The brother that he never had: Kent McCray remembers the multi-talented Michael Landon on his birthday
Perhaps tough to fathom, but actor-writer-director-producer Michael Landon would be an octogenarian had he not succumbed to brutal pancreatic cancer in July 1991. Landon was noted for his unabashedly lucrative 32-year run on three beloved NBC television series — Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven.
Though he inexplicably never won an Emmy, the dashing and handsome Scorpio was cherished by his fans, rarely refusing to sign an autograph or pose for a photo. His legend lives on in perpetual syndication, home video, and YouTube.
Several of his children are in the family business of show, including Michael Landon, Jr., who maintains a career directing family flicks for the Hallmark Channel, Christopher Landon, the screenwriter behind Shia LaBeouf’s acclaimed Disturbia, and Jennifer Landon, who notched a consecutive trio of Daytime Emmy awards for long-running soap As the World Turns.
Kent McCray rose to prominence as an associate producer with Bob Hope during the late 1950s, traveling the world and filming specials during his well-received USO tours. McCray befriended Landon in 1962 on the set of Bonanza in lieu of a fiery introductory argument that nearly resulted in fisticuffs.
The genial, soft-spoken, and down-to-earth McCray never looked back, working with the actor all the way up until his final project, Us , a change of pace drama about a wrongly-imprisoned man renewing complicated family ties.
Over the course of two engrossing phone interviews, Landon’s best man shares heartfelt and sometimes painful memories about an inimitable human being whose contagious, high-pitched laugh never failed to brighten his day. Visiting a terminally ill teenager and ensuring her controversial last request, what happened when the actor didn’t have a driver’s license at a Los Angeles airport, and shocking Johnny Carson at Landon’s 50th birthday bash with his impersonation of a poodle dress-sporting, full figured ’50s gal are just the tip of the iceberg. McCray died on June 3, 2018, just four days prior to his 90th birthday.
The Kent McCray Interview
What stands out when you recall Michael Landon’s birthday parties?
He loved having a birthday on Halloween. That meant any party he had he could dress up and be somebody different. A memorable one was his 50th birthday party on Halloween Eve 1986. My wife Susan and I were invited along with many other people.
I originally was gonna go as legendary director Alfred Hitchcock because my stomach was kinda big, and I had a mask that looked exactly like him. I thought I could walk around and say, “Good evening” [laughs].
I was talking to Susan on a Saturday morning and said, “When we get to the party that’s fine. But after we get there I wanna take the mask off so I can have a few drinks and something to eat. Once I take the mask off I’m nobody!” Susan replied, “Well, that doesn’t work.”
So she went through her closet and found an old skirt and wig. Next we drove to a local store not far from where we lived in Malibu and found an old poodle. Susan sewed the poodle onto the skirt so I could dress up like a girl.
We went to the party at Michael’s new house with another couple. Now Michael hadn’t moved in yet. He had a tent out on the lawn that was just huge. You walked into the door, there was a reception area, a band playing, and then he had a stage for a deejay that could alternate between the band.
Cindy [Clerico, Landon’s third wife who he tied the knot with on February 14, 1983] noticed me almost instantaneously and exclaimed, “God, you’ve gotta come see Michael!” She brought me over to him, and he was talking to Johnny Carson and his wife.
Michael looked at me and started to laugh. He couldn’t help it. He introduced me to Johnny, who I had met before. Carson looked at me and said, “You’ve either got a lot of guts or you’re very secure!” I said, “Well I happen to have a little of both” [laughs].
Every time the music started Michael came over to where I was sitting and said, “Come on, we gotta dance, Kent. Get up here and dance with me!” That’s what we did all night long. He gave some great parties. It was just a wonderful night.
Did Michael tend to be the life of the party?
Mike was a very shy person. When he was growing up in New Jersey, he had a very sad home life. He would go out and play by himself in the surrounding, wooded areas. He’d make up stories that he was this person or that person. He lived in a fantasy world of his own. Those experiences fast forwarded to what he became.
When Mike was at a birthday party he never got up in front of a crowd and talked or told jokes. When you were at his house, you were his guest. He was never “on” as an actor. He was very down to earth and very loving and caring for people. And Mike didn’t particularly care for any gifts. I don’t think there was ever any exchange.
