Michael Landon's Big Girl Leslie Is Now Playing Little House with Her Daddy

updated 12/06/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/06/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

The daughter of Eugene "Oogy" Orowitz of Collingswood, N.J., once the state's top high school javelin thrower, might not say that living up to her father's name was one of the great challenges of her life. On the other hand, if Oogy changed his name to Michael Landon, with all the Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie fame that name implies, a daughter surely would find a lot to challenge her. And Leslie Landon does. "People have a preconceived notion about you when you have a famous father," says 20-year-old Leslie. "They think you're a snob or into money and not nice. They really don't give you a chance."

But against those problems Leslie is now enjoying the fruits of unapologetic nepotism. In its ninth season, NBC's Little House becomes even more of a family show with Leslie assuming a cast role, playing teacher Etta Plum. And why not? asks her dad, 47, the executive producer who is acting less but directing and writing more on the show. "As the daughter of a star, Leslie had a lot of hassle when she was growing up. That's something other kids don't have to go through. So I think she's earned the right." Leslie makes no apologies either. Says she: "From here on, I'm on my own."

She grew up with three younger full siblings and one half sibling in Michael's 35-room Beverly Hills mansion. She started acting classes at 10 and made her debut at 12—in a Little House episode in which she played a child dying of plague. She made three other guest appearances on the show before being tapped as a regular last April. She even met her best friend through her father. Eight years ago, when he confided that he'd picked the lead for his then new series, Leslie chased the girl down in the corridors of Buckley, the smart-set Sherman Oaks school they both attended. "Are you Melissa Gilbert?" Landon blurted. "My dad says you're gonna play Laura In-galls!" But despite her fancy upbringing, Leslie seems about as frosty as apple pie. "She never puts on airs," says Melissa, now 18. "She's very funny, very compassionate and very talented. We talk about the things most 18-and 20-year-olds talk about: clothes, boys, cars, traveling, movies." Leslie, notes Dean Butler, who plays Melissa's Little House husband, "is very much at ease with herself."

She is also at ease with children—another part of her inheritance, evidently. When Michael shows up on the set, cast kids run to greet him. Says Leslie: "He makes children comfortable. When we're at home, he's like one of us." The teacher role was perfect for Leslie, her father reciprocates, "because she's very open with kids and they love to be with her." Two of her steady companions on the show are Lindsay Kennedy, 13, and David Friedman, 9, who play the Carter boys.

Nonetheless, when Leslie got the part last spring it was a total surprise to her. "When my father called, I kept saying, 'Oh come on, Dad, you're joking!' I was in my sorority house at USC and started running around the halls in excitement." The Plum role—she is teaching in place of Melissa, who is raising a new TV baby—is small by design. "Her father brings people into the show easily and slowly," Butler observes. "So if you stumble, it's in a submerged way. This part is a nice start for Leslie."

Not that she's the stumbling kind. "She's a bad loser," Michael laughs. "When we play tennis I tend to duck a lot because she hits a violent forehand. I've never seen a woman hit that hard." Whether or not her toughness is hereditary, it has been useful. Two years ago Michael and Lynn Landon, his wife of 18 years and Leslie's mother, split up—they are now divorced—and he subsequently moved in with Cindy Clerico, 25, a former makeup artist. The movie press has variously hailed him as "one of the nicest guys in town" and flayed him as "extraordinarily abrasive," and a tabloid recently roasted him for his disagreements with director Hall Bartlett on their movie Comeback. Says Leslie: "It hurts to read those things, but people will believe what they want to believe. There's nothing I can do about it. I've been close to my father all my life and I love him more than anything. I can come to him with any problem. He's not a phony."

Leslie remains close to both her parents. Her mother calls her "one of the nicest people I've ever met" and her father has always been protective, although not against the hazards of the business. "You can't guard them against disappointment," he says. "If you're not ready to be disappointed, then you really should find some other way to make a living." But he's not worried about that with Leslie. "She likes to quote Spencer Tracy—'If you're an actor, just don't let anyone catch you at it.' You don't catch Leslie acting very often," the proud father concludes. "She's real."

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