"I hate it when someone calls [Josh and Jason] 'adopted'.... They're my sons—period. Not my 'adopted sons.' They're my sons and I'm their father until they die—or I die."
—Michael Landon, 1962

LAST JULY 5 A CELEBRITY-STUDDED throng of 500 people gathered at Los Angeles's Hillside Memorial Park to pay tribute to Michael Landon, who had died of pancreatic and liver cancer four days earlier at the age of 54. In Hattiesburg, Miss., Jason Smith was grieving too. The gangly, earnest night manager of a grocery store, Smith, 30, held a faded black-and-white photo of a smiling family: a mother, two small boys, and himself as a baby being cradled by the man who had died.

In 1961 Michael Landon was savoring early stardom—two years into his role as Little Joe on Bonanza and five years married to his first wife, Dodie Fraser, a legal secretary six years his senior. Landon had adopted 12-year-old Mark, Dodie's son from a previous marriage, and the couple had adopted son Josh as an infant.

The marriage, though, was not thriving, and in an apparent effort to shore up the union, Dodie decided to adopt a third child. "Michael was not in favor of bringing another baby into a home where he wasn't that happy anyway," says Landon's longtime publicist Harry Flynn. Yet in May 1961, week-old Jason, who had been surrendered for adoption by a Los Angeles teenager, officially became a Landon.

Jason's arrival could not save the marriage. The couple separated 10 months later, on March 16, 1962. And with that separation, the course of Jason's life was altered abruptly.

For reasons she has never publicly revealed, Dodie Landon, who was awarded custody of all three children, decided that she could not continue to care for her youngest son. As a single working mother of three children, two of them less than 3 years old, "Dodie couldn't keep being who she was with the extra kid." speculates record producer Nik Venet, a close friend of Landon's. "It's a terrible thing, but when she couldn't handle the kid, that was the end of the adoption."

Through her hairdresser, Mary Ethel Sharknock, Dodie learned of a Texas couple, Bill and Alma Smith, who, with their own three children grown, were eager to refill the family nest. After making preliminary arrangements, Bill, 56, a retired Coast Guard engineer, and Alma, 54, drove to L.A. Shortly after their arrival, Dodie drove to Mary Sharknock's home, walked across her lawn, handed 3-year-old Jason to Alma, then drove off. According to the Smiths' daughter, Dorothy Davis, now 56, "Dodie just gave Jason away. Mary Ethel said that she had his bags packed for two weeks. And she was afraid my mom and dad wouldn't come."

Bud Smith, now 55, recalls his parents' description of their new son. "They said that when they drove away, it was dark, and Jason was just amazed at all the lights, like he'd never been out of the house."

"When he first came, he couldn't even put sentences together," adds Dorothy. "he would look at Mother, point, and say, 'Dress. Pretty.' The thing I remember is that he never mentioned a mother or a daddy, and he never cried for one."

Jason himself has only dim memories of his first three years. "I remember a German shepherd dog. We used to ride on its back and pull his tail. I remember playing in a sandbox. I remember what I thought at that time, being a small child, was a lake in our front yard, which I guess was a pond or pool." He also has memories of "a man...somebody throwing me up in the air and catching me...tall, dark hair."

But his next recollections are of life with the Smiths, a relatively happy period that ruptured in 1971 when Bill Smith died of a heart attack. A few weeks later, 10-year-old Jason received another shock. Alma, who "did a lot of crying while she was telling me," explained that Jason was not the Smiths' "natural-born son," but had been adopted from Michael Landon.

Though Jason had already guessed that the Smiths were too old to be his natural parents, "I had never dreamed that [Landon] had been my dad," he says. "But I always wondered why Mom used to make me watch Boiuin-za." Throughout his childhood, there were also unfounded neighborhood in-more that Jason was Landon's biological child. "The Landon family doctor had made a remark to my parents about 'Michael Landon getting girls pregnant,' " says Jason's sister, Dorothy. "So I think everybody just assumed that Jason was Michael Landon's son." At school, playmates who caught wind of the gossip tauntingly called him Little Joe.

After her husband's death, Alma Smith saw her health decline. At one point 11-year-old Jason was left to care for himself and his incontinent mother until his brother Robert intervened. After Alma died in 1971. Jason spent an unsettled adolescence being shunted among family and friends in Texas, Mississippi and finally Arizona. The seventh grade, spent with Dorothy in Houston, was "kind of nice," he recalls. "I actually got to go to school in one place for a whole year." At 17, he moved out on his own.

Over the years Jason was able to piece together sketchy details of his rejection by the Landons. "The bottom line," he says, his voice cracking, "is that basically I was just handed over. But I really don't know—really—the reason why."

He did make several halfhearted attempts to contact both Dodie and Michael. "To be honest, I had pretty low self-esteem, so when I didn't get any replies, I just let it slide," he says. Then last spring, when Jason heard that Landon had cancer, he sent a letter through a friend to the Landon household. "I didn't want his money," says Jason. "All I wanted was to just meet him and talk with him." If received, the letter was not answered.

Dodie Landon Lake, 61, remarried in 1976 and living in Palm Springs, will not comment on Jason's situation. But in response to PEOPLE'S inquiry, she had her son Josh give this statement: "At the time of Mom and Dad's divorce, Jason was still very new to the family and young enough so that it seemed much more thoughtful, for Jason's sake, to put him in a more permanent family situation."

If his abandonment was painful for Jason, there are hints that it was also hard on Landon. "It was one of the few things he never talked about," says Nik Venet. "And I believe the reason is that he didn't have a clue how to handle it." Venet also believes that, at least in the early years, Landon, who in the course of three marriages became the loving father of three adopted and six biological
children, somehow managed to keep a watchful, if distant, eye on the 10th. "I le knew an awful lot about Jason. It would be hard to prove, but I think someone was contacting him," says Venet. "Michael had a conscience about the boy, and an affection for him. He just wanted to make sure the kid was okay."

Today, for the most part, Jason is okay. He has held the same job for the last two years. In his off-hours he attends the University of Southern Mississippi part-time and hopes to graduate with a business degree. Sometime next year, Jason plans to marry Sherry Parker, 31, a secretary at his school who has known him since childhood. His major family feud is not with the Landons but with brother Robert's family, who provided information to a tabloid without Jason's knowledge.

Though Landon's nine children, including Mark and Josh, each stand to receive al least 8 10 million from his estate, Jason says he does not plan to press the family for money. In the months since Landon's death, he also seems to have come to terms with his strange fate. Still, he wistfully admits, "I do often wonder what it would have been like to have been Jason Landon all my life."

SUSAN SCHINDEIIETTE
KAREN G. JACKOVICH and KRISTIN A JOHNSON in Los Angeles, RON RIDENHOUR in Haltiesburg, SABRINA MCFARLAND) in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Karen G. Jackovich,
  • Kristin A Johnson,
  • Ron Ridenhour,
  • Sabrina McFarland.