Highway to Heaven

Highway to Heaven
Season 3, Episode 15 “Wally”
The episode aired Jan 14, 1987

Michael Landon as Jonathan Smith
Victor French as Mark Gordon
Dick Van Dyke as Wally Dunn

This series centers on Jonathan Smith (An angel who died as a human 40 years ago. He was given a new body on becoming an angel. So doesn’t appear as he did when he was alive on earth.) and his partner Mark Gordon (an ex-cop who is human). They go on assignments, driving around in their beat-up car, from God helping people. It aired for 5 seasons from 1984 to 1989. It was a groundbreaking show and tackled numerous social and moral problems. It paved the way for future series such as Touched by an Angel.

You can watch this episode below:

The show opens with a puppet act:

Bum: Well that’s our show for tonight. Ya learn anything, Mr. Rich?
Mr. Rich: Not a thing. I’m rich cause I work hard. You’re poor cause you didn’t.
Bum: Ya just weren’t listening were ya. That’s why ya didn’t get the message.
Mr. Rich: What message?
Bum: There but for the grace of God go I.
Mr. Rich: Ah don’t give me that stuff ya bum. That’s all ya are just a bum.
Bum: That’s right, just a bum. Ya look at us and that’s all ya see. Ya never listen. It’s easier to say we’re just bums, just bums. I wasn’t born a bum. Maybe I was abused when I was a child. Maybe my parents were alcoholics or druggies. Maybe I fought for this country and saw too much death. Maybe I’m sick and need help. Maybe… never mind. I know it’s easier to say we’re just bums.

Wally is an elderly hobo. He’s also a street puppeteer. He is Jonathan and Mark’s latest assignment from God.

He gives his friend Pauly, the blind man, the $5 the rich couple gave him. Wally tells him to get a room because his cough is getting worse. Then he sees Pauly go into the liquor store to buy alcohol.

Wally lives in an old abandoned train boxcar.

Jonathan and Mark introduce themselves. Wally offers them some food and tells them they’re welcome to spend the night.

The next morning Jonathan, Mark, and Wally go visit the house of a very sick boy. Wally performs a little puppet show for the kid. The boy tells Wally he’s now sure what Wally told him about Heaven. Wally tells him Jonathan and Mark are angels too (to pretend). The boy asks Jonathan if he’s an angel and he says “I swear to God I’m an angel.” The boy asks Wally what heaven will be like. Wally says: it will be like being a bird, flying, free and happy. Wind blowing in your face. Joy in your heart. Boy asks “No more pain Wally?” Wally says “No, no more pain. It’s heaven.”

They then travel to an old folks’ home and Wally performs to the delighted residents. The home’s director tells Jonathan and Mark that Wally has been performing there 3 times a week for 3 years.

They then go visit Sylvia. She’s a longtime friend of Wally who used to live on the streets. She had a bad stroke and can no longer talk. Mark asks how she ended up on the street. Wally says a day before her sweet 16th birthday party her father molested her, it went on for a long time, she went into mental hospitals several times. Then she started living on the street. Wally tells them that he pays for Sylvia to stay at the care home.

Later that evening, as Wally is performing on the street his friend Margaret, who also lives on the street, approaches. She had a job and her own apartment. She quit her job. Wally asks her why and she says she doesn’t deserve it. She’s nothing. Margaret walks away saying she’s taking the night train. Wally said she thought she’d make it this time. Mark says, “She had her chance.” and Wally says “Ya. She hates herself too much to take it.” Next, they hear a commotion at the nearby liquor store and they arrive to find Margaret shot by the owner for trying to steal. She tells Wally not to get an ambulance, “I’m not worth it.” Wally tells her she’s a wonderful person. Margaret tells Wally to take care of her pumpkin then she dies. Wally is devastated.

Mark, Jonathan, and Wally go back to the boxcar. Wally says “Ya know what I wish? I wish I could’ve gotten Margaret to believe that she was a wonderful person. That she was somebody of worth. That she was loved. I wish she couldn’ve believed.” Jonathan says “She believes it now. She’s with her Father. She feels love now. Far more than she ever could’ve here on earth.” Wally says “You really believe that? You’re really sure of it?” Jonathan says “Yeah.” Wally says “I want to believe that. I want to believe that everything I feel inside is true. But sometimes things happen, I wonder. Yes, why? Why Margaret? Why couldn’t she be happy? She went through so much. She never hurt anybody but herself.” Jonathan says “Because she couldn’t accept the love that she needed. Not yours, not God’s. None of us can make it alone Wally. None of us are strong enough. Don’t be afraid to believe what you feel in your heart. There’s more truth there than you’ll ever find in your mind.” Wally says “You’re really sure aren’t ya about all that?” Jonathan says “Wally, I’m very sure.” Wally says “How? How can you be so sure?” Jonathan says “Because I’ve touched the face of God.” Wally goes to bed.

