'Highway to Heaven' 30 years later: Remembering a show about something

(COMMENTARY) What if you met a man who told you he was an angel? Would you believe him?

That was the premise of the groundbreaking NBC show Highway to Heaven, which ended its five-season run 30 years ago on August 4, 1989. The 111-episode series featured actor Michael Landon in the role of Jonathan Smith, a man who died 40 years earlier and was back on Earth as an angel on probation to do good work on God’s behalf. In the series, God was referred to as “the boss.”

Sure, this feel-good series was corny at times, but it did a beautiful job tackling the belief of divine providence. God’s intervention in the universe, through the use of miracles and power of prayer, is a constant of denominations across Christendom, including Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism. Martin Luther, for example, wrote that divine providence began the moment God created the world, including both among physical things and natural laws. In the show, this very concept was referred to as “the stuff.”

Contrast the end of the series to the start another television show 30 years that also aired on NBC and went on to achieve greater popularity and cultural staying power. The show in question, Seinfeld, was a “show about nothing” that featured four self-centered New Yorkers who complained about everything and everyone. The characters, while funny to watch, really had no redeeming values. The only “religion” they seemed to rally around was the made-up holiday of “festivus.”

Before there was festivus for the rest of us, Highway to Heaven was a show about something, where an angel helped everyone — or at least he tried to. The series premiered in September 1984 — in the middle of what many call “the decade of greed” — and revolved around Landon, who played Jonathan Smith, meeting and partnering with Mark Gordon, played by Victor French. At first distrustful of Jonathan, Mark, a former Oakland police officer, joins forces with the angel to help troubled souls each week.

“I was driving through Beverly Hills to pick up my kids on a Friday night,” Landon told the Los Angeles Times in 1988, recalling how he came to create the series, “and people were honking at each other. There is no worse place for that than Beverly Hills; I think when people have a little bit more money, they really believe that the Red Sea will part and their car will go forward. And I thought, ‘Why is everybody so angry? If they would just spend that same time being nice… It's obvious the flow of traffic is going to go much better if everybody has his opportunity.’”

Landon, famous for his role on the 1960s TV hit Bonanza, and French had co-starred together on another classic family show, Little House on the Prairie, based on the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. That series, which ran from 1974 to 1983, took place in the late 1800s in the town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and recounted the hardships of a frontier family. Little House also didn’t shy away from God and religious themes during its run.

People who craved wholesome TV found Highway to Heaven to be an oasis, offering families a reprieve at a time when the culture wars were just starting to simmer. The tear-jerking show (Landon wasn’t immune to shedding some himself while playing Jonathan) highlighted the best of humanity and how God’s love can impact the lives of people in everyday situations. Landon’s character may have been an angel, but he was relatable. He didn’t have a halo or wings, but strived to help others in jeans and a beat up leather jacket. He was like us.

Despite the passage of time, the show holds up well. Concepts like goodness, charity and forgiveness don’t go out of style that easily. They are universal attributes the show wasn’t afraid to tackle thanks to Landon’s insistence and creativity. The series would go on to tackle such issues as racial discrimination, drug addiction, ageism, police brutality and pollution years before it became a regular thing on television.

With its melancholy theme song, Highway to Heaven aimed at trying to make all of us better. It message was never done in a condescending manner (the real key to this series) and wasn’t afraid to insert that divine providence so many Christians believe governs the world. The series came over a decade after the religions left, through producers like Norman Lear, tried to influence the broader culture with sit-coms like All in the Family and The Jefferson’s. Those shows were overtly political; Highway to Heaven was about humanity.  

In the two-part pilot episode, Jonathan helps a group of nursing home residents retake control of their lives. At the same time, he meets Mark for the first time and the two become friends. In another wonderful episode that aired in the fourth season around Halloween, Jonathan reveals to a boy who’s out trick-or-treating that he’s an angel.

“If there can be angels,” the boy asks, “why can’t there be werewolves?”

Jonathan replies, “God makes angels. He doesn’t make monsters.”

“That makes sense,” the boy says.

The series — currently available on Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and Christian-based PureFlix — proved prophetic for Landon. The series would be his last. Two years after the series was canceled, Landon died on July 1, 1991 at age 54 of pancreatic cancer. His co-star French had also died at 54 of lung cancer before the final season aired.

Born Eugene Maurice Orowitz on October 31, 1936 in Queens, New York, Landon’s father was Jewish and mother Roman Catholic. Raised Jewish, Landon had his acting breakthrough at age 22 playing Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza. By then, he had changed his name to Michael Landon, choosing it randomly by thumbing through the phone book. After the Western-themed Bonanza went off the air, Landon went on to produce and star in Little House, another show that highlighted America’s frontier life. The series would give the world Melissa Gilbert, who played the main character Laura.

In a 2015 interview, Gilbert said of Landon: “The overall idea that he pounded into me, from a little girl, into my brain was that nothing’s more important than home and family. No success, no career, no achievements, no accomplishments – nothing’s more important than loving the people you love and contributing to a community. Though we were working, really, really hard, we were not saving the world one episode of television at a time. We’re just entertaining people and there are more important things to do.”

Landon, a father of nine, knew something about family and family values. What Landon produced throughout most of his life did more than simply entertain millions. Highway to Heaven would go on to inspire the creation of other God-themed shows like Touched by an Angel in the 1990s and God Friended Me, which premiered last year on CBS.

Would a series like this be produced today? Would people watch it? It’s hard to predict. For now, we have those old episodes, primetime viewing back in the ‘80s available for streaming on our tablets three decades later. Times may have changed, but the goodness these shows exuded remains. Landon’s legacy lives on through this series and by highlighting the best of humanity. It was inspiring and encouraging. We’re all better for having watched it.

Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He currently teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City.