behind doorways and jump out and scare us." In a 2015 interview, Gilbert said of Landon, "He gave me so much advice...the overall idea that he pounded into me, from a little girl, into my brain was that nothing's more important than 'Home & Family'; no success, no career, no achievements, no accomplishments, nothing's more important than loving the people you love and contributing to a community. Though we were working, really, really hard, we were 'Not Saving The World', one episode of television at a time, we're just entertaining people and there are more important things to do... and have fun; no matter what."
After producing both "Little House" and later the Father Murphy TV series, Landon starred in another successful program. In Highway to Heaven, he played a probationary angel (who named himself Jonathan Smith) whose job was to help people in order to earn his wings. His co-star on the show was Victor French (who had previously co-starred on Landon's Little House on the Prairie) as ex-cop Mark Gordon. On Highway, Landon served as executive producer, writer, and director. Highway to Heaven was the only show throughout his long career in television that he owned outright.
By 1985, prior to hiring his son, Michael Landon Jr., as a member of his camera crew, he also brought real-life cancer patients and disabled people to the set. His decision to work with disabled people led him to hire a couple of adults with disabilities to write episodes for Highway to Heaven.
By season four, Highway dropped out of the Nielsen top 30, and in June 1988, NBC announced that the series would return for an abbreviated fifth season, which would be its last. Its final episodes were filmed in the fall of 1988. One aired in September, two in December, one in March 1989, and the remainder aired on Fridays from June to August. French did not live to see Highway's series finale broadcast; he died of advanced lung cancer on June 15, 1989, two months after it was diagnosed. Landon invited his youngest daughter, Jennifer Landon, to take part in the final episode.
In 1972, he was among the guests in David Winters' musical television special The Special London Bridge Special, starring Tom Jones, and Jennifer O'Neill.
In 1973, Landon was an episode director and writer for the short-lived NBC romantic anthology series Love Story. In 1982, he co-produced an NBC "true story" television movie, Love Is Forever, starring himself and Laura Gemser (who was credited as Moira Chen), about Australian photojournalist John Everingham's successful attempt to scuba dive under the Mekong to rescue his lover from communist-ruled Laos in 1977. The real Everingham was cast as an extra in the film.
Sam's Son was a 1984 coming-of-age feature film written and directed by Landon and loosely based on his early life. The film stars Timothy Patrick Murphy, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, Hallie Todd, and James Karen. Karen previously worked for Landon in the made-for-television film Little House: The Last Farewell.
He was a guest of the PBS television series The Electric Company.
After the cancellation of Highway to Heaven and before his move to CBS, Landon wrote and directed the teleplay Where Pigeons Go to Die. Based on a novel of the same name, the film starred Art Carney and was nominated for two Emmy awards.
Up through the run of Highway to Heaven, all of Landon's television programs were broadcast on NBC, a relationship of which lasted thirty consecutive years with the network. After the cancellation of Highway and due to a fallout with those within NBC's upper management, he moved to CBS and in 1991 starred in a two-hour pilot called Us. Us was meant to be another series for Landon but, with his diagnosis on April 5 of pancreatic cancer, the show never aired beyond the pilot. Also during the 1990–91 season, Landon appeared as host of the CBS special America's Missing Children, which explored actual cases of missing children that were under investigation. This special was, as well, being considered as the pilot for a new series.
Landon also appeared as a celebrity panelist on the premiere week of Match Game on CBS.
Landon also had a singing career, of the teen idol type.
In 1957, Candlelight Records released a Michael Landon single "Gimme a Little Kiss (Will "Ya" Huh)"/ "Be Patient With Me" during the height of his notoriety for his role in the film I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Some copies show the artist credited as the "Teenage Werewolf" rather than as Michael Landon. In 1962, both the A- and B-side of the record were re-released on the Fono-Graf label that included a picture sleeve of Landon's then-current role on Bonanza as Little Joe Cartwright.
In 1964, RCA Victor Records released another Landon single, "Linda Is Lonesome"/"Without You". All of Landon's singles have since been issued on compact disc by Bear Family Records as part of a Bonanza various artists compilation.
Landon sang on television, on the Dean Martin Show, Hullabaloo, and other venues, and also sang live on stage at theatrical venues (sometimes with a holster and gun strapped to his hip).