The truth behind the bogus ''attempted assassination'' of Michael Landon in 1967
The Bonanza star was more furious about the sensationalized news than the rocky incident that inspired it.
Losing Hoss was hard, and Bonanza likely wouldn't have survived the untimely death of another Cartwright brother — especially not the youngest, Little Joe.
On the show, perhaps the closest Little Joe comes to death happened in the 11th season.
In "A Matter of Circumstance," Little Joe is left alone at the Ponderosa after everybody else heads out on a cattle drive. When a wailing thunderstorm rolls in, it's up to him to hold down the fort. He doesn't anticipate the storm spooking a horse who kicks him so hard, the blow badly fractures his arm.
The episode builds to a delirious point where Little Joe actually considers cutting off his own arm because he's run out of ways to dress his wounds and worries about gangrene spreading.
"A Matter of Circumstance" aired in 1970, and it made such an impression on Little Joe actor Michael Landon that he later copied the exact plot of the episode for his next series, Little House on the Prairie. As a nod, he even named the episode "A Matter of Faith." The big difference being, this time, it wasn't his own character mulling over self-amputation.
But three years prior to that favorite episode, Landon supposedly did escape death — at least according to a false rumor unfortunately started by his own agent.
Much like that rolling thunderstorm shaking up Little Joe's quiet weekend on the Ponderosa, Michael Landon came out of nowhere and became a force to reckon with on TV. His star rose during Bonanza's run on the power of his natural talent, though, not thanks to great PR.
Unlike everybody else in the cast, Landon decided not to hire a press agent. He did everything on his own, honest and simple. Then in 1967, he simply got too popular, and he decided he wanted to hire an agent to help him manage all of his live event appearances.
And it's because of this agent, Jay Bernstein, that a rumor got started that year that someone attempted to kill Michael Landon.
It happened like this: Landon was riding in a parade in Benton Harbor, Michigan when someone threw a small rock.
The rock landed near the TV star, but it did not hit him or anyone else. Nobody saw who threw the rock.
After Landon got back from being on the road, his agent asked him if anything happened. After being pressed, Landon told him about the rock incident, and instead of seeing nothing worth mentioning, his agent saw an opportunity to get Landon in the news.
"In my aggressiveness to find a 'hook' to point out the fact that he had been on the road for a month, I called a local gossip columnist, telling him that while in Michigan (no town was mentioned) in a parade, a rock was thrown from a window at Mike's car, with no one being hurt," Landon's agent told Benton Harbor's The News Palladium in 1967. It was front-page news in the coastal Lake Michigan town.
Of course, the gossip columnist magazine saw a juicier story.
"It's been kept hush, hush, but an attempt may have been made to kill actor Michael Landon on his personal appearance tour for the Bonanza series," the columnist wrote in Screenland magazine. "As Landon was being driven through a town in Michigan a huge rock was dropped from a building. The rock narrowly missed Landon's head, but there were no injuries."
When Landon saw the story, his agent confirmed that the actor was "furious." And unfortunately, the rumor mill kept churning after that.
Because the gossip columnist never printed a retraction, a fan magazine picked it up and even fabricated a quote from Landon saying that he and his wife were nearly killed. That columnist also falsely claimed Landon's driver took a hit in the noggin from the rock meant for Landon.
The News Palladium started doing some looking into the story and exposed these lies that ultimately got Landon's agent fired.
The agent got upset at that point and fired back at the fan magazine, telling The News Palladium, "Fan magazines, in many cases, are the disdain of public relations people as they are able to print whatever they want — about whomever they choose — and say whatever they wish to. The reason for this is a legal loophole that when stars try to sue magazines that they find they are on a waiting list of over one hundred people and, through legal manipulations, it takes them several years to get to court to be able to sue the magazine."
The agent made it clear that Landon didn't give the interview or approve the story, saying, "Michael Landon is one of the fifty or so important motion picture and television stars that sell magazines. The writer obviously read the story in the Los Angeles newspaper — rewrote it to his own 'sensational' satisfaction."
The News Palladium splashed the headline across its front page: Rock Story Wasn't Little Joe's Doing – Columnist's Typewriter Goes Wild.
The actual rock-throwing incident Landon always considered a "childish prank" not worth mentioning. He told his agent that he looked "like a jackass" because he was so embarrassed by the exaggerated news.
"I am just someone who is trying to do my job to the best of my ability without hurting anybody and, to my knowledge, I have never exploited any situation in my entire life," Landon said.