Michael Landon was born in Forest Hills in Queens. His New York town was ethnically diverse. No one worried about whether his family was Jewish.
Landon’s given name was Eugene Maurice Orowitz. Many of Landon’s fans weren’t aware he was Jewish. In his final role on Highway to Heaven, Landon played an angel named Jonathan Smith.
But the Orowitz family was very much Jewish. Peggy, his mother, was raised Catholic. His father, Eli Maurice Orowitz, was Jewish. The parents raised their children in the Jewish faith.
The family moved to New Jersey when Landon was 4. Michael Landon’s sister, Evelyn, said in an interview that the city they lived in was mostly white and Protestant. They wanted to keep it that way.
She said: “The original mayor of the town had written in his will that there would never be any ‘Jews’ or ‘Negroes’ or any other minority living in Collingswood. My father knew about that, but he liked the house and it was convenient for his work so he sent my mother in to talk to the real estate agent. My mother had blonde hair and blue eyes. (And) my father told her to ask almost immediately where the Catholic Church was! They naturally assumed we were Gentile.
“The children constantly called us ‘Christ Killers’ and when I would ride my bike to school they would say ‘kick her off her Jew bike’. I got so bruised that I walked to school for the next year. My brother was only 4 years old when we moved there, but when he started school, he would come home with bruises and my mother asked him what happened.
He said, “they called me a lousy Jew”. She said to him, “Oh, no, you’re not a Jew-your father is a Jew-I had you and your sister secretly baptized.” Even though my brother and I were being discriminated against, we were being taught bigotry at home.”
Michael Landon Changed His Name After He Attended USC On Track Scholarship
Michael Landon evolved into Michael Landon after he accepted a track scholarship to compete for Southern California. He was one of the best javelin throwers in the country. But a shoulder injury forced him to retire from athletics. He wanted to become an actor. So Eugene Maurice Orowitz became Michael Landon. He pulled the name from a phone book.
It wasn’t uncommon for an actor to change his or her name. Kirk Douglas’ birth name was Issur Danielovitch Demsky. Charlton Heston changed his name from John Charles Carter. Marion Robert Morrison became John Wayne.
Michael Landon opened up about growing up in New Jersey during an interview with Life magazine in May, 1991. He gave the interview two months before he died of complications from pancreatic and liver cancer.
Landon Talked About Anti-Semitism In His Town
Landon discussed how his mother tried to commit suicide. And he also talked about how the town didn’t like Jews living in the city limits. Landon had to travel to a nearby town for his Bar Mitzvah.
He said: ″Life outside the family wasn’t much better. We were one of two Jewish families in a working-class town that had its share of anti-Semites. … People in passing cars used to shout ‘Jew bastard 3/8 Jew bastard 3/8.’”
One of Most Popular Episodes On Little House Addressed Anti-Semitism
Michael Landon secured the part of Little Joe on Bonanza when he was only 22. He stayed busy in Hollywood the rest of his life. After Bonanza, he starred in Little House on the Prairie as Charles Ingall. And in an interesting nod to his background, one of the most popular episodes centered around a Jewish man in Walnut Grove.
The episode was in 1979. And it was called “The Craftsman.” Writers introduced viewers to Mr. Singerman, an older Jewish man from Eastern Europe who crafted coffins without nails. Charles Ingalls and his family adopted a son named Albert. And Mr. Singerman taught Albert about his craft and his religion.
Mr. Singerman was the only Jew in Walnut Grove, Minn. The episode showed some of the town’s citizens hassling him about his religion. But Albert helps him stand up to them. It was a slice of life for Michael Landon.