11 TV Westerns Michael Landon appeared in before Bonanza
He guest starred in forgotten series and beloved classics alike, and was oddly typecast in the same kind of role on a number of shows.
Image: The Everett Collection
Michael Landon became a household name playing Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza, who, after 14 seasons and 430 episodes, wasn’t so little anymore when the iconic series ended in 1973. He then went from the mountains of the Ponderosa to the plains of Minnesota, playing patriarch Charles Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie.
But before these two career-defining roles, Landon guest starred on dozens of shows, many of them Westerns. Eleven of them in fact. Here is a rundown of Michael Landon’s early career, including one type of role he was cast in over and over again.
Not counting a failed 1955 pilot for Luke and the Tenderfoot which also featured Leonard Nimoy and Lee Van Cleef, Michael Landon’s first Western role was a small, uncredited part as a soldier in a 1956 episode of Cheyenne. He was in good company in this troop (no pun intended) with a lieutenant played by James Garner and a Major played by future Bonanza sheriff Ray Teal. Landon came back for another episode of the Clint Walker series in 1958.
2. The Adventures of Jim Bowie
Two of Michael Landon’s earliest TV roles required French accents, and both were on The Adventures of Jim Bowie in 1956. In “Deputy Sheriff” Landon played a young man accused of murder who Bowie must defend against an angry mob. In his second episode, which aired just a few months later, Landon played a French aristocrat, Armand de Nivernais, living in New Orleans. Along with his accent, Landon also showed off is sword fighting skills in both stories.
3. Tales of Wells Fargo
The next Western Michael Landon appeared in was Tales of Wells Fargo. He was cast in three episodes, all originally airing in 1957. He guest starred alongside Chuck Connors in “Sam Bass” and played young gun Tad Cameron in both “Shotgun Messenger” and “The Kid.” The latter saw him yet again accused of a crime he didn’t commit, an oddly specific type-casting that would show up in many of his early roles.
4. The Restless Gun
Michael Landon appeared next in The Restless Gun as a hotshot gunslinger in a pilot episode that aired months before the series officially began. He tests the resolve of the show’s main character (named Britt Ponset in this episode but renamed Vint Bonner for the rest of the series) and learns a hard lesson in the process. The episode also guest starred William Hopper right before he became investigator Paul Drake in Perry Mason.
5. The Texan
After appearing in an Old West episode of the anthology series Alcoa Theatre alongside Star Trek’s doctor DeForest Kelley and the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island Alan Hale Jr., Michael Landon guest starred in a 1958 installment of The Texan. He played yet another young man accused of a crime he didn’t commit.
6. Zane Grey Theatre
Speaking of anthologies, Michael Landon appeared in two episodes of the Western anthology Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre. In the 1957 story “Gift from a Gunman” he played a teenager who looks up to an aging gunfighter. Two years later, he starred as a rancher’s son hired to sabotage a cattle drive.
A year before he became Little Joe Cartwright, Michael Landon played two nefarious outlaws on Trackdown. First, he was the title character in “The Pueblo Kid.” In a strange subversion of the trope he had already played many times before, his character took credit for a number of murders he didn’t actually commit. Later that same year, Landon played an ex-con out for revenge in “Day of Vengeance.”
8. Wanted Dead or Alive
Michael Landon played another outlaw in his first of two episodes of Wanted Dead or Alive. In “The Martin Poster” Landon was wanted criminal Carl Martin who Steve McQueen’s Josh Randall must bring in, and in “The Legend” Landon was the son of a man determined to find lost gold in the desert.
9. Tombstone Territory
Another Western Michael Landon guest starred on twice in the year leading up to Bonanza was Tombstone Territory. In “Rose of the Rio Bravo” he played a naïve young man who falls for the charms of the con artist title character. In “The Man from Brewster” he played, you guessed it, a kid wanting help from Sheriff Hollister after being falsely accused of a crime.
10. Frontier Doctor
Michael Landon played a troubled teen caught up in a murder in one episode of this short-lived series about an early 1900s physician. The episode “Shadow of Belle Starr” also featured future Batman villain Frank Gorshin.
11. The Rifleman
Two of Michael Landon’s most famous pre-Bonanza roles came during the first season of The Rifleman. In the classic Western’s third episode “End of a Young Gun” Landon plays an outlaw who stays at the McCain ranch after saving Mark’s life. In the last episode of season one “The Mind Reader” Landon plays, you’ll never believe this, a man accused of a murder he did not actually commit. It was his last Western role before Joe Cartwright, airing just three months prior to Bonanza's premiere.