Michael Landon had an uncanny ability to jerk a tear or two out of his TV audience. Even though plenty of us aren’t comfortable going all mushy or falling victim to syrupy TV operatics, whether we liked it or not, we were putty in Landon’s hands. Highway to Heaven, which Landon produced, starred in and sporadically directed, was no exception.
With two successful shows already under his belt (Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie), and supposedly inspired by the near-death car accident that a stepdaughter was involved in, Landon pitched his idea for an earthbound angel to the boys at NBC. Since the network was looking for a family program to put opposite The Fall Guy on Wednesday nights, they bought the pitch—though reluctantly, because any show devoid of car crashes and scantily clad women was an automatic underdog.
Landon played a guardian angel named Jonathan Smith (an Everyman name for an accessible, Everyman angel), who was sent back down to Earth so that he could help people. In the pilot episode, angel Smith turned a bitter ex-cop named Mark Gordon (Victor French, who was seen in Little House as well) on to the good in life, and Gordon subsequently became his right hand cherub. The two traveled around the country and told people they were itinerant workers. Jonathan was known to refer to his “Boss”—a.k.a. the Big Guy Upstairs, who apparently gave the wandering angel instructions off the air.
Jonathan made some mistakes along the way and sometimes didn’t accomplish all that he set out to do, but his heart, obviously, was always in the rightest of places. Despite all his years in Hollywood, Landon had lost none of his sentiment, none of his altruistic intent (and this was mid 80’s, remember—years not exactly brimming with humanity), and expert tear-tamer that he was, he could still make us choke up with the best of ‘em. The show was a surprisingly big hit (much bigger than that worldly The Fall Guy, thank you very much), and the angelic ministries continued for five successful seasons.
USA / NBC / x50 minute epiodes / Broadcast 19 September 1984 – 4 June 1989
Creator/Executive Producer: Michael Landon
MICHAEL LANDON as Jonathan Smith
VICTOR FRENCH as Mark Gordon