"It's like My Three
Sons in the old west."
- W.J. Flywheel, Webporium
Bonanza was a western
television series which aired on NBC from September 12, 1959 until
January 16, 1973, for 430 episodes. Bonanza was the first network TV
series to film all of its episodes in color. The main sponsor of
Bonanza was Chevrolet and the stars all appeared endorsing their vehicles.
The show was hardly an
instant success. For its first two seasons, Bonanza struggled
in the ratings, kept on the air mainly because it was filmed in
color. Color TV was a new phenomena at that time, and RCA (NBCs
parent company) wanted a show that would encourage viewers to
purchase the new television sets. Early episodes included many shots
of the beautiful LakeTahoe area as well as sets and costumes that
featured rich, dark colors. Bonanza languished on Saturday night for
two years before NBC chose to move it to a Sunday night time slot.
On Sunday night, the show
found an audience and became a hit. For 10 of its 14 year run,
Bonanza was consistently in the top 10 of all rated TV shows, and
from 1964 to 1967, it was the single most watched television program
in America. In terms of longevity, the show was the second-most
popular western in the history of television, behind Gunsmoke.
Acclaimed director Robert Altman (Nashville) directed several early
episodes of the show.
The success of Bonanza was
due to more than a move to Sunday night, however. After the initial
seasons, Lorne Greene persuaded the producers to soften his character
from a stern disciplinarian to a more understanding and wise father.
Roberts, Blocker and Landon also "fleshed out" their
characters, giving them more depth and complexity. More attention was
paid to the scripts, also, moving from rather simplistic stories to
more interesting tales. In many ways, Bonanza was ahead of its time.
The show dealt with then-controversial issues, such as racial
prejudice, wife abuse, psychological problems, drug and alcohol
abuse, and mercy killing. The writers also kept the viewers
interested by offering contrasting shows. One week, a episode would
be a compelling drama and the next week, the episode would have a
comedic theme. Such was the excellence of the cast that the four
stars handled drama and comedy with equal ease. Each actor had the
ability to create a scene filled with tension or heart-wrenching
tenderness, then turn around and send the audience into gales of
laughter with hilarious misadventures.
Bonanza got its name from
the Comstock Lode which was "an exceptionally large and rich
mineral deposit" of silver. Virginia City was founded directly
over the lode and was mined for 19 years. Ponderosa was an
alternative title of the series, often used for the broadcast of
syndicated reruns in the 1970s and 1980s.
The show chronicled the
weekly adventures of the Cartwright family, headed by widowed
patriarch Ben Cartwright (played by Lorne Greene). He had three
biological sons, each by a different wives: the oldest was Adam
(Pernell Roberts); the second was Eric, better known to viewers by
his nickname of "Hoss" (Dan Blocker); and the youngest was
Joseph or "Little Joe" (Michael Landon). The family's cook
was the Chinese immigrant Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung). Via
flashback episodes, each wife was accorded a different ethnicity:
English (Season 2 "Elizabeth My Love"), Swedish
(Season 3 "Inger My Love") and French Creole (Season
4 "Marie My Love") respectively.
My Three Wives
Ben Cartwright was originally the first
mate aboard the ship of his first father-in-law who lived on the East
Coast of the United States, presumably New England. He married
Elizabeth Stoddard, daughter of Abel Morgan Stoddard, a sea captain.
Elizabeth gave birth to his first son, Adam, but died in childbirth
just hours after Adam's birth. While heading west, Ben was married to
Inger, a native of Sweden. She was the mother of Ben's second son,
Eric, who was nicknamed "Hoss" from birth. Weeks after,
during a Native American attack, Inger was shot by an arrow while
trying to defend the group by taking a dead man's gun and shooting.
When Adam was at least twelve and Hoss was around six years old, Ben
married Marie, a French American from New Orleans. Marie gave birth
to their third and final son, Joseph, who was known as "Little
Joe". Marie, however, was killed in a horse accident when Little
Joe was less than five years old.
