Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1991 only three short months before his death, actor Michael Landon, born Eugene Maurice Orowitz, was snatched away from us too soon. But in his 54 years, the star managed to leave behind quite a legacy. Not only did he leave us with performances as Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza as Charles Ingalls on NBC’s Emmy-winning Little House on the Prairie, but Michael was survived by nine children from three different marriages. Hear the surprising, and sometimes tragic, real-life story of the Golden Globe-winning actor’s massive family:
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Meet Mark, Josh, and Jason Landon
The Highway to Heaven star married his first wife, Dodie Levy Fraser, a legal secretary, in 1956. When he did, the actor took on Dodie’s 12-year-old son from her last relationship, Mark, as his own. While the couple was together, they adopted a second son, Josh, as a baby. Shortly before their divorce, Michael and Dodie adopted a third son, Jason, when he was a week old, perhaps in a last-ditch effort to rescue their doomed relationship.
But don’t call his kids “adopted”. “I hate it when someone calls [Josh and Jason] ‘adopted’,” the I Was a Teenage Werewolf star said in 1962. They’re my sons—period. Not my ‘adopted sons.’ They’re my sons, and I’m their father until they die—or I die.”
Jason’s Story Takes a Tragic Turn
Unfortunately, Michael wasn’t able to make good on his promise. Jason couldn’t rescue his parents’ marriage, and the couple was divorced in 1962. Dodie was awarded custody of their kids Mark, Josh, and Jason. Struggling to care for three young boys on her own, Dodie eventually gave up Jason to a couple in Texas. Jason wouldn’t find out about his famous father until he was 10 years old.
In his later years, Jason tried to contact both his parents, but without success. “To be honest, I had pretty low self-esteem, so when I didn’t get any replies, I just let it slide,” Jason told People. When he heard his father had been diagnosed with cancer, Jason tried again to get in touch with the Landon household. “I didn’t want his money,” he said. “All I wanted was to just meet him and talk with him.” But his letter was never answered.
If his rejection from the Landons was hard on Jason, it is believed to have taken a toll on Michael, too. “It was one of the few things he never talked about,” Nik Venet told People. “And I believe the reason is that he didn’t have a clue how to handle it.”
Enter Leslie, Michael Jr., Shawna, and Christopher
In 1963, Michael married Marjorie Lynn Noe, an actress. With the union, the actor adopted her daughter from a previous marriage, Cheryl. Michael and Marjorie would go on to welcome four of their own kids into the world: Leslie, Michael Jr., Shawna, and Christopher.
The two divorced in 1982.
Jennifer and Sean Landon
The same year, Michael married Cindy Clerico, a makeup artist for the actor, Melissa Gilbert, and his other Little House on the Prairie co-stars. From their Malibu, California home, Michael and Cindy Landon had two of their own kids: Jennifer and Sean. Sean, his youngest kid, was only five when his dad died from pancreatic cancer.
Many of Michael Landon’s offspring went on to follow in his footsteps. Mark Fraser Landon, for example, scored roles in small roles in movies like Goodbye America before passing away in 2009 at the age of 60. Mark is buried alongside Michael in the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.
His daughter, Leslie Ann Landon, starred alongside her father on Little House on the Prairie as Etta Plum. Meanwhile, the actor’s son Michael Landon Jr. grew up to become a director and producer. Michael Jr. has worked as the executive producer for television series like When Calls the Heart and When Hope Calls. Michael Jr. is married to actress Sharee Gregory. Michael’s son Christopher is a screenwriter who has written screenplays for the movies Disturbia and Paranormal Activity.
Michael’s youngest daughter, Jennifer Landon, may be the most well-known. The actress most notably starred as Gwen Norbeck Munson in the TV show, As the World Turns, for which she won three Emmy awards. More recently, Jennifer starred as Teeter on the popular TV series, Yellowstone. But not all of his kids caught the show business bug. Shawna Leigh Landon, for example, steered clear of the Hollywood scene and instead became a successful real estate agent in the Los Angeles area.