Susan’s birthday [June 14] and my birthday [June 7, 1927] are a week apart. One time Michael delivered two life size dolls dressed as me and Susan. I don’t know how he obtained pictures of us but he must have taken them to somebody for design and modeling purposes. I still have those dolls. He was one of the best. They don’t make them like that anymore.
Did Michael ever celebrate a birthday on the set of Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, or Highway to Heaven?
No, not really. I do remember a kinda gross story but I’ll give it to you anyway [laughs]. Around 1978 we were filming on location in Sonora, California, which was a place we used a lot for Little House because it had a steam train and different kinds of woods and streams so it worked well.
Of course it was Halloween Eve. One of the on-set teachers told me that all the kids were gonna go up to an old cemetery behind the motel. That gave me an idea. I ripped the sheet off my bed and took it and hid behind a huge tombstone.
I could see the kids — Melissa Gilbert [Laura Ingalls], Melissa Sue Anderson [Mary Ingalls], Matthew Labyorteaux [Albert Ingalls], and twins Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush [Carrie Ingalls] — coming up the hill. They got just about 10 feet away from me. I put the sheet over my head and reared up and bellowed, “Yowwww!!!” They turned around and ran down the hill. They didn’t go over the fence — they went through it [laughs].
Soon they were back at the hotel. Melissa Gilbert and Matthew decided to take a pillowcase and go from room to room, knocking on doors seeing if they could pick up any candy. They got to Mike’s room. He said, “Just a minute.” He came back out and put something into the pillowcase.
They got back to their room and started emptying out the pillowcase. Turns out Michael had given them his undershorts which he had smeared with peanut butter. They nearly fainted! Melissa’s mother told me the next day that Melissa exclaimed, “This is terrible, just terrible. Get this outta here!” They assumed it was something else kinda gross [laughs]. That’s the kind of jokester Mike was.
How did you first meet Michael?
At the beginning of Bonanza’s fourth season in May 1962 when Paramount Studios assigned me to the series. While the western started in 1959, in the interim I was working as an associate producer or production manager on various Bob Hope specials and the ABC detective series Philip Marlowe starring Philip Carey.
Another short-lived series, Outlaws, came my way in 1960. NBC assigned me to the pilot, but then I was asked by the network to accompany The Dinah Shore Chevy Show over to Europe for six months.
When I returned, I picked up my association with Outlaws until it was cancelled in early 1962. By the way, the western featured Barton MacLane, Slim Pickens, Bruce Yarnell, and Don Collier. Don is a buddy of mine who later costarred on The High Chaparral [1967–1971], which was also created and produced by David Dortort (I am present at the High Chaparral Reunion every year at Old Tucson with the surviving cast members). I was eventually production manager on Chaparral and Bonanza simultaneously.
When I had a free afternoon, I would visit the Bonanza set at Paramount because I was interested in the show. I didn’t get to meet anybody in the cast, but I had fun watching Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and Mike work.
Once I was officially assigned to Bonanza in 1962, my first meeting with Mike did not go very well. We had a few arguments that day while we were out on location, and he was the lead actor in this particular episode. Mike hollered at me and wanted to know if I had a car available for him because he had to be at NBC that afternoon for a meeting.
I didn’t know what he was talking about. I looked at the shooting schedule, and Mike was in every scene. So I had to go find a pay phone (this was before we had cell phones) and call Paramount.
I asked the head of production, “What’s this with Mike having a meeting at NBC?” They responded, “We know nothing about it.” Then I called NBC and talked to the production people there. Not surprisingly, they were unaware of any meeting.
I was becoming a little hesitant. I don’t take crap from anybody. About an hour later, Mike finally approached me and said, “Do you have a car for me? Because I’m leaving at one o’clock whether you have one or not!” I replied, “Well, you’re not leaving, since you’re in every scene today.” He reiterated, “I’m telling you I’m leaving.”
I didn’t mince any words: “Okay, if you leave, I can suspend you. You will be a suspended actor who won’t get paid. You committed to this set, and you’ve got to stay here, whether you like it or not. So if you think you have a meeting, fine, but you’re not going.”
