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- May 06, 1991
- Vol. 35
- No. 17
With Courage and Character
Known in Hollywood as a Scrapper, Actor Michael Landon Begins a Tough Fight Against a Deadly Cancer
In the three weeks since the diagnosis, Landon has spent much of his time on the 10-acre Malibu estate where he lives with third wife Cindy, 34, and two of his nine children. There, both Michael and Cindy have been devouring material about cancer. On April 14, he met with oncologist Dr. Charles Simone of Lawrenceville, N. J., who once treated Ronald Reagan for colon cancer. Simone recommended a combination of traditional and nontraditional healing methods to attack the malignancy. On April 18, Landon received his first dose of chemotherapy. Should his health remain stable, he may continue chemotherapy and eventually undergo radiation treatment. At the moment, says Simone, surgery seems unlikely.
In addition to these treatments, Simone has advised him to follow a plan that includes healthy foods, vitamins and exercise. He also has suggested that Landon use self-hypnosis. "Stress management, exercise, nutrition have all been known to enhance the immune system," says Simone. "We are trying to bring that all together for one person."
The organic, highly vegetarian diet, together with enzymes to aid digestion, has eased Landon's stomach pains and helped him regain some lost weight, says his publicist, Harry Flynn. "He still has a lot of energy," says Flynn. "He was playing some tennis until a few days ago, when he decided he should conserve his energy."
Landon is also staying close to his extended family, which includes Mark and Josh, adopted during a brief first marriage; Michael Jr., Leslie Ann, Shawna Leigh and Christopher Beau, his children with second wife Lynn Noe; Cheryl, Lynn's daughter from a previous marriage; and Jennifer and Sean, his children by Cindy, a former makeup artist whom he married in 1983. He picks up his youngest children from school whenever he can and goes out with the clan for breakfast on weekends. "Even though his situation is supernormal, Michael wants the family situation to remain normal," says Flynn. "It's impressive to see the way he's handled a curve ball like this."
By all accounts, Landon's devotion to his own brood was sparked by his unhappy upbringing in Collingswood, N. J. His father, Eli Orowitz, was a publicist—and a Jew; mother Peggy O'Neill, a Catholic, was a stage actress who gave up her career. The two fought bitterly in front of Michael, whose given name was Eugene. When Landon was a child, his mother tried to curb his bed-wetting through humiliation: She would hang his sheets out the window so his friends could see. "I always wanted to get away," Landon has said.
A shy loner who suffered from depression, Michael used athletics as an escape. At USC, however, his nonconformity got him into trouble. His track-and-field teammates took exception to his shaggy locks, and, according to Bill Kiley, a former publicist for Landon, "Some of them held him down while another cut off his hair." Seething, Landon threw out his arm while making a toss; the damage, says Kiley, eventually cost him his scholarship, and Landon "had to do odd jobs to work his way through school."
As Kiley tells it, one of those jobs was as an attendant at a gas station across from the Warner Bros, studios. In true Hollywood fashion, he says, the boyish Landon was spotted by an executive who suggested that he join Warner's acting school. From there, he found roles in B movies, including 1957's I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Bonanza, which premiered in 1959, brought him instant stardom—and, he says, unfamiliar pressures that precipitated an addiction to tranquilizers. He sometimes consumed them at the rate of 20 a day.
Kicking the habit, Landon racked up a string of successes alter Bonanza was dropped in 1973. As star, producer and director of the feel-good hit Highway to Heaven, the erstwhile underdog developed a reputation as a contentious perfectionist. He took on network executives, censors and all manner of naysayers—and he won. "His whole thing has always been about control," says Landon's former publicist Jay Bernstein, now a manager and producer. "He felt he had a vision, and he wanted to make the moves that would put him in a position to realize it."
These days, fans who have followed his career—and who admire his spirit—are weighing in by the thousands. In Culver City, Michael Landon Productions has been receiving cards, letters—and suggested cures—by the sackful, and Landon's business manager, Jay Eller, fields up to 300 calls daily.
Colleagues, too, are taking inspiration from Landon's courage. Actor Lou Gossett Jr., a Malibu neighbor, was driving down his street recently when someone pulled up and honked the horn. Turning his head, he saw Landon behind the wheel—looking fit and grinning widely. "How ya doin'?" Michael shouted. "Fine!" answered Lou. Says Gossett: "I'd been feeling down about something, but after that I was a happy man. That made me smile for the rest of the day."
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