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Michael Landon Adopted His Stepkids & Gave up the One Who ‘Really’ Did Not Know ‘Reason Why’ He Was Rejected

Esther NJeri
Mar 15, 2022
12:40 P.M.
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Michael Landon was popular with his large family and loved his adopted sons as much as his biological ones. Sadly one of his sons, Jason, did not get to experience a father's love, and he never learned the reason for the rejection.

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Michael Landon became famous as Little Joe Cartwright on the iconic western TV show "Bonanza" and the frontier father-knows-best on "Little House on the Prairie."

The drama series won Landon a Golden Globe, while the show itself bagged several awards, including four Emmy wins and 16 nominations. However, despite the fame, he maintained quite a low-key personal life.

The cast of the television series "Little House on the Prairie" on the set of the show in the mid 1970s. [Left] Michael Landon who played Charles Philip Ingalls on the show. [Right] | Source: Getty Images

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LANDON'S MARRIAGES AND HIS BROOD

Landon was married three times and had nine children. In marrying his first wife, Dodie Levy Fraser, a legal secretary six years his senior, he became a father to Fraser's 12-year-old son Mark from her previous marriage. 

Soon after, the couple adopted Josh as an infant. Regrettably, the marriage was failing, and as Fraser's desperate attempt at saving it, she adopted a third son Jason in May of 1961. However, the union was too far gone, and ten months later, the couple separated. 

They got divorced in 1962, and a year later, Landon married his second wife, Marjorie Lynn Noe, an actress. She also had a child, Cheryl, from a previous marriage, who Landon gladly took under his wing. 

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Michael Landon with his wife, Lynn, and their young daughter in August 1965. | Source: Getty Images

Noe went on to have four more kids with Landon, Christopher, Shawna, Michael Jr., and Leslie. Their marriage lasted close to two decades before they got divorced in 1982. 

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That same year Landon married his third wife Cindy Clerico, a makeup artist for his "Little House on the Prairie" costars, including Melissa Gilbert. With Clerico, Landon had two more children, Sean and Jennifer. 

Some of the Landon children followed in his footsteps. For instance, Mark appeared in "Goodbye America." Unfortunately, he passed on in 2009 in West Hollywood.

Michael Landon, wife Cindy Landon, daughter Jennifer Landon and son Sean Landon on July 29, 1989 | Source: Getty Images

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Christopher is a screenwriter, and even though he has been in the movie scenes since he was a child, he much prefers writing to acting. Landon's son Michael Jr. is also a producer and a director. 

While most of Landon's children turned out fine, Landon struggled with raising Cheryl, who had a stint with drug addiction in her late teens. Landon often recalled wishing Cheryl did not exist, thinking to himself, as Newsner reports:

"If she didn't exist, I wouldn't feel all this pain."

Michael Landon with his daughter, Jennifer, and son, Sean attend "The Wizard" Universal City Premiere on December 2, 1989, in Universal City, California. | Source: Getty Images

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And even though Cheryl did eventually go to rehab and come out clean, Landon would live with the guilt of his thoughts for years to come. However, their relationship was good, and Cheryl cherished her father until he took his last breath.

A TRAGIC TURN FOR JASON

After Landon and Fraser separated, Fraser got custody of their three children, but she struggled with raising them alone. Through her hairdresser, Mary Ethel Sharknock, Fraser eventually learned of an empty-nester Texan couple, Bill and Alma Smith. 

They were eager to fill their sunset years with the laugh of a child, and so they drove to L.A. to meet Jason. Shortly after their arrival, Fraser drove over to Sharknock's home, strutted across the lawn, handed over 3-year-old Jason to Alma, and drove off. 

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Christopher Landon and date, Sean Landon, Jennifer Landon, Cindy Clerico, actor Michael Landon, Michael Landon Jr. and date, Mark Landon, Leslie Landon and Shawna Landon on July 29, 1989 at Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, California | Source: Getty Images

According to Smith's daughter, Dorothy, "Dodie just gave Jason away." She recalled how he could barely speak during the first few days living with her parents. She shared:

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"When he first came, he couldn't even put sentences together. He would look at Mother, point, and say, 'Dress. Pretty.' The thing I remember is that he never mentioned a mother or a daddy, and he never cried for one."

Dorothy retold how mesmerized Jason had been with the lights as if he had spent his life in the dark. Jason himself held feeble memories of the first years of his life. He recalled they had a dog and that as a child, he loved playing in a sandbox. 

