Highway To Heaven

Michael Landon, Jr.: Blazing His Own Trail At Last

Michael Landon Jr. knows what people are thinking every time they hear his name, and it has nothing to do with him.  It’s about his father, the legendary actor who charmed television audiences with long-running hits in the 1960s (“Bonanza”), ‘70s (“Little House on the Prairie”) and ‘80s (“Highway to Heaven”) before dying tragically of pancreatic cancer just shy of 20 years ago.  The legacy he left behind is vast.
But one of Landon’s greatest creations turns out to have been the son named after him.  Landon Jr. is now a successful writer-director who is very much in demand, carving out a niche with the same kind of family-friendly fare that his dad built a career on.  His latest project is the Hallmark Channel Original Movie World Premiere entitled “Beverly Lewis’ The Shunning” that debuts Saturday, April 16 (9 p.m. ET/PT, 8C).
Based on the first novel of The Heritage of Lancaster County books series from New York Times bestselling author Beverly Lewis, “The Shunning” stars three-time Emmy® and two-time Golden Globe nominee Sherry Stringfield (“ER”) and Danielle Panabaker (“The Crazies”) in a story of the Amish Community and its strict order of rules and adherence.  Panabaker stars as an Amish woman engaged to be married who discovers she is adopted – and that her birth mother (Stringfield) is dying of cancer and wants only to be reunited with the child she gave up 24 years before.
“It’s a tale of two worlds colliding,” Landon Jr., now 46 and born during his father’s years starring on “Bonanza,” explains.  “We tell the story of a young Amish woman struggling with her identity as she prepares for her marriage with the town’s bishop who is made to question things even more when she gets a glimpse of the modern world she’s been missing.  She begins to separate herself from her community.  And that causes a shunning.” 

In Amish culture, a “shunning” is a practice – still in existence – whereby everyone in a community shuns a person for their behavior, Landon Jr. stresses.  “No one is allowed to speak to this person, do business with this person, have meals with them, visit with them or in any way associate or they risk being shunned themselves,” he says.  “It’s a form of isolation meant to break the person so they’ll come back into the fold.”

While Landon Jr. doesn’t necessarily agree with the practice, he reasons that we see forms of it every day in our own lives.  “Shunnings happen in families all the time,” he believes. “We’ll stop inviting people to dinner, stop taking their phone calls, that kind of thing.  It just isn’t as official as it is with the Amish.”

“Beverly Lewis’ The Shunning” was filmed in Winston-Salem, North Carolina over 16 very busy days, Landon Jr. recalled.  Having a strong team to keep the production moving like a well-oiled machine was essential.

“We shot 120 scenes during that time, which is really moving,” he says.  “We were fortunate to have been blessed with some very cooperative weather during the fall, which made the beauty in the film just spectacular.  The colors, the countryside, it’s just magnificent.  Two days after we wrapped, it started snowing the temperatures plummeted.  So we clearly lucked out.  And I know that Beverly Lewis was hugely pleased by what we came up with, even though she never made it to the set.  She saw a rough cut and was very enthusiastic, which really feels good.”

It also feels hugely gratifying to Landon Jr. to have become something of a go-to guy as a writer, producer and director of films in the Hallmark Channel universe that his father would have surely endorsed.  He co-wrote, produced and directed four films in the much-beloved original made-for-TV movie series “Love Comes Softly” based on the series of books by Janette Oke, also co-writing and producing a couple of others.

All of this has come for Landon Jr. since 2003, when a career he describes as challenging and inconsistent finally took off behind the camera as a writer-producer-director.  This will no doubt come as a surprise to many who presumed that his name would have brought the guy easy entrée into Hollywood considering his father’s longtime show business domination.  But perceptions can prove greatly misleading.

“There are all sorts of elements at work when you carry this name,” he maintains.  “There are issues of identity and finding your own place in the world, not to mention attempting to fill one’s own shoes when you’ve had a parent as successful as my father was.  You have to work that much harder to create your own stamp, your own style, and not just try to capitalize on the handle and emulate.  My dad obviously heavily influenced the things I respond to story-wise.  But that doesn’t mean I’ve simply tried to follow in his footsteps.” 

 Indeed not. As Landon Jr. describes things, it was difficult for him to find consistent work, starting off working in what’s known as the “below the line” crew positions on productions.  He spent close to eight years in various camera jobs, first as a film loader, then as an assistant cameraman and operator.  Her also logged time as an apprentice editor and production assistant.  In other words, this isn’t a man who was able to use nepotism to push his way into showbiz.

 “I would have been empowered a little bit if I’d pushed the acting thing more,” Landon Jr. figures, “but being named Michael Landon Jr. doesn’t help you on the other side of that camera.  If anything, it’s tougher, because you need to prove yourself that much more.”

 Landon Jr. really wanted to direct but found he “couldn’t catch a break.”  So he created his own, co-writing scripts that he was then able to become director on.  His first job came in a film about his dad entitled “Michael Landon: The Father I Knew” in 1999, and he’s been able to build a body of work over the past decade that now spans 10 projects.

 Yet while the name Michael Landon remains somewhat magical with generations of TV audiences two decades after his death, in Hollywood that reputation was always somewhat more ambiguous, Landon Jr. acknowledges.

 “In terms of his work, my father wasn’t popular among his peers in the business,” he says.  “The problem was that he wasn’t considered an artist per se.  In general, people in entertainment who make softer programming are never going to generate the same respect. They’re never going to get the accolades and the awards.  Your peers don’t pat you on the back but look down on you, if not to your face.

 “Where you get the positives and the praise is from the fans – in my dad’s case, from the viewership.  When you allow somebody into your home on a weekly basis for as many years as my father was on, you begin to feel a sense of knowing that person, that they’re a part of your family.  That’s how it was with my father in a phenomenal way.”

 Even his father found the outpouring of love during the weeks and months leading up to his death on July 1, 1991 to have been “overwhelming,” Landon Jr. agrees.  “He touched so many lives,” he found, “and at the end of the day that counts more than anything.”

 In his way, Landon Jr. is also working to move people and make a positive impact through his work.  He’s proud to have partnered with the international hunger relief organization World Vision to direct the documentary short “Journey to Jamaa” that tells the real-life story of two children from Uganda orphaned by AIDS who travel with their mother’s body across many kilometers to give their mother a proper burial in her birthplace.

 “It’s a powerful story that I’m hoping will break hearts and open pocketbooks,” Landon Jr. Notes.  “When you work to do something that makes a difference, the rewards you receive are immense.” 
“Beverly Lewis’ The Shunning” premieres Saturday, April 16 (9 p.m. ET/PT, 8C).