Let us forgive affable Barry Watson (7th Heaven) for suggesting a sign from above may have led to his co-starring role in Highway to Heaven, Lifetime’s new take on the beloved 1984–89 fantasy drama about an angel who brings light to some troubled lives. “Back in March,” he recalls, “I was flipping through channels, and [the original] Highway to Heaven was on. I watched an episode and told my wife, ‘The world needs this show right now. Why isn’t somebody doing a reboot?’ So when the script came, I was on board.” Then, citing the popular star and creator of the ’80s series, he adds, “I grew up with Michael Landon — I was such a big fan.”
The spirit of Landon’s work — and of the man himself — pervades this new film (the first of what the network hopes will be several). The actor brought inspiring stories of unity and family to television through the long-running NBC series Bonanza (1959–73), Little House on the Prairie (1974–83), and Highway to Heaven, leading to a near-record 22 appearances on the cover of TV Guide Magazine. In the latter show, Landon played understanding angel Jonathan Smith, who, with cantankerous mortal companion Mark Gordon (Victor French, Landon’s costar on Little House as well), roamed city to city armed with love and divine counsel to help lost souls through tough times.
Now, 30 years after Landon’s 1991 death from pancreatic cancer at age 54, a world fraught with challenges greets the return of Heaven’s undeniable heart. “We need some levity, sweetness, and gentle ‘Come over with the kindness,’” says actor-singer Jill Scott, who takes Landon’s role, bringing twinkle-eyed warmth to celestial being Angela Stewart. Lifting spirits is the main impetus for resurrecting Heaven in the first place. “The original series had a sense of hope and starting over no matter how bad things got, and we [could use] that now,” executive producer Rodney Ferrell says. Adds Landon’s widow, Cindy, also an EP on the project, “Michael truly believed in the importance of treating everyone with kindness and respect. I’m looking forward to seeing the [show’s themes] picked up from where he left off.”
In the film, Angela travels to Boulder, Colorado, to fill a temporary guidance counselor position at Daly Junior High School. Her motive is less about a paycheck than a purpose — aiding troubled 14-year-old Cody Grier (Ben Daon), who is acting out and failing classes he once excelled in. “Cody is stuck because he lost his mother and is not connecting with anyone,” Scott explains. With her calm, good-natured disposition, Angela steers the young man back on track and helps him reconnect with his grieving father (Robert Moloney). “Every now and again, some of us need a little extra care,” announces Angela at one point.
That also goes for Daly’s grounded principal, Bruce Banks (Watson), who, it turns out, could benefit from Angela’s guidance to move past personal roadblocks. Bruce is “somebody constantly focused on making sure everybody else is OK but not really taking care of himself,” Watson explains. “That’s gotten him through his own grief with the love of his life and his way of escaping that [pain].”
Bruce is initially impressed by his new hire, albeit a bit wary. “He has a Spidey sense there’s something [different] about Angela,” Watson says. And once he uncovers discrepancies in her work background, not to mention her amenity-free home (angels don’t require toothbrushes!), he confronts her. And he gets the truth, to his disbelief. “If someone told you they were an angel, what would your first reaction be?” asks exec producer Jonathan Baruch with a laugh. “It’d be, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” But just as with Mark Gordon in the original, Bruce is quickly won over.
That may be due in part to Angela’s “gifts,” as Scott calls them. With the approval of her heavenly boss, the angel is able to employ magical acts, from helping a droopy flower bloom to unlocking doors quite remotely. Just don’t expect grandiose sci-fi–heavy gestures à la WandaVision. “It’s more of an energy that’s a very slight thing,” she explains. “I thought her gifts would be best served if they were gentle.”
Also gentle in this new Highway to Heaven is the very accessible message (reminiscent of Landon’s series) that angels may be closer than we think. “I really hope people will find the angel inside themselves and be a beacon of light for the people they know — loved ones as well as strangers,” Scott says. “A little kindness goes a long way. Even a tiny bit is good.” Can we get an amen?
Highway to Heaven, Movie Premiere, Saturday, November 6, 8/7c, Lifetime
This is an excerpt from TV Guide Magazine’s latest issue. For more, pick up the issue, on newsstands Thursday, October 21.