Headshot of American actor Michael Landon smiling in costume from the television series, "The Little House On The Prairie." | Source: Getty Images.

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Jason also had distant memories of "a man…somebody throwing me up in the air and catching me…tall, dark hair." Life with the Smiths was a relatively happy period in Jason's life until the death of Bill cut his childhood joy short.

A few weeks later, Jason learned that he was adopted from Landon, a discovery that shook him to the core. Over the years, Jason slowly began piecing together the truth about the Landons rejecting him. He told People, with a cracking voice:

"The bottom line is that basically, I was just handed over. But I really don't know—really—the reason why."

US actor, director and writer Michael Landon dressed for his role in the TV series "Bonanza" in 1960. | Source: Getty Images.

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When he was a little younger, the Landon family doctor remarked about Landon "getting girls pregnant," and so for the longest time, everyone assumed Jason was Landon's biological son. 

Jason's classmates who caught wind of this at school even began taunting him, calling him "Little Joe." It was thus surprising for Jason when his efforts to reach out to Landon and Fraser, albeit halfheartedly, went unanswered. 

US actor, director and writer Michael Landon wearing a cowboy hat for his role in the TV series 'Bonanza' in 1960. | Source: Getty Images.

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His final attempt at reaching out was when he learned that Landon had cancer. He sent a letter through a friend, but that too did not prompt any response from the Landons. Jason mused:

"I didn't want his money. All I wanted was to just meet him and talk with him." 

Fraser, who remarried in 1976, would not comment on Jason's situation. Her son Josh gave a statement that said that Jason had been relatively new to the family during his parent's divorce. 

Michael Landon in a publicity portrait issued for the US television series, "Bonanza," circa 1970. | Source: Getty Images

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It had seemed more thoughtful to find him a more permanent family situation. And even though Landon remained quiet about Jason's case, he undoubtedly was affectionate about him.

He reportedly knew an awful lot about Jason, almost like someone had been contacting him with information about his son. Landon passed on without ever making contact with Jason. And the young man wistfully wondered how different things could have been. He said:

"I do often wonder what it would have been like to have been Jason Landon all my life."

Michael Landon in Hollywood, California, circa 1990. | Source: Getty Images

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AFTER LANDON'S DEATH

In 1991, the world lost one of the most adored actors. But his family felt the pinch most. Three months before his unfortunate demise, Landon had come clean about his pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

However, he had shown earlier signs, as his daughter, Leslie, who Landon had walked down the aisle only months earlier, would recall. He had terrible stomach pains in the months leading to the diagnosis, but he often ignored them, hoping they would disappear. 

Unfortunately, his health quickly deteriorated, and a month after the diagnosis, the tumor in his pancreas doubled in size and spread to his liver, making it inoperable and terminal. In July of 1991, he passed on with his wife Clerico by his side. 

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Actor Michael Landon and wife Cindy Landon attend the Malibu Committee for Incorporation's "The Tides of March" - The First and Last Annual Malibu Right to Vote Party. March 17, 1990 | Source: Getty Images

His family laid him to rest at a private family mausoleum at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California. Leslie says the most significant takeaway from her dad's demise is always to prioritize one's health. She shared:

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"Because we knew how my dad was with his own health, we kids do the opposite. We're like, 'Something doesn't seem right, let's look into it.'"

After his death, all his children stood to receive 8-10 million dollars. Even so, Jason did not plan to press the family for any money as they mourned their loss in the years that followed. 

Jennifer Landon attends the New York premiere of 'The Front Runner' at the Museum of Modern Art on October 30, 2018, in New York City. | Source: Getty Images.

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To cope, Clerico and her kids began going to therapy once a week and reading the letters Landon had left behind, which helped them remain "strong and solid."

In 2015, Clerico purchased a beautiful Malibu beach house for $7.5 million, intending to renovate and then move into it. Still, once she completed the renovations, she could not bring herself to leave behind all the memories she shared with Landon. She told Forbes:

"I had every intention of moving into the home, but when it came time to move, I realized I wasn't ready to sell and move from the home Michael and I built together—and where [our] children were raised."

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Michael Landon, wife Cindy Landon and son Sean Landon at the Moscow Circus Opening Night Performance on March 14, 1990 at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood | Source: Getty Images

She ended up listing her newly renovated home in 2018 for $18 million with the help of her son Sean, a Coldwell Banker listing agent. The house was a five-bedroom, six-bathroom beach house with a magical ocean view.

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