On This Day: ‘Bonanza’ Star Michael Landon Dies in 1991

by Suzanne Halliburton

Bonanza star Michael Landon, who dominated the TV landscape for more than two decades, died 30 years ago today.

The country mourned his passing. They loved Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza. He was so warm and genuine playing Pa Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie. And we thought him believable as angel Jonathan Smith in Highway to Heaven.

But 30 years ago, it seemed difficult to believe that a 54-year-old man as vibrant as Michael Landon would be dead. He literally grew up in front of the country, starting with his role in the 1957 movie I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Landon earned the role of Little Joe, the youngest Cartwright, when he was 22.

The Bonanza star was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer less than three months before he died. He went public with his diagnosis. And he talked about his health in an interview with Life magazine. The article was for the June cover. He died days after the magazine was released.

In it, the Bonanza star said: ″I’m not the kind of person who gives up without a fight. If I’m gonna die, death’s gonna have to do a lot of fighting to get me.”

A Documentary Explored Whether Bonanza Star’s Cancer Caused by Proximity to Nuclear Lab

Two years ago, a Reelz documentary explored whether the location of another Michael Landon show could’ve given him cancer. In Autopsy: The Last Hours of…, pointed out that the set of Little House on the Prairie was 15 miles from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. There was a “partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor” in 1959 at the site. That’s according to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. The documentary then revealed that it was doubtful that a nearby nuclear reactor caused Landon’s death.

When Landon received his diagnosis, he decided to spend what time he had left with his family at their Malibu ranch. He and Cindy, his third wife, spent time with the couple’s two young children. (Landon was the father of nine children). And Landon did unconventional treatment for the cancer that already had spread to his liver. He changed his diet to vegetarian, did acupuncture and used vitamins, enzymes and supplements. Nothing held the cancer back.

The Bonanza star decided to do one final public appearance. So he talked to Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. He even brought up rumors that said he and his wife were trying for a 10th child.

“One thing I want to clear up right away is the tenth child business,” the Bonanza star told Carson. “There’s a big headline in one of these incredible magazines about the fact that I want to have a tenth child so my wife will have something to remember me by. I mean, I got nine kids, nine dogs, three grandkids, one bun in the oven, three parrots, and my wife Cindy needs something to remember me by?”

Landon’s health deteriorated rapidly after the Carson interview. For his last weekend on earth, the Bonanza star was with his wife and all nine children. He told his children he loved them very much, but that he needed some alone time with Cindy. He died in the early afternoon, July 1. And a nation mourned a star from Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. He appealed to us all.