HOLLYWOOD -- Brandon Tartikoff admits to having been bemused when Michael Landon first came into his office and said he wanted to follow up his nine years on "Little House on the Prairie" by writing, producing and starring in a TV series in which he would portray an angel.

"I said, 'The critics are going to have a field day with this!' " said Tartikoff, NBC's entertainment president.

"But Landon told me, 'I don't much care what they say. There are an awful lot of people out there who are trying to make people laugh; there are very few shows that can, on a regular basis, give the audience a good cry. I know I can do that -- and if I do it well, they {the audience} will be back.' "

In a recent interview here, Landon verified with a chuckle that NBC executives did not exactly jump for joy when he proposed the project. "I think they really felt it was just something I had to get out of my system," he said.

But his instincts were right. The show is "Highway to Heaven," currently airing Wednesday nights. A faithful audience, ignoring the skeptical reviews that Tartikoff had predicted, has been crying along with "Highway to Heaven" since it debuted in September 1983.

Although the show has never landed in the Top 10, "Highway" consistently corners a respectable share of the audience. Last season it ranked 25th among prime-time series with a 17.2 rating and a 27 share. This season it has dipped to 38th place with 23 percent of the audience.

Landon, 51, portrays Jonathan Smith, a man who died some 40 years ago and has returned to Earth as an angel on probation, trying to win a place in Heaven by performing good deeds. Jonathan's companion is ex-cop Mark Gordon, played by Victor French. Together, the sensitive angel with the flowing brown mane and the morose, cynical Gordon scour the globe for people in need -- consoling children with cancer, reuniting families, encouraging the disabled not to give up hope.

"Man really has an opportunity to be quite wonderful," Landon said.

This man is a Hollywood anomaly, less likely to talk of target audiences and ratings points than of his faith in human kindness and his belief in Heaven.

French -- who costarred with Landon on "Little House" and often guest-starred on "Bonanza," on which Landon starred for 14 years -- unabashedly refers to his job as "working with the man I love." He said Landon insisted on casting him as Gordon, rather than some handsome young star that the network wanted, and he believes Landon succeeds because he never allows his show to become tongue-in-cheek no matter how sentimental his subject.

"There probably aren't many people would have the guts to do it straight," French said between takes on the show's set.

Landon said "Highway to Heaven" never runs out of material because the show focuses on universal emotional truths rather than headline issues. "We're not a forum show," he said.

"Everybody is doing the issue story, the AIDS story -- we're beaten to death with AIDS, the same way we were beaten to death by this whole period of 'Don't talk to strangers; don't let Uncle Harry touch you.' It went to the point of causing paranoia in children. Writers come in and want to {write scripts about} teen suicide -- I'm afraid that can just be a trigger. It's an area that scares me."

Landon's associates say another key to the show's longevity is his ability to apply the smooth-traffic theory to his role as executive producer. Landon believes that treating his cast and crew as a family is the best way to produce programs on schedule and under budget. "Even the guy who brings our coffee reads every script," French said.

The deal for "Highway" staffers is sweet: Unlike the 16-hour days that are routine for most series' staffs, Landon's crew usually makes it home for dinner with their families. Series stars get bigger salaries, but no extra perks or special treatment on the set. Staffers get three weeks off for Christmas and another three-week break during shooting season. And if the show comes in under budget at the end of the season, each staffer takes home a bonus from the surplus cash.

"I know I couldn't do it if I had a larger organization; this is a kind of mama-papa store," Landon said. "I don't have to do much to let my people know I'm angry, but I'm not just angry for the sake of being angry, because I'm bigger than they are and know I can yell at them. To be demeaning is the worst thing you can do to a human being."

But even with a crew as happy as if it were at summer camp, just how does a show about two middle-aged guys with no love interests to speak of, with no guns, no fancy cars and no jokes, manage to remain on the air for four seasons? Landon explains that it is an affair of the heart.

"You're going to laugh or cry, one or the other -- you're not just going to watch a car chase," Landon said. "I do the kind of shows that I like to sit down and watch with my family." He has nine children.

Despite his angelic screen persona, Landon is not the most forthcoming interview subject offscreen. Years of scorn from reviewers have left him defensively professing his indifference, yet exhibiting just enough bitterness to belie his words. He can scoff at adoration from the critical community and express anger at not getting it in almost the same breath.

"I could never win an Emmy because I wouldn't enter myself in the competition in a million years; I think it's silly," he said. "When something gets hot and all the media want to cover it, it changes people. I come to work. An awful lot of people don't come to work, they come to go to cocktail parties and do interviews." Then he deadpanned without missing a beat: "Fortunately, I never have to go through that. You're the only interview I've ever had."

Landon had to fight to maintain his dignity long before "Highway"; his "Little House on the Prairie" was the butt of even more jokes in its nine years on NBC. "They were more interested in reviewing my hair, saying that I was prettier than my leading lady," Landon said. "But I don't care, I love what I do. I love the people -- that's what matters."