Michael Landon is an icon of classic tv, but he had a long road of guest appearances before landing his Bonanza role. Michael Landon became a household name playing Little Joe Cartwright. Bonanza ran 14 seasons and 430 episodes before the Ponderosa shuttered in 1973. Landon quickly shifted to another legendary tv show. He was the tv father to a generation as Charles Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie.
However, before Michael Landon played those legendary tv roles, he made one-off appearances on a slew of shows. He even managed to be somewhat typecast as a certain type of character. In 1956, Landon made his television debut in a small uncredited role as a soldier in Cheyenne. Other notable actors shared the small screen with Landon in this episode. James Garner and eventual Bonanza co-star Ray Teal also appeared in roles. In 1958, Landon returned for another role in the Clint Walker series.
Two of Michael Landon’s earliest TV roles required French accents, and both were on The Adventures of Jim Bowie in 1956. Landon starred in “Deputy Sheriff” as a young man accused of murder who Bowie must defend against an enraged mob. In his second episode, which aired just a few months later, Landon played a French nobleman in New Orleans. Not only did both roles feature Landon wielding rapiers, but the young actor also got to try out his French accent.
Michael Landon becomes the go-to actor for a certain type of Western role
The next Western Michael Landon would star in was Tales of Wells Fargo. He was featured in three episodes that originally aired during the 1957 season. In one of the episodes, he again played an innocent young man falsely accused of a crime. This ends up being a theme of these early career guest roles.
Michael Landon played two malevolent outlaws in the 1957 Western series Trackdown. He was the title character in “The Pueblo Kid.” In a curious contradiction of a trope he had already performed, his character claimed responsibility for several killings that weren’t his fault. Landon later portrayed an ex-con seeking retribution in “Day of Vengeance” that same year.
Tombstone Territory was another Western Michael Landon guest starred on twice the year before landing his Bonanza role. In “Rose of the Rio Bravo,” he played a young man who is easily fooled by the title character, a con artist. In his next appearance, “The Man from Brewster” he played a familiar character. Once again, he plays a naive kid accused of a crime he didn’t commit.
Michael Landon’s most high-profile acting jobs before Bonanza were likely his two appearances on the first season of The Rifleman. In Landon’s second appearance on the classic show, he yet again plays a familiar character type. Once again, his role is an innocent man accused of committing murder. Just three months later, Landon would debut as Joe Cartwright on Bonanza.