Adam's mother Elizabeth was played by
Geraldine Brooks (above left, October 29th, 1925 June 19th,
1977). Brooks was an American actress whose three-decade career on
stage as well as in films and on television was noted with
nominations for an Emmy in 1962 and a Tony in 1970. Brooks guest
starred on Richard Diamond, Private Detective, and The Fugitive, both
starring David Janssen as well as Have Gun - Will Travel, Perry
Mason, Ironside, The Defenders, Dr. Kildare, Mr. Novak, Ben Casey,
Gunsmoke, The Outer Limits, Combat!, It Takes A Thief, Daniel Boone
and Kung Fu. She played the role of Arden Dellacorte in 1971 on the
CBS daytime soap opera Love of Life and starred as the overweight
owner of a delicatessen opposite James Coco in the short-lived 1976
situation comedy The Dumplings, her final role. Brooks died of a
heart attack while battling cancer at Central Suffolk Hospital in
Riverhead, New York.
Inga Swenson (above center) played
"Hoss's" mother Inger and was born on December 29th, 1932
in Omaha, Nebraska, USA. She is an actress, known for The Miracle
Worker (1962) and Advise & Consent (1962), and to a later
generation in the atypical role of tart-tongued, German-accented
executive housekeeper Gretchen Kraus on the popular 1980s TV series
Benson (ABC-TV 1979-1986). The thick accent required of the character
led many fans at the time to mistakenly believe Swenson was actually
German, when in real life she speaks perfect English.
Felicia Farr (above right) played Little
Joe's mother Marie and was born on October 4th, 1932 in Westchester
County, New York, USA as Olive Dines. Farr appeared in several
modeling photo shoots and advertisements during the 1950s and 1960s.
Her earliest screen appearances date from the mid-1950s and included
the Westerns Jubal (1956) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957), both starring
Glenn Ford and The Last Wagon (1956) starring Richard Widmark. Lee
Farr was her first husband, a marriage which produced a daughter,
Denise Farr, who later became the wife of actor Don Gordon. Farr's
second husband was film star Jack Lemmon; they married in 1962, while
Lemmon was filming the comedy Irma La Douce in Paris, and remained
married until his death in 2001. Farr's later films include the bawdy
Billy Wilder farce Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) with Dean Martin and Ray
Walston as her husband, a role originally intended for Lemmon; Walter
Matthau's daughter-in-law in Kotch (1971, Lemmon's only film as
director); the Don Siegel bank-heist caper Charley Varrick (1973)
also with Matthau; plus more than 30 television series appearances
including The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Ben Casey, Burke's Law, and many others.
Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright
in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, to Russian-Jewish parents, Lorne Greene
(below left) was chosen to play widowed patriarch Ben Cartwright.
Greene began acting while attending Queen's University in Kingston,
where he also acquired a knack for broadcasting with the Radio
Workshop of the university's Drama Guild on the campus radio station
CFRC. He gave up on a career in chemical engineering and, upon
graduation, found a job as a radio broadcaster for the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) where he was assigned as the principal
newsreader on the CBC National News. The CBC gave him the nickname
"The Voice of Canada".
Greene appeared in all but twelve Bonanza
episodes. Greene was 44 years old at the beginning of the series
while Pernell Roberts and Dan Blocker, who portrayed two of his sons,
were both 31, only thirteen years younger.
In 2007, a TV Guide survey listed Ben
Cartwright as television's #2 favorite dad. Following
the program's cancellation, Lorne Greene did two short-lived series
"Griff" and "Battlestar Galactica", as well as
narrating a wild life series "Last of the Wild" from
1974 to 1975 and appearing in the 1977 miniseries Roots, playing the
first master of Kunta Kinte, John Reynolds. Greene's typecasting as a
wise father character continued with the 1981 series, Code Red as a
Fire Department Fire Chief whose command includes his children as
subordinates. Greene also made an appearance with Michael Landon on
an episode of Highway to Heaven.
