Michael Landon became a household name after his starring roles in Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. However, he also starred in and produced another hit series named Highway to Heaven. Landon was excited about the show but the executives at NBC weren’t initially thrilled about the concept.
Michael Landon on ‘Highway to Heaven’
Landon played Jonathan Smith on Highway to Heaven, a man who died and came back to earth as a probationary angel. God (referred to as “The Boss”) gives Jonathan the task of doing good works on earth so he can earn a spot in Heaven. A former police officer, Mark Gordon (played by Little House on the Prairie actor Victor French), helps Jonathan complete his assignments. The show aired for five seasons, from 1984 until its cancellation in 1989.
Michael Landon said NBC execs were ‘horrified’ about him being an angel
Landon had to try hard to sell Highway to Heaven to the NBC executives. He says they gave him a list of ideas and most of the themes focused on detective shows. In Conversations with Michael Landon, he told author Tom Ito the executives thought the concept for Highway to Heaven wouldn’t resonate with TV audiences. They didn’t like the idea of him being an angel.
“The whole notion horrified them!” said Landon. “They said, ‘Well, you know those things don’t do well.’”
Michael Landon didn’t care about the critics
The late Brandon Tartikoff, who was NBC entertainment president at time, told Landon the critics would roast him for producing a show about an angel. However, Landon wasn’t concerned about what the critics had to say. He believed in the show and knew he could pull it off. Tartikoff told the Los Angeles Times Landon told him he had what it took to make the show a hit.
“Landon told me, ‘I don’t much care what they say,’” said Tartikoff. “There are an awful lot of people out there who are trying to make people laugh; there are very few shows that can, on a regular basis, give the audience a good cry. I know I can do that–and if I do it well, they (the audience) will be back.’”
Landon said he would do a different series for NBC if the show didn’t work out. Highway to Heaven was eventually given the green light, and the first episode aired on September 19, 1984. Landon directed and produced the episodes. He also pitched in as a writer.
Why Michael Landon used his production company for ‘Highway to Heaven’
Landon explained that using his production company wasn’t just about being able to oversee everything. One of the main reasons he wanted to use Michael Landon Productions was that he knew his company would be efficient.
“I felt that our group could make a show so efficiently that I wouldn’t have to worry about deficit financing,” Landon told Ito. “I don’t want to take my own money and go into a hole. We were able to be under budget all those years on Little House, and I felt we could do the same thing with Highway, and we did.”
Follow Sheiresa Ngo on Twitter.