Michael Landon, who starred in wholesome family dramas throughout his five-decade television career before his death in 1991, didn’t always find that warmth in his own home, as illustrated in CBS’ thoughtful, if somewhat predictable, “Michael Landon, the Father I Knew.” John Schneider does a solid job of capturing Landon’s life as an actor, father and often-confused husband, but it’s helmer Michael Landon Jr.’s memories of a loving but then suddenly distanced parent that make for a touching story.
As a child in the late ’60s, Landon Jr. (who is played by several actors during the pic) idolized his father, who gained national notoriety as Little Joe on “Bonanza,” and, early on in the narrative, he has an ongoing nightmare that Landon is being mobbed by adoring fans.
Landon is a compassionate provider, taking his two kids, as well as his stepson on occasion, on fishing trips and various outings, trying to be the perfect dad he always plays on-screen. When Lynn Landon, (Cheryl Ladd), tells her husband that there’s another baby on the way, the family moves into a bigger house in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley.
But as his life begins to change, Landon’s need for fulfilling his own desires is more ap-parent. He becomes involved with a makeup artist, Cindy (Julie Condra), on the set of “Little House on the Prairie,” and his family life begins to crumble: The kids find out that they’re now playing second fiddle to his new girlfriend (who would eventually become Landon’s third wife).
Landon Jr. and sister Leslie (Sara Lancaster) try unsuccessfully to get on with their lives as the son battles alcohol abuse and she suffers from bulimia, claiming that if she were thinner, her father would pay more attention to her.
Landon Jr. eventually meets his future wife on a set and puts his life back together. In the meantime, Landon is diagnosed with terminal cancer. In one of the their final heart-to-hearts, Landon talks about his own unstable childhood, which may have been a primary reason for his sometimes irrational decision-making.
It’s hard to turn the camera on family, but Landon Jr. does a good job of spotlighting his father’s emotional phases, although a little less generalization would have been more appropriate. And at times it comes off a little too simplistic to say, as a father, Landon was great for 10 years and then lousy for the next 10.
And the extramarital affair comes off a little disorienting: He says he needs his own space but there’s nothing that triggers this life-altering course of action.
Despite the irritants, however, the telepic gives viewers a thorough look at the life of a television icon whose public persona was much different than his family surroundings.
Tech credits are fine.