Question: A friend and I were both big Highway to Heaven fans when we were growing up and she says that the show almost didn't get put on the air. Is that true? I thought Michael Landon was a big star. Thank you. Marilyn V., Auburn Hills, Mich.
Televisionary: He was, Marilyn, which was the only reason NBC executives even considered the idea of an angel-in-training when Landon, coming off Little House on the Prairie's long run in 1983, pitched it.
NBC was in last place at the time and Landon had a multimillion-dollar development deal with the network that paid him whether execs used his idea or not, but they were still reluctant. Yet Landon had already proven to have a sense for appealing to family-values-oriented Americans with Little House, which critics dismissed as sentimental pap before it became a hit, so he had the suits' attention. NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff and his crew needed something to put up against ABC's hit Fall Guy series, and he had just endured a season that saw nine of his new series axed. So even though Tartikoff and his staff weren't hot on the idea, he approved a pilot.
Landon banged out a script in a week, and immediately had to fight off the young programming assistants who wanted angel Jonathan Smith to have a much younger sidekick than Mark Gordon, the ex-cop played by Victor French a better-looking character who'd "bring in the ladies." Landon, famous for not backing down, prevailed and shot the pilot his way. Then the suits took a look at it.
"It wasn't a screening where people came up to me and said, 'You did it again, Brandon,'" Tartikoff later recalled. But he needed a family show, so he sent it off for test screenings. No series in NBC history had ever tested so high. When the pilot aired, the critics knocked its corniness. And, of course, it was a hit.
"Michael Landon had his finger on the heartstrings of America," Tartikoff later told TV Guide, admitting that when Landon first presented him with the idea, he warned the actor he'd be called "Jesus of Malibu." "He just knew, with all the broken households and the divorce rate climbing, that the idea of an angel for people no one else could help was incredibly attractive."
Not that there weren't those who were rooting for Heaven's failure. As I said, Landon was famous for not backing down and his prickly nature had alienated plenty of people in town. He chalked it up to rough times growing up and, as a youth, watching the studios break his father, who went from a head-of-publicity position to working in a run-down L.A. theater before he died. Landon didn't apologize. "I want to feel like I can say anything to anybody; that I don't need to owe a favor to anyone," he said.
And Landon had plenty of friends, too, especially among colleagues and employees. "I think he has some problems sometimes around people he doesn't know," French said, standing up for his boss after Landon had just finished mixing it up with reporters in a press conference. "He doesn't know who to trust. Who do they like? The kingpin or him? If I get a question that I don't like, I say, 'I'd rather not answer that one. Let's move on.' Michael will want to nail the guy because he's been nailed so often before. By writers. And by life. He had a rough time, obviously. It leaves you a little sensitive and, after a while, you open yourself up to all sorts of misinterpretations. In the end, what people don't get to see is how caring he is, especially with people with whom he works. I've never seen a crew more loyal to anyone. I mean, no one is better to his people than Michael."
French knew that well. After all, Landon, who remembered the actor from guest spots on Bonanza and Gunsmoke, cast him as Isaiah Edwards on Little House and rescued him from "20 years of playing killers, rapists and every kind of villain and pervert known to man," French said in 1985. "It had gotten to the point where crowds parted when they saw me coming. I used to look in the mirror and think, 'There he is, America's villain....' I was astonished Michael remembered me at all. And then he had to fight for me, too. NBC wanted a 'name' as Isaiah. Fortunately, Michael stuck to his guns and it turned my career around. And my life. I had been insecure, frustrated and angry playing one rotten guy after another all those years. Once I started playing Isaiah, kids stopped running from me in supermarkets and started following me."Just like the sizable audience that followed Little House and Heaven after that. Highway to Heaven debuted in September 1984 and didn't leave the air until August 1989. Five years not bad for a show nobody thought would fly.