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The Surprisingly Underwhelming Way Michael Landon Chose His Hollywood Name

Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images
Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images

What do celebrities Elton John, Audrey Hepburn, Vin Diesel, and Marilyn Monroe have in common? They all changed their names before becoming famous. It’s surprisingly common for people to create a ‘stage name’ when they get into showbiz, which was exactly the case for the Little House on the Prairie actor, Michael Landon.

While some celebrities have grandiose stories of how they chose their name, or used a cool childhood nickname that just seemed to stick, Landon’s story is much less exciting. He chose his stage name in arguably the most normal way possible.

Beloved ‘Little House on the Prairie’ actor

Landon’s first major Hollywood role was as Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza, which impressively ran from 1959 to 1973. He’s best known, however, for playing Charles Ingalls on the TV show Little House on the Prairie. He was loved by fans of the show, with some going so far as to call him the “heart and soul” of the series. Afterward, he went on to act as Jonathan Smith on Highway to Heaven for roughly five years.

Colored photo from 'Little House on the Prairie' with the cast sitting on a fallen tree.
Cast of Little House on the Prairie, c. 1970. (Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty Images)

He was beloved by his fans and colleagues alike, with some of his highest praise coming from his Little House co-star Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls Wilder, the second oldest daughter of Landon’s character on the show. On the 31st anniversary of his death, she lamented that he was “a principled, honorable man who believed, first and foremost in the power of love, tolerance, compassion and understanding.”

Reasons for the name change

Well before his taking on these roles that made him so famous, Michael Landon was someone else entirely. Born Eugene Maurice Orowitz, he decided to change his name when he started acting school. This was soon after landing his first role and beginning his impressive career. Landon never made it public knowledge why he changed his name, leading fans to speculate. There are two popular theories as to why he made the change.

Black and white photo of Michael Landon leaning against a post while wearing a cowboy hat
Michael Landon wearing a cowboy hat for his role in the TV series Bonanza, c. 1960. (Photo Credit: Keystone Features/ Getty Images)

The first is that he was concerned that the name Orowitz would put him on the receiving end of anti-semitism, which was still rampant in Hollywood and much of the US during his career. He had experienced this anti-semitism even in his youth from classmates, and it was no secret that many Hollywood directors still held racist views on Jewish people and actors.

The second reason might be that he had a difficult childhood, with parents who constantly fought, and a mother who was suicidal and would publicly ridicule him for wetting the bed. He may have changed his name to distance himself from those experiences and get rid of the name that he bore during those hard times.

Phonebook inspiration

Regardless of why Landon decided to pick a new name, his inspiration came from a place that contained all of the names one could ever want to know (and probably more): the phone book. He went through the pages before eventually settling on “Michael Lane,” which he thought had a nice sound. But he soon realized that there was a problem with that name, as there was already an actor called Michael Lane.

Colored photo of Michael Landon smiling at the camera in a blue shirt and tan jacket.
Michael Landon attends the Moscow Circus Opening Night Performance at the Great Western Forum, March 6, 1991. (Photo Credit: Ron Galella/ Ron Galella Collection/ Getty Images)

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Screen Actors Guild rules state that if there was already a registered actor who used a name, it couldn’t be selected by someone else. Rather than picking something entirely new, he opted to change just the last name. While searching through the phone book again, the name “Alf Landon” caught his eye, and he decided that he would become Michael Landon, now a well-known household actor.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.