What Was Michael Landon’s First Western Before ‘Bonanza’ Fame?

by Taylor Cunningham

Michael Landon will forever stand in history as Little Joe Cartwright in Bonanza, but the role didn’t come without years of proving himself in other famous Westerns.

In total, the star worked on 11 Westerns before landing his 14-year gig at the Cartwright ranch. In some, he even played alongside other major stars of classic TV past like The Riffleman’s Chuck Connors and Gilligan’s Island’s Alan Hale Jr.

But before he worked with his fellow legends he held a small part as an uncredited soldier in a 1956 installment of Cheyenne.

Technically, Landon got his first chance of becoming a Western icon during a pilot for Luke and the Tenderfoot with Leonard Nimoy the year before. But the episode never aired.

Luckily, he didn’t have to wait long before getting another shot at the genre with Cheyenne. While his role in the show was small, it did introduce Michael Landon to future Oscar nominee James Garner and his soon-to-be Bonanza castmate Ray Teal. And the actor did such a fine job that the series invited him back once more in 1958.

‘Bonanza’ Star Michael Landon Understood What the People Wanted

In total, Michael Landon starred in 57 projects, both Western and otherwise. And many of them enjoyed unprecedented success. During a 1989 interview with Regis and Kathie Lee, the hosts mentioned his high caliber projects and noted that he managed to star as a lead in not one but three major series, Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven.

Having that sort of good fortune once is hard enough. But three times is nearly impossible. So Regis had to ask, “Why is it that every series you’re associated with has a long run?”

“I think a lot of it has to do with, probably, picking the right material, first of all,” Landon answered before adding that “a great deal of it has to do with luck.”

Kathie Lee saw it another way though. She hypothesized that Landon seemed to understand what people wanted to see. And he always gravitated toward those roles.

“I think that has a lot to do with it,” he responded. “People tend to think that it’s just New York and Los Angeles and there’s a lot more to this country than that.”

Landon went on to add that his most lucrative shows were originally hard sells though. When he tried pitching them to networks, they weren’t quick to bite.

Highway to Heaven was one of the toughest to get on air though. When he told execs that he wanted to play an angel, they actually rolled their eyes. But in the end, they were wrong to second guess the actor. The series went on to spend five years on primetime TV. And during that time, it brought in seven Emmy awards.