Greene was married to Rita Hands of
Toronto in 1938, they divorced in 1960, and had two children, twins
born in 1945, Belinda and Charles. His second wife was Nancy Deale
(19611987, Greene's death), with whom he had one child,
Gillian, born in 1968. Greene died on September 11th, 1987 at age 72
of complications from pneumonia, following ulcer surgery, in Santa
Monica, California. Weeks before his death, he had signed to appear
in a revival of Bonanza, whose storyline included characters played
by his own daughter Gillian, along with Michael Landon, Jr.
Pernell Roberts as Adam Cartwright
Born in Waycross, Georgia, Pernell Roberts
(above right) played eldest son Adam, an architectural engineer with
a university education. Adam built the impressive ranch house.
Roberts disdained the assembly-line mindset of serial television (a
rigid 34 episode season), and fought with series writers regarding
Adam's lack of independence, noting that his 30-plus year old
character was dependent on his "Pa's" approval. Despite the
show's success, Roberts departed the series after the 196465
season and returned to stage productions.
Attempts to replace Adam with Little Joe's
maternal half-brother Clay (Barry Coe) and Cartwright cousin Will
(Guy "Zorro" Williams, above left), were unsuccessful.
Creator David Dortort introduced a storyline that would keep the
character of Adam in the mix, but with a lighter schedule. During
season five Adam falls for a widow with a young daughter, while
making Will Cartwright a central figure. Roberts decided to stay an
additional season, so the scripts were quickly revised by having
Adam's fiancee and her daughter depart the series prematurely with
Guy Williams' Will, with whom she'd fallen in love. It was Landon,
not Roberts, who objected to the infusion of any new Cartwrights.
After Roberts did leave the following year, it was eventually
mentioned that Adam had gone "to sea", and in the later
movies he had emigrated to Australia. In mid 1972, the series
producers considered inviting Roberts back in the wake of Dan
Blocker's death: "One suggestion was to return Pernell Roberts,
who had played another Cartwright son when Bonanza first premiered on
NBC fourteen years ago. We only considered that briefly, [producer
Richard] Collins says... "Some people felt it was a logical
step, the oldest son returning at a time of family need, but most of
us didn't think it would work."
would return to TV fame in the 1970s with "Trapper John
MD". The series focuses on the character of Dr.
"Trapper" John McIntyre 28 years after his discharge from
the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) in the Korean War.
The show ran on CBS from September 23rd, 1979, to September 4th,
1986. Roberts played the character more than twice as long as had
Wayne Rogers (19721975) in the series M*A*S*H. Legally, the
show is considered a spin-off the original motion picture, MASH,
rather than the M*A*S*H television series. This is due to a court
case in which the producers of the television series sought royalty
payments on the grounds that Trapper John, M.D. was a spin-off of
their series. The court found, however, that the series was a
spin-off of the original movie itself an adaptation of Richard
Hooker's MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. As a result, the
producers of the M*A*S*H series did not receive any royalties from
Trapper John, M.D., with the common threads being 20th Century Fox
Television as producers of both the M*A*S*H television series and
Trapper John, M.D., and the movie studio in general producing both
series and the film MASH.
Dan Blocker Eric
Blocker was 6-foot-4, 320-pounds when chosen to play the gentle
middle son Eric, better known as Hoss. The nickname was used as a nod
to the character's ample girth, an endearing term for "big and
friendly", used by his Swedish mother (and Uncle Gunnar). In the
Bonanza flashback, his mother Inger names him Eric after her father.
To satisfy young Adam, Inger and Ben agree to try the nickname Hoss
and "see which one sticks." Inger says of "Hoss",
"In the mountain country, that is the name for a big, friendly
man." The show's crew found Blocker to be the "least
actor-ish as well as the most likeable" cast member. According
to producer David Dortort: "Over the years he gave me the least
amount of trouble."