The next morning Wally shows them the money he’s sending in for life insurance. He says it’s to pay for Sylvia’s care in case anything happens to them. Wally says they’re going to check on Stevie. As they arrive he finds Stevie being taken away by ambulance. The cop tells them he’s being taken to St. James Hospital. Jonathan, Mark, and Wally rush over there. They arrive at the Intensive Care Unit. Stevie’s parents are sitting outside. Wally says he heard about Stevie and asks how he’s doing. His father says Stevie is in a coma and they don’t expect him to come out of it. Wally asks if he can see Stevie and his mother agrees. Jonathan and Wally enter Stevie’s room. Wally says “First Margaret. Now my little Stevie. God, please, let this boy…You’ve worked miracles before. Work one now. Let him live. His life is just beginning. Please, God! God take me instead. My life’s nearly over, and full. Please, let him live.” Wally asks to be left alone and walks away. Mark says “It’s tonight isn’t it?” Jonathan says “Yeah.” Mark says “That’s the way it’s supposed to be Jonathan, but isn’t there a chance?” Jonathan says “No Mark. Wally’s one of the chosen ones. His prayer will be answered tonight.”

Wally’s friend Pauly is in the liquor store buying alcohol when suddenly a man comes in and pulls out a gun and asks for money. The owner of the liquor store pulls out a gun and the man takes Pauly hostage. Wally is performing his puppet show when he hears someone yell “He’s got a gun! He’s got, Pauly!” Wally runs to the liquor store. The liquor store owner confronts the robber outside who has his gun aimed at Pauly. Wally tackles the gunman and at that instant, the liquor store owner shoots striking Wally. The liquor store owner calls for an ambulance. The ambulance comes and drives towards the hospital.

Suddenly Jonathan appears inside the ambulance. Jonathan calls Wally’s name as he caresses his face. Wally says “Jonathan?” Jonathan says “You were a real hero tonight Wally.” Jonathan says “Pauly? Is he ok?” Jonathan says “Pauly’s fine.” Wally says “When I saw that gun! Quite a thing about Margaret, Stevie, and now Pauly. All the people I love.” Jonathan says “They love you.” Wally says “I’m hurt bad huh?” Jonathan says “Ya.” Wally says “I don’t feel any pain.” The medic says to his partner “He’s delirious. He’s talking to himself.” Wally says “What’s he talking about delirious. I’m talking to my friend here!” Jonathan says “He can’t see me, Wally. They can’t see or hear me.” Wally says “Jonathan you’ve been drinking some of that cheap vodka!” Jonathan says “No Wally. I’m an angel.” Wally says “An angel. An angel?” Jonathan says “That’s right.” “And you know because you touched the face of God.” Jonathan says “And so will you tonight. And when you do your prayer will be answered.” Wally says “Prayer?” Jonathan says “See I’m an angel now. But you’ve been an angel your whole life. And because of that, your special prayer will be answered.” Wally says “It’s little Stevie! He’s not gonna die?” Jonathan says “Oh no, he’s going to live Wally.” Wally says “And it’s all true?” Jonathan says “Just the way you always knew it was in your heart. Gimme your hand, Wally.” Jonathan takes Wally’s hand. Wally says “Oh! Jonathan! Jonathan! Our Father!” Just as Wally says that his heart monitor flatlines indicating he just died. The medic says to his partner “Slow down Harry. He’s gone. Poor old guy. Just a bum who wasted his life.”

At that moment we see Stevie’s heart monitor and it begins to increase more and more. It jumps from 34 to 115 beats per minute.” The nurse says Stevie is out of the coma and is calling for his mother.

Sometime later, we see Jonathan and Mark arrive at Stevie’s house. Mark asks how Stevie is. His mother says “Healthy and hungry! It’s a miracle! The doctors, everybody, it’s all they can say. I mean it’s not just remission, it’s gone! I mean just it has to be a miracle, there’s just no other explanation!” Jonathan says “No there isn’t.” Mark explains that they brought Wally’s little dog as a gift for Stevie. Wally wanted the boy to have it earlier, but the boy objected since he didn’t believe he had long to live. Stevie comes out of his bedroom and says “John Silver! Wally said you had him out here. Wally’s going on a long trip. He stopped by to say so long and he said you were bringing the pup over!” They enter his bedroom and see no one there. Stevie says “Said he was taking a real special trip.” Stevie shows the puppet and says that Wally gave it to him and that his name is Wally too. Stevie’s mother looks astonished.

The show ends with a shot of the puppet and Wally says “I wasn’t born a bum. Maybe… never mind. I know. It’s easier to say we’re just bums.”

This episode was heartwarming and touching. It made me laugh and cry. Dick Van Dyke gives a very strong performance. Also excellent, as always, performances by Michael Landon and Victor French. Wally was an example of faith in action. His caring, compassion and agape love for those he met made him truly Christ-like. This is one of my favorite episodes of the series! I highly recommend it.

By the way, Dick Van Dyke is the only one of the episode’s 3 stars who are still alive. Dick is 96 and still working as an actor! I doubt a show like Highway to Heaven would be made today. The world of entertainment has gotten so much more wicked and depraved! I even highly doubt the show Touched By Angel would be able to be made today. That show ended nearly 18 years ago. A generation. I’m thankful that we can enjoy wholesome TV series such as The Waltons, Bonanza, Little House, Highway to Heaven, and Touched by an Angel!

I should mention that Michael Landon and Victor French have amazing chemistry together. I can’t think of another acting pair that were so well in sync with their performances. You could see that they were best friends in real life. They had the same fantastic chemistry in the Little House series.

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 meeting and ultimately partnering with Mark Gordon, played by Victor French. At first distrustful of Jonathan, Mark, a former Oakland police officer, eventually 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 a few years earlier on another classic family show, Little House on the Prairie, based on the books by 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 opening theme song, Highway to Heaven aimed at trying to make all of us better. Its 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 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 tied to 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 a 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. 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 newer ones like 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 know. 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.


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