After playing Little Joe on Bonanza and patriarch Charles Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie, Michael Landon's third series for NBC placed him in the unusual role of an angel. But it wasn't a stretch for the man who was beloved by millions of viewers-and despite the network's misgivings, Highway To Heaven became a success.
Landon (who also produced the series) starred as Jonathan Smith, an angel placed on "probation" and sent down to Earth to help others. Each week Jonathan and his human friend Mark Gordon (Victor French) received their marching orders from God (also known as "The Boss") to help people assert their good natures in the face of adversity. Highway to Heaven dealt gently with illness, money, prejudice, sometimes using humour to help turn situations around. A number of guest stars populated the stories, including Landon's former Bonanza dad, Lorne Greene, who appeared in a 1985 episode. Getting the series on the air was a miracle in itself. Brandon Tartikoff, NBC's head programmer, allowed Landon to write a pilot script and film an episode. Landon told Tartikoff he wanted to "play an angel of God who comes down each week and changes somebody's life, just like Clarence did for Jimmy Stewart (in the 1946 Frank Capra classic film It's A Wonderful Life)." When the finished pilot arrived at NBC, some jaded executives referred to the project as "Jesus of Malibu." They argued against buying the show, but NBC had a series commitment with Landon-and passing on the series would cost the network millions of dollars. So Tartikoff asked for a tape of the pilot, and took it with him for a visit with his parents and family.
In his autobiography, the late NBC programmer wrote how he put the tape in the VCR when his wife's father came into the room: "At six o'clock we were called to dinner. I got up; he stayed. 'Where's Jack?' everyone was saying. That was my first indication that we jaded TV executives might not be the best judges of Landon's show." Tartikoff was right: The pilot, which aired in the fall of 1984, was an instant hit-and ran for five seasons, paving the way for other series with angelic themes, including Touched By An Angel. In June 1989, Victor French died of lung cancer. Landon went on to produce a new series-this time for CBS-called Us. Sadly, just the pilot was produced before he died of pancreatic cancer in July 1991. But supporters of family-friendly television drama had no greater champion than Michael Landon.
Published on December 21st, 2018. Written by Mike Spadoni for Television Heaven.