Mike turned to me and admitted, “I was only kind of trying to test you.” That made me real mad, and I probably called him a dirty name. I told him, “Don’t ever test me. You don’t need to do that. I have my job, and you have your job. I’ll support you any way I can, but don’t give me this crap about testing me. I won’t put up with it.” And we became very good friends from that point on. I remained with Bonanza until it ended in 1973, and I continued to work with Mike on all of his future projects.
When did Michael first display signs of writing?
Mike was a very bright man who loved to constantly work and challenge himself. He always wanted to learn, and he knew what he wanted. From the time I met him, I think working behind the camera was in the back of his mind. He never explicitly told me that he wanted to do that, but he gradually found his way there with exemplary results.
At first, he had an innate desire to learn how to write. We had a gentleman in our staff called John Hawkins, our rewrite man on the Bonanza scripts. Mike talked to John at lunchtime. John would tell him to go out to the office and sit down with a yellow pad of paper.
He didn’t have a desk, so he would use the arm of the chair to write a scene and then take it back to John for critique. Through the years, that’s how Mike learned to write — by working with John Hawkins.
Eventually we were kind of running out of material. Mike was in the production office one Thursday, and executive producer David Dortort admitted, “We don’t have a script yet for Monday.”
Mike piped up, “There’s a script here that needs to be rewritten. Why don’t you let me rewrite it?” Mr. Dortort said, “Fine, rewrite it.” So Mike went home and rewrote the script over the weekend.
I would call him periodically to find out what he was doing. Later I went to his house to read what he had composed so I could set up what we needed to start working on Monday morning. Believe it or not, the script was finished on time, and we never lost a day of production. Simply put, Mike tooled his craft doing Bonanza. That was his schooling period.
[Author’s Note: The episode was most likely “Ballad of the Ponderosa”, broadcast on November 13, 1966. However, the first Landon co-write, the tension-filled “The Gamble”, appeared shortly before McCray joined the series on April 1, 1962. Landon’s writing contributions would remain stalled for nearly five years until “Ballad” aired, yet he would begin averaging three scripts per year until the series was suddenly cancelled in January 1973].
Michael’s interest in directing and producing followed soon after.
He was always intrigued by the camera. Bonanza had a lot of talented cinematographers, but two who stood out were Haskell “Buzzy” Boggs and Ted Voigtlander. They would talk to Mike and show him different camera lenses, including diopters (which would alter the focusing distance and magnification ratio) and smoke lenses.
Many nights we would shoot tests with these lenses after we were through with production for the day. It wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes, but it helped Mike immensely. When he started directing, he would remember those unique lenses.
He became especially prolific as a director, helming 94 out of 111 episodes of Highway to Heaven. When other directors came in, Mike was pretty good at ceding control to them. Then again, the guest directors, such as William F. Claxton and Victor French, had known Mike since Bonanza.
If they felt uneasy about a scene, they would ask him, “What do you think we should do here?” And they would discuss during pre-production or a lunch break what Mike wanted out of a particular script. There was always a cooperative atmosphere on the set.
Mike had the ability of knowing in his head what was going to be on the screen when he read or wrote a script. He did not have to try a lot of different scenarios while filming a scene — ‘you know, let’s try it this way or that way.’
Depending on the script, he wanted it quiet when everyone needed to rehearse. I don’t remember any high tension on any of his shows. If a problem emerged, he would get a little agitated. He would lose his patience sometimes with children and animals. But patience is one thing. He was never really cranky or mean.
A lot of people have production meetings throughout every show. We had one production meeting — on the pilot of Little House and later on the pilot of Highway to Heaven. If the wardrobe people had a problem, they came to me. If I couldn’t answer it, we would both go to Mike, and he would answer it. So there was no lost time on our set.
We had a crew that worked their tails off for Mike. They loved him, and he loved them. We had people that started on Bonanza that carried over into Highway. Very few lasted over those thirty-plus years, but they didn’t leave the unit until they retired or died.
Which profession did Michael prefer?