In May 1972, Blocker died suddenly from a
post-operative pulmonary embolism following surgery to remove his
gall bladder. The producers felt nobody else could continue the role.
It was the first time a TV show's producers chose to kill off a young
major male character (though it was done twice previously with young
female leads, in 1956 on Make Room For Daddy, and again in 1963 with
The Real McCoys). Not until the TV movie Bonanza: The Next Generation
was it explained that Hoss had drowned attempting to save a woman's life.
Although "big and lovable",
Blocker (below left) was also tough. Several years after his death,
Michael Landon was on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson"
and related the following anecdote. It seems that during the shooting
of one episode, Blocker's horse stumbled and fell, throwing Blocker
and breaking his collarbone. Blocker got up and the bone was actually
protruding from his skin. The crew wanted to call an ambulance but
Blocker refused and stuck the bone back in place himself and resumed
filming. At the end of the day he was convinced to go to the hospital
where they set the broken bone and gave him strict instructions, no
riding for six weeks. According to Landon, evidently Blocker's horse
forgot what it was like to carry the big man during his convalescence
because the first time that Blocker swung up into the saddle on his
return, the horse collapsed under his weight and the cast and crew
collapsed in fits of laughter.
Joseph "Little Joe" Cartwright
The role of "Little Joe" was
given to Michael Landon, above right), who had earlier starred in
movies "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" (1957) and "High
School Confidential" (1958) as well as a number of TV series
including "The Restless Gun", "The Rifleman" and
"Wanted: Dead or Alive", starring Steve McQueen. Landon
portrayed the youngest Cartwright son, whose mother (Felicia in the
pilot, and later changed to Marie) was of French Creole descent.
Landon was 22 when he starterd the show and receiving more fan mail
than any other cast member. Using this popularity he negotiated with
executive producer David Dortort and NBC to write and direct some
episodes. In 1962, Landon wrote his first script. In 1968, Landon
directed his first episode. Most of the episodes Landon wrote and
directed were dramas, including the two-hour, "Forever"
(1972), which was recognized by TV Guide as being one of the best
episodes (November 1993). Landon's development was a bit stormy
according to David Dortort, who felt that the actor grew more
difficult during the last five seasons the show ran. Landon appeared
in all but fourteen Bonanza episodes for its run, a total of 416 episodes.
in 1962, a foundation was being laid to include another
"son", as Pernell Roberts was displeased with his
character. In the episode "First Born" (1962), viewers
learn of Little Joe's older, maternal half-brother Clay Stafford. The
character departed in that same episode, but left an opportunity for
a return if needed. This character's paternity is open to debate. In
the 1963 flashback episode "Marie, My Love", his father was
Jean De'Marigny. Then in 1964, Lorne Greene released the song
"Saga of the Ponderosa", wherein Marie's previous husband
was "Big Joe" Collins, who dies saving Ben's life. After
Ben consoles Marie, the two bond and marry. They choose to honor
"Big Joe" by calling their son "Little Joe". So,
whether to Stafford, De'Marigny or Collins, Marie Cartwright was
previously married. In the last of the three Bonanza TV movies, it is
revealed that "Little Joe" had died in the
SpanishAmerican War a member of the "Rough Riders".
After the series, Landon,
became a quadruple threat as actor, writer, director and producer of
two successful series, "Little House on the Praire" and
"Highway to Heaven". Landon was loyal to many of his
Bonanza associates including producer Kent McCray, director William
F. Claxton, and composer David Rose, who remained with him throughout
Bonanza as well as Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven.
