Highway to Heaven was a beloved television series that touched the hearts of audiences from 1984 to 1989. It took viewers on an emotional journey of faith, compassion, and self-discovery. Created by Little House on The Prairie star Michael Landon, the show starred Landon and Victor French as two angels on a mission to help people facing various challenges.
Jonathan Smith ( Landon), is a probationary angel sent back to earth to help people. During the series’ first episode, he meets embittered ex-policeman Mark Gordon (French). Jonathan helps reform Mark, with the grateful Mark agreeing to become Jonathan’s right-hand associate in carrying out the heavenly mission.
The two begin traveling the country as itinerant workers receiving “assignments” from God, with their mission being to deliver love, understanding, and humility to the people they encounter.
Typical episodes stressed moral, Christian themes as well as common human failings, such as egotism, bitterness and greed. Some shows addressed topics such as racism and cancer, but all left viewers with a full heart and renewed sense of hope.
Here are a deeper look at the two main characters and surprising behind-the-scenes facts about the show.
Michael Landon as Jonathan Smith
At the helm of Highway to Heaven was the incomparable Michael Landon, who not only starred as Jonathan Smith but also served as the series’ creator, writer, and director.
Landon was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz in Forest Hills, N.Y. He was granted an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California but dropped out to become an actor. He wanted this stage name to be Mike Lane, but was told by the Screen Actors Guild that that name was already taken. It was rumored that he picked his famous moniker, Michael Landon, from a telephone book. Landon made his movie debut in 1957 in I Was a Teen-Age Werewolf, now a cult classic.
Before his angelic mission in Highway, Landon had already achieved fame with iconic roles in Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. Not only did he star in those series, but he also tried his hand at writing and directing. He did all three in his role at Highway. In fact, he directed over 90 episodes in that series.
Landon was a strong-willed person, but nobody could deny his talent. During the Highway years, then-NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff paid Landon the ultimate compliment, saying, “My dream network would be 22 hours of talent like his.”
Michal Landon directed over 90 episodes of the series.
Not many people know that Landon was married three times and had nine children: sons Mark, Josh, Michael Jr., Christopher and Sean and daughters Cheryl, Leslie, Shawna and Jennifer.
Landon passed away in 1991 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was only 54 years old. “He was a busy man burning the candle at both ends,” Michael’s daughter Leslie told People of his death. “I think his own health got put on the back burner.” She said her father’s legacy was loving and accepting people for who they are. “I think he was very proud of the fact that he could bring families together to watch entertainment that was going to bring a wide range of emotions.”
Landon’s last public appearance was as a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, less than two months before he died.
Did you know? Highway to Heaven was the only series Landon starred in that was set in the present day. Both Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie were Westerns.
All three series—Little House, Bonanza, and Highway—appeared on NBC, marking a 30-year relationship between Landon and the network.
Victor French as Mark Gordon
Victor French, who played the character of Mark Gordon, added depth and humor to the show. In addition to starring in the show, French directed every third episode.
French was born in Santa Barbara to a Hollywood stuntman. Early in his career, he often played the villain due to his beard and tough look.
Before joining the cast of Highway to Heaven, French had a successful career, including his role in Little House on the Prairie alongside Michael Landon. He also had a leading role in Gunsmoke and was frequently seen in Bonanza. He also starred in the situational comedy Carter Country.
French and Landon had a long and strong friendship. French credited Landon with giving him his big break in Little House and then Highway. He referred to Landon as his career angel.
In fact, when Landon worked with NBC on developing the show, NBC pushed for a younger, more handsome actor to play Mark Gordon. However, Landon pushed hard for his friend Victor French, whom he worked with on Little House on the Prairie. But the rumor was it wasn’t just a strong friendship and working relationship that pushed Landon to pick French.
Apparently, Landon had a long history of refusing to work with better-looking actors. Back in the Bonanza days, he was even rumored to be behind Guy William’s dismissal because he was threatened by the newcomer’s good looks and charisma. When it came time to cast Highway to Heaven, Landon insisted that he would only star in the series if his friend French was cast. The character of Mark Gordon was rewritten to suit the middle-aged French.
French passed away from lung cancer in 1989 at the age of 54.
Did you know? Both Landon and French both died at the age of 54. French died two months before the final episode of Highway to Heaven aired.
While Landon and French each appeared in 111 episodes (every season from 1984 to 1989), there was a revolving door of other characters in the series. James Troesh, a quadriplegic actor, had several recurring guest appearances in the show. Ironically, Troesh also died at the age of 54. He passed in 2011 of respiratory failure.
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