He often remarked, “I like to write, but it’s a lonely profession. You’re in a room by yourself. I like to produce because I like working with people. Directing is my favorite. Acting is my least favorite because I don’t think I’m as good as actor as I am in the other categories.”
I politely disagreed with him. Granted, he did not have a great background in films before Bonanza came his way [e.g. I Was a Teenage Werewolf, 1957], and folks did not think of him as a great actor at that point.
Nevertheless, he became a tremendous actor, and he definitely knew the camera loved him. But he always felt that was his weakest forte. As an actor, writer, director, and producer, you couldn’t ask for anybody any better.
How would you describe Michael’s infectious laugh?
Mike had the greatest laugh of anyone I’ve ever heard. Remember the Bonanza episode entitled “Hoss and the Leprechauns” — the one where Little Joe tricks Hoss by imitating a leprechaun’s voice? When Hoss discovers the truth, Little Joe drops to the ground beneath a gigantic oak tree and bursts into a high-pitched, impish chuckle. That was Mike’s laugh.
He had a good sense of humor from the time I first met him. He could tell jokes like crazy. He’d be telling one and the assistant director would say, “We need you on the set.” Mike would stop the joke, go do the scene (sometimes crying on cue), come back and finish the joke. I couldn’t do that. He had a great sense of what was going on every minute.
Mike always liked to dispense a little levity among his cast, especially if they were dealing with a serious subject. You couldn’t help but stop and laugh with him. It would tear your heart out.
He loved to play tricks on other people. His pranks were classic. Most of them are a little off-color, and I don’t want to repeat them [laughs]. On Little House, he would call over the script supervisor and Melissa Gilbert. They would start doing a scene, and he would open his mouth and a frog would be in there. Or he might turn his sleeve around, and a tarantula might be crawling up his arm. Things of that nature. He loved animals, especially snakes.
He would tell Melissa to walk away from the camera. She didn’t know that he shut it off. Every few minutes, Melissa would turn around but Mike would tell her, “Walk some more, just a little farther.” She would be down the road a length of a football field before he’d call her back.
Was Michael okay with fans seeking an autograph?
Absolutely; Mike always accepted anyone that came up to him and wanted an autograph or to shake his hand. Lots of times he would stop and have a crowd of people around him. I’d have to finally say, “Mike, we gotta go. Our plane is leaving.”
One time we were going to search for filming locations. I picked up Mike, and we went to the airport. Fans spotted him, so he started signing autographs in the lobby. I walked up to the counter with our tickets.
Unfortunately, the clerk wanted proof of identity. I was cleared, since I had my drivers’ license. But Mike never carried a drivers’ license — someone, usually me, did all the driving. I pointed at Mike and asked her, “Who’s that over there?” She replied, “Oh, that’s Mr. Landon. He’s signing autographs. But I still need to verify him.” I thought, ‘Oh please…’
So I called her supervisor out. He walked up and asked, “What’s the matter? Isn’t that Michael Landon signing autographs over there?” I said, “It certainly is, but the clerk needs a signed certificate proving he is Michael Landon. You recognize him, she recognizes him, so why can’t he just get on the plane?” The supervisor admitted that it was kind of silly. Long story short, we eventually got on the plane [laughs].
How did he give back to society?
Mike did a tremendous amount of work for charity. There was a weekend tennis tournament in Tucson called the CIGNA HealthCare Celebrity Classic that Mike hosted for 10 years through 1990. They would bring in stars to play in a tournament with local people. All the money derived from this charity event went back to the community of Tucson.
In case you didn’t know, Tucson is not known for having great weather — it’s always very hot. After playing tennis, Mike would sit in a booth and take photos with fans for hours. He was very well loved in the city, and there is a statue of him in Randolph Park by the tennis field where we did the tournament all those years.
Mike was also highly involved in the Make-A-Wish program. Kids would come to the set of Highway and he would get a golf cart and take them around the studio. He even brought them up to the production office.
A child who lived in New Jersey visited Los Angeles one time. He took her all around the set, and she had such a great time. She later went into remission, but eventually she became ill again. He heard she was not doing well, so he got on a plane one Friday night after work and flew all night to her New Jersey hospital.
