Question: Please defend one of my childhood heroes. My husband says that Michael Landon was fired from Little House on the Prairie because he was a prima donna and control freak. Please tell him that Pa Ingalls was a good man and not some self-important star! Thanks, Televisionary. Mary G., Canton, Ohio
Televisionary: I'll start with the easiest part of the question first, Mary, since it's, well... easy. Landon was cocreator, star, writer, director and producer on Little House on the Prairie, which enjoyed a long run on NBC from 1974 to 1982. Very few, if any, people had the power to fire him without the show leaving the air; the departure was his decision.
A prima donna? No, from what I can gather, the late Mr. Landon wasn't about being pampered at all. And the only part of "control freak" he might've argued with would be the second word. He liked his control enough so that TV Guide devoted an entire story to it but he never denied wanting to be in charge. In fact, he made a career of insisting on just that.
"[O]nly one person can operate a show," Landon told TV Guide in January 1982. "I don't work by committee."
Mind you, that's no rarity in Hollywood, where people may complain if you stand up for yourself, but laugh at you if you don't. Which is worse?
Landon told tales of standing up to network executives who wanted to make his show more violent when it initially had trouble finding its footing. "I told them no way," he recalled. "There are about six people who live in Walnut Grove. What am I going to do? Grab each of them by the lapels for six weeks? What am I going to do after that?"
The man did have his detractors, of course show me a successful person who doesn't but they were all balanced out by friends and coworkers who were with him for years. Overseeing an efficient set sat well with the people who toiled for him. "He doesn't scream," said one. "This is a tough town and there are a lot of directors and producers who abuse people by screaming at them. Mike doesn't do that."
He may have run a tight ship, but there was no "Let them eat cake" nonsense on Landon's set he wasn't any easier on himself than he was on those who worked for him. Linwood Boomer, who played blind teacher Adam Kendall on the show before going on to create Malcolm in the Middle (and about whom I wrote in a past column), was taken with his new boss' luxury-free ways when he showed up for work. "The first day on location I walked into his dressing room expecting to find a lavish suite, and it was just a little room with bugs," Boomer said. "He smiled and said, 'You like the way the stars live, kid?'"
As for the "self-important" part, no one can argue Landon was the backbone of the show. It was losing audience steadily by the time he announced he'd leave, but his departure from the screen pretty much killed it. NBC launched Little House: A New Beginning in the fall of 1982 and focused it on Laura (Melissa Gilbert) and Almanzo (Dean Butler) after Charles (Landon) and Caroline (Karen Grassle) moved out. It lasted only a season.