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Landon's 'Highway to Heaven' Is Paved With Good Intentions : Star-Producer Credits Show's Longevity to Scripts With Emotional Truths Instead of Headline Issues

First in a series about the producers behind some of television's long-running prime-time series.

January 12, 1988|DIANE HAITHMAN | Times Staff Writer

Brandon Tartikoff admits to having been bemused when Michael Landon first came into his office and said he wanted to follow up his nine years on "Little House on the Prairie" by writing, producing and starring in a TV series in which he would portray an angel.

"I said, 'The critics are going to have a field day with this!' " said Tartikoff, NBC's entertainment president.

"But Landon told me, 'I don't much care what they say. There are an awful lot of people out there who are trying to make people laugh; there are very few shows that can, on a regular basis, give the audience a good cry. I know I can do that--and if I do it well, they (the audience) will be back.' "

In the Culver City offices of Michael Landon Productions, Landon verified with a chuckle that NBC executives didn't exactly jump for joy when he proposed the project. "I think they really felt it was just something I had to get out of my system," he said.

But his instincts were right. The show is "Highway to Heaven," currently airing at 8 p.m. Wednesdays. A faithful audience, ignoring the skeptical reviews that Tartikoff had predicted, has been crying along with "Highway to Heaven" since it debuted in September, 1983.

Although the show has never landed in the Top 10, "Highway" consistently corners a respectable share of the audience. Last season it ranked 25th among prime-time series with a 17.2 rating and a 27 share. This season it has dipped to 38th place with 23% of the audience.

Landon, 51, portrays Jonathan Smith, a man who died some 40 years ago and has returned to Earth as an angel on probation, trying to win a place in heaven by performing good deeds. Jonathan's companion is ex-cop Mark Gordon, played by Victor French. Together, the sensitive angel with the flowing brown mane and the morose, cynical Gordon scour the globe for people in need--consoling children with cancer, reuniting families, encouraging the disabled not to give up hope.

"Man really has an opportunity to be quite wonderful," Landon said.

This man is a Hollywood anomaly, less likely to talk of target audiences and ratings points than of his faith in human kindness and his belief in heaven.

"I was driving through Beverly Hills to pick up my kids on a Friday night," Landon said, recalling how he came to create "Highway to Heaven," "and people were honking at each other. There is no worse place for that than Beverly Hills; I think when people have a little bit more money, they really believe that the Red Sea will part and their car will go forward.

'And I thought, 'Why is everybody so angry? If they would just spend that same time being nice . . . . It's obvious the flow of traffic is going to go much better if everybody has his opportunity.' "

French--who co-starred with Landon on "Little House" and often guest-starred on "Bonanza," on which Landon starred for 14years--unabashedly refers to hisjob as "working with the man I love." He said Landon insisted on casting him as Gordon, rather than some handsome young star that the network wanted, and he believes Landon succeeds because he never allows his show to become tongue-in-cheek no matter how sentimental his subject.

"There probably aren't manypeople who would have the guts to do it straight," French said gruffly between takes on the show's set. That day the crew was at Hamilton High School, filming an episode about drug abuse among teen-agers. "I went home (one day) and started watching one of our shows that had a quadriplegic actor in it, and I started crying. I thought, 'Thank God, I'm in a show in which that actor is able to do that (role).' "

Landon said "Highway to Heaven" never runs out of material because the show focuses on universal emotional truths rather than headline issues. "We're not a forum show," he said.

"Everybody is doing the issue story, the AIDS story--we're beaten to death with AIDS, the same way we were beaten to death by this whole period of 'Don't talk to strangers; don't let Uncle Harry touch you.' It went to the point of causing paranoia in children. Writers come in and want to (write scripts about) teen suicide--I'm afraid that can just be a trigger. It's an area that scares me."

Landon's associates say another key to the show's longevity is his ability to apply the smooth-traffic theory to his role as executive producer. Landon believes that treating his cast and crew as a family is the best way to produce programs on schedule and under budget. "Even the guy who brings our coffee reads every script," French said.

The deal for "Highway" staffers is sweet: Unlike the 16-hour days which are routine for most series' staffs, Landon's crew usually makes it home for dinner with their families. Series stars get bigger salaries, but no extra perks or special treatment on the set. Staffers get three weeks off for Christmas and another three-week break during shooting season. And if the show comes in under budget at the end of the season, each staffer takes home a bonus from the surplus cash.

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