This child was not eating, and Mike got her to eat again. He found a wheelchair and came up with an ingenious idea. He put her in his lap and starting doing wheelies down the corridors. Just to make her smile.
After they were finished and returned to her room, he asked, “Is there one thing you’ve always wanted to have that you’ve never been able to taste?” She quickly responded, “I’d love to taste a beer.”
Mike turned to a nurse stationed nearby, gave her some money, and urged her to go get a bottle. Caught completely off-guard, the nurse stammered, “I can’t give a beer to a 12-year-old.” Mike exclaimed, “For Christ sakes, what difference is it gonna make?” He must have convinced her, because the nurse got someone to go across the street and purchase a bottle. After the little girl took one sip, she remarked, “Gosh, that tasted good” [laughs].
Is it true that Michael gave you a share of the profits on Highway to Heaven?
Yes. To give you a little back-story, Bonanza and Little House were all NBC productions. Mike had a percentage of the profits on Little House, along with creator Ed Friendly and of course, NBC.
When Highway came along, he developed his own production company, Michael Landon Productions. In other words, he was given “X” amount of dollars to do the show. If he made money, that was his money. If it went over budget, it came out of his pocket.
Mike told me going in that we would never go over budget. And we never did in the five years that the show was on the air [1984–1989]. One day he walked in and told me, “You are my partner, and you will have a piece of the profits.” I didn’t ask for it, and I still get residuals today.
I’ll tell you one example of his love for people that is unheard of in the business. At the end of each Highway season, Mike turned around and gave everyone on the crew a bonus. It was generally a $5,000 check that they didn’t expect to get. That’s the kind of guy Mike was. I can’t tell you how much I loved and appreciated this man, because he was so genuine.
What is your lovely wife Susan’s connection to Michael?
Susan’s father, Harry Sukman, composed the music for Bonanza during its 11th season (1969–1970) in addition to The High Chaparral. She met Mike in 1967 while she was working in the Bonanza casting office.
She cast Little House, Highway, and all of Mike’s made for television movies including The Loneliest Runner (1976), Sam’s Son (1984; his only theatrical film as director), Where Pigeons Go to Die (1990), and of course, the Us pilot.
I married Susan on January 28, 1984, and Mike was my best man. When he married Cindy [Clerico] the year before, I was his best man. Susan says I was very nervous that day, but Mike was never nervous. He had a ball. He even walked Susan’s mother down the aisle [laughs]. Her official website, SusanMcCray.com, is quite interactive and includes extensive celebrity interviews from her radio show, Getting to Know You with Susan McCray via KSAV.
Are you working on any film or TV projects pertaining to Michael?
No, I’ve given it all up. I’m 90 years old and retired. I don’t have the strength to do it anymore — my head’s not 90 but my legs are [laughs]. However, I just finished writing a book all about my whole career entitled Kent McCray: The Man Behind the Most Beloved Television Shows with Marianne Rittner-Holmes. It was a slow, yet rewarding process.
There were two people that I thought the world of — Bob Hope and Michael Landon. I respected and loved Mike dearly, and we became very, very close through the years. Mike always said I was the brother that he never had. To me, that’s a true statement of a man.
******************DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET!******************
Exclusive Interview: Determined Arkansan Beth Brickell had an intimate meeting with Princess Grace Kelly at the Palace of Monaco to figure out whether it was feasible for her to pursue her dream of acting. How did she manage such an unheard-of feat? By going the tried and true route and writing a letter. After years of toiling at the prestigious Actors Studio in New York City, she found herself cast in a breakout smash television series in 1967 as the dependable wife of Florida Everglades game warden Tom Wedloe [Dennis Weaver] on the half hour family adventure series Gentle Ben. Into the late 1970s Brickell dropped by Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Emergency!, Hawaii Five-O, and Fantasy Island…occasionally enlivening a feature film such as Kirk Douglas’s underappreciated, decidedly cynical Western Posse. “The Unconventionally Persistent Journey of ‘Gentle Ben’ Heroine Beth Brickell” stands as her most comprehensive, intimate interview in years. And oh yeah, she kissed Michael Landon multiple times in “Emily,” a soap opera-inspired, albeit well-acted 1969 Bonanza episode.
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