It was only a year after
Bonanza was canceled that Landon starred as Charles Ingalls in the
pilot of what became Little House on the Prairie (above), again for
NBC. The show was taken from a 1935 book written by Laura Ingalls
Wilder, whose character in the show was played by nine-year-old
actress Melissa Gilbert. In addition to Gilbert, two other unknown
actresses also starred on the show: Melissa Sue Anderson, who
appeared as Mary Ingalls, the oldest daughter in the Ingalls family,
and Karen Grassle as Charles' wife, Caroline. Landon served as
executive producer, writer, and director of Little House. The show, a
success in its first season, emphasized family values and
relationships. Little House ran for eight seasons and became Landon's
second-longest running series.
producing both "Little House..." and later the Father
Murphy TV series, Landon starred in another successful program. In
Highway to Heaven, he played a probationary angel (who named himself
Jonathan Smith) whose job was to help people in order to earn his
wings. His co-star on the show was Victor French (who had previously
co-starred on Little House) as ex-cop Mark Gordon. On Highway, Landon
served as executive producer, writer, and director. Highway to Heaven
was the only show throughout his long career in television that he
By 1985, prior to hiring
his son, Michael Landon, Jr., as a member of his camera crew, he also
brought real-life cancer patients and disabled people to the set. His
decision to work with disabled people led him to hire a couple of
adults with disabilities to write episodes for Highway to Heaven. By
season four, Highway took a nose dive in the ratings, and in June
1988, NBC announced that the series would return for an abbreviated
fifth season, which would be its last. The final episodes were filmed
in the fall of 1988, and aired from May to August 1989. Co-star
French would not live to see Highway's series finale make it to air;
he died of advanced lung cancer on June 15, 1989, the disease which
was only diagnosed two months before. Landon invited his youngest
daughter, Jennifer Landon, to take part in the final episode.
From the fourth season on,
the Cartwrights and nearly every other recurring character on the
show wore the same clothing in almost every episode. The reason for
this is twofold: it made duplication of wardrobe easier for stunt
doubles (Hal Burton, Bob Miles, Bill Clark, Lyle Heisler, Ray Mazy)
and it cut the cost of refilming action shots (such as riding clips
in-between scenes), as previously shot stock footage could be reused.
Below is a survey of costumes employed:
Ben Cartwright: Sandy
shirt, tawny leather vest, gray pants, cream-colored hat, occasional
Adam Cartwright: Black
shirt, black or midnight blue pants, black hat. Elegant city wear.
Cream-colored trail coat.
Little Joe Cartwright:
Beige, light gray shirt, kelly-green corduroy jacket, tan pants,
beige hat. Black leather gloves from 10th season on. In season 14, he
and Greene occasionally wore different shirts and slacks, as the
footage of them and the late Dan Blocker together could no longer be
reused. Little Joe's "look" was used as inspiration in
developing the costumes for Jamie Foxx in Quentin Tarantino's Django
Hoss Cartwright: White
shirt, brown suede vest, brown pants, large beige flat-brimmed,
Candy Canaday: Crimson
shirt, black pants, black leather vest, black hat, grey/ pale purple scarf.
In 1968, Blocker began
wearing a toupee on the series, as he was approaching age 40 and
losing hair. He joined the ranks of his fellow co-stars Roberts and
Greene, both of whom had begun the series with hairpieces (Greene
wore his modest frontal piece in private life too, whereas Roberts
preferred not wearing his, even to rehearsals/blocking). Landon was
the only original cast member who was wig-free throughout the series,
as even Sen Yung wore an attached queue (Michael Landon, "The
Tonight Show", NBC-TV, March 10, 1983).
The family lived on a
thousand-square-mile ranch called "The Ponderosa", on the
shore of Lake Tahoe in Nevada; the name refers to the Ponderosa Pine,
common in the West. The nearest town to the Ponderosa was Virginia
City, where the Cartwrights would go to converse with Sheriff Roy
Coffee (played by veteran actor Ray Teal). Greene, Roberts, Blocker,
and Landon were equal stars. The opening credits rotated among four
versions, with each of the four being shown first in each version.
An accidental running gag,
which also occurs in the TV western The Big Valley, was that every
time one of the Cartwright sons became seriously involved with a
woman, as soon as he was married, she was killed off or died
gruesomely in the same episode. This also occurred in the case of the
patriarch, Ben Cartