People Weekly - September 11, 1978
MICHAEL LANDON'S GUTSY TV KIDS HAVE FACED BIGGER PROBLEMS IN LIFE THAN ON THE PRAIRIE
The other day Johnny Carson wandered across the Burbank set of Little House on the Prairie to visit his pal and the show's producer-director-star, Michael Landon. En route Carson was intercepted by Melissa Sue Anderson, 15, who plays Landon's eldest daughter, Mary, on the show. How's school? Johnny asked. Before Melissa Sue could open her mouth, Landon bolted over and blurted, "She did very well, thank you. Straight A's. She graduated from high school at 15."
Carson might have been taken aback by Landon's father-protector zeal, but no one on the show is-least of all the remarkable group of young actors who have helped Landon make his homespun hope opera NBC's toprated show. "Michael is really like another father to us," explains Melissa Gilbert, 14, cast as the other Melissa's pigtailed younger sister Laura. Like the rest of the kids on the series, she has overcome personal upheavals as potentially defeating as any calamity written by the pioneer saga's author, Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Melissa Gilbert never knew her real parents, and her adoptive parents divorced when she was 4. Melissa Sue Anderson's folks also sundered bitterly when she was 12. Patrick Laborteaux, 13, who plays neighbor boy Andy Garvey, was an "unadoptable" child who was pronounced schizophrenic less than a month after birth. Patrick's adopted brother, Matthew, 11, who joins the show this season when the Ingalls clan relocates to the big city of Winoka and takes in a street urchin, was born with a hole in his heart. He was also thought to be autistic for his first five years.
"I chose them because of their appearance and acting talent," explains Landon of his unconventional cast. "But each has a specialness that comes across both in person and on the screen. It's a sensitivity that may be rooted in their early years."
Or his. Landon, 42, who has adopted three and fathered four children in two marriages, possibly feels a special affinity for the group because of his own difficult childhood. As Eugene Orowitz back in Collingswood, N.J., he was the only Jewish boy in his school. Two years ago he risked snickers to write, produce and direct The Loneliest Runner, a made-for-NBC movie about the plight of chronic bedwetters. "Everyone knows it was autobiographical," says Landon's friend Bill Kiley. "That kind of experience makes you self-conscious and withdrawn."
When Melissa Sue Anderson -"Missy" on the set-began stewing last year about losing the best lines to Melissa Gilbert, "Michael picked it up immediately and cleared things up by talking to both the girls and their mothers," reports a crew member. Then when Missy later fretted that her impending blindness on the show was really a way to write her out of the script, "I told her to trust me," Landon says. The result was that last March's blindness segment (rerun this week) was the highest-rated Little House of the year and put Missy up for an Emmy Sept. 17. "Michael called to congratulate me," she remembers. "By the end of the conversation we were both in tears. Michael cares so much about everybody he makes you care about yourself." (Inexplicably, he's never won an Emmy in 14 seasons as Little Joe on Bonanza, four on Little House.)
Landon often looks for ways to break on-set tensions. "He always has a joke, a story or a quip," says makeup man Whitey Snider. "He won't stand for hostility." Though Landon is not above remembering a dead puppy to produce scripted tears from the two girls, he also uses such ploys as pretending to pick lice out of Melissa Gilbert's hair at the end of an emotional scene to make sure she wouldn't take it all too seriously. As for the boys, their mother, Frankie Laborteaux, laments with a smile, "Michael is into bathroom jokes. the worst. They try to outgross one another. There's a lot of kid mixed in with all that genius." "The show is like one big family," summarizes cameraman Ken Hunter, "with Michael as the father figure."Yet it is a family whose strength may be the diversity -and difficulty-of their backgrounds.
Born in Berkeley, Melissa Sue Anderson and her older sister moved frequently before their parents settled in L.A. and broke up: She began dancing lessons at age 7 to strengthen her lungs against asthma and moved on to acting. Commercials (Mattei, Spaghettios) followed, and at 10 she landed her first big role. "I kissed one of the boys on The Brady Bunch. It was the first time, and I decided I would never do it again." (Asked if she's since changed her mind, she smiles coquettishly.) Missy wound up on Little House, Landon says, "because we wanted a pretty face. The funny thing was that she turned into a great actress." Now, having earned her high school equivalency through a combination of private school and on-set tutoring, Missy figures on directing someday. With her Little House loot, she just took the first step toward going Hollywood by buying a flame-red $7,000 Ford sports car.
Photographs by Steve Schapirol/Sygrna