‘Bonanza’ Star Michael Landon Brought in Lorne Greene for ‘Highway to Heaven’ Episode

by Suzanne Halliburton

Remember that time two beloved stars of Bonanza reunited on TV on a show that had nothing to do with the Cartwrights or the Ponderosa?

Lorne Greene and Michael Landon became like real father and son on Bonanza, the popular western that ran from 1959 to 1973. Greene played Ben Cartwright, the father of three sons. Greene started out in Canadian radio. At age 45, Bonanza was his first significant role.

Landon played “Little Joe” Cartwright, Greene’s youngest son on the show. Landon was only 22 when he earned his role on Bonanza.

Now, flash forward to 1985. Since Bonanza went off the air, Landon continued to make quality TV shows. And he was more than just a star actor. He also directed and was the executive producer on the family-friendly Little House on the Prairie. Like Bonanza, Little House took place in another century. But Landon was a husband and father on the show.

Then came Highway to Heaven. It ran from 1984-89. Landon went against type in both the plot and setting. He played an angel named Jonathan Smith sent to present-day earth to help people.

On Highway to Heaven, Bonanza Star Played Man Who Saw God in Broadway Audience

And on Nov. 20, 1985, Smith’s Fred Fusco, played by Lorne Greene, Landon’s dad from Bonanza. Fusco was an actor in a failing Broadway play. And in the play, the actor speaks to God. But Fusco, after the first show, saw God sitting in the audience in an orchestra seat. That’s why the episode was The Smile in the Third Row. And for the rest of the play’s run, Fusco made sure no human has the seat. God needs the best seat in the house.

Greene reunited with another Bonanza son in 1980. He and Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright) were guest stars on Vega$ in 1980. It was a two-part episode entitled Aloha, You’re Dead. Robert Urich starred as Dan Tanna. One of his earliest roles was on the TV western, Gunsmoke.

Sadly, Greene’s appearance on Highway to Heaven was his final meaty role. He died two years later at age 72. The Bonanza star had ulcer surgery and contracted fatal pneumonia.

Landon’s final TV show also was Highway to Heaven. When that show was canceled, it ended Landon’s 30-year relationship with NBC. His next show — Us — was supposed to be with CBS. Landon filmed the two-hour pilot. He was supposed to star in the show, as well as being its director and producer. The show was about a man who was released from prison after being wrongly convicted of murder of a wealthy man’s wife.

But Landon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died in July, 1991. The pilot aired as a special movie to honor the memory of the beloved Bonanza star.