This wrestler-turned-actor from Monster Squad took the stage name Michael Landon really wanted
Would you know the Bonanza star by any other name?
In 1958, a year before Michael Landon became a household name when he joined the cast of Bonanza in 1959, he appeared in a memorable episode of The Rifleman.
"End of a Young Gun" found Landon at the cusp of transforming from a featured guest-star into a TV icon.
It was far from the "End of a Young Gun" for Landon. This was just the beginning of one of the most special television careers, as he determined to do more than act in poignant scenes, but also write, direct and produce them.
Landon did not foresee this future when he was a boy. He grew up a track star, who vaulted out of his high school after winning a major javelin throwing championship. He thought for sure that he'd be an athlete, or perhaps a coach… until an injury forced him into working at a Hollywood warehouse, where he labored instead. One day, when an actor friend was heading to an audition, he offered an enticing suggestion: Why not tag along?
There was a rumor for years that Landon was discovered as an actor while he was a track star, but the real truth was his star rose due to sheer serendipity. He followed his warehouse friend to the audition, where he caught the casting director's eye.
"I went to the audition just to see what it was like," Landon told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1958. "The director asked me to read. That's all there was to it."
Landon got the role, even though he'd only ever acted in a couple of plays back in New Jersey. After that, the casting directors were calling him. They knew all they needed was a catchier stage name to sell him to studios.
You see, "Michael Landon" was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz. The first stage name he tried to register with the Screen Actors Guild was "Michael Lane."
The Guild rejected the name because a professional wrestler was already using it. This other Michael Lane had just started getting cast in movies. At that time, no two actors were allowed to register the same stage name.
There's no way any casting director could have confused the two actors, though. Mike Lane, the wrestler, was 6-foot-8-inches, weighing 275 pounds. When he was a circus wrestler, he was called "Tarzan Mike." Lane's massive frame made him the perfect choice to play "Frank N. Stein," the green-skinned, flat-headed legend in Monster Squad. This was the 1976–77 Saturday morning series with Fred Grandy (better known as Gopher from The Love Boat), not the 1987 film The Monster Squad.
Landon, of course, eventually became best known as "Little Joe" for a reason. He was no towering figure, although he stood at a respectable 5-foot-11. He weighed in 100 pounds less than the actor who frequently played heavies, Mike Lane.
Perhaps this was the very reason the Guild was concerned over any confusion — nobody expecting larger-than-life Mike Lane would be pleased to see smiling "Little Joe" Landon, or vice versa!
Still in need of a catchy name, Landon had to think quickly, and it's his second stage-name choice that we all know him by today.
The Guild registered him as Michael Landon. From that point on, nobody reading the credits after watching the many Westerns that both actors appeared on would ever have to worry about confusing Mike Lane the wrestler with Michael Landon the Cartwright boy.