Michael Landon Died Weeks After His Difficult-to-Watch Appearance on Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight Show’

Michael Landon, left, with Johnny Carson in 1983
Michael Landon, left, with Johnny Carson in 1983 | Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

In his final public appearance in front of a camera, Michael Landon visited with his old friend Johnny Carson on the latter’s The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in May, 1991.

Landon had been diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic and liver cancers and appeared on the program to address all of the speculation swirling around his illness and prognosis.

Within weeks, the Little House on the Prairie star died.

Michael Landon announced his diagnosis in 1991

Michael Landon, March 1991
Michael Landon, March 1991 | Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

In April 1991, Landon announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer.

His on-screen daughter Melissa Gilbert described in her 2009 memoir Prairie Tale how he faced the devastating news head-on, doing his best to orchestrate how and when the world found out.

“Mike invited the press to his house and revealed his illness and determination to fight it,” she wrote. “It was so characteristic of him to deliver the news on his own terms and try to keep the tabloids from printing rumors.”

Landon and Johnny Carson were good friends

Michael Landon on 'The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson' in 1975
Michael Landon on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’ in 1975 | Ron Tom/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

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Landon, who would be in his 80s today had he lived, was there for Johnny Carson when the late-night host’s son was killed in an automobile accident on June 21, 1991. It wasn’t lost on Carson that his friend put aside his own crushing pain to comfort him. In 10 days, Carson lost Landon as well.

“This has been a devastating week for me and my family,” Carson said at Landon’s death. “Michael called last Monday expressing his deepest sympathy on the death of my son Ricky.

“The courage and sensitivity he showed in our conversation, in comforting me while he was in great pain, attests to the quality of this man and his character.”

What made Landon’s appearance on ‘The Tonight Show’ so hard to watch

Aside from the former Bonanza star’s dramatic loss of weight, his incredible courage, humor, and refusal to wallow in his incurable prognosis were moving and heroic.

Gilbert recalled in her memoir her own observation of Landon’s Tonight Show appearance: “I thought the most poignant moment of the show came at the end when Johnny invited his other guest, George Foreman, back after his next fight in August and Mike said he would also come back then,” she wrote.

“I nearly burst into tears because I realized that Mike knew there was no chance he would be back then.”

Landon peppered his visit with Carson with humor, joking about headlines at that time claiming he wanted to have a tenth child with his wife, “so she would have something to remember me by. I mean, I got 9 kids, 9 dogs, 3 grandkids, one in the oven, and my wife Cindy needs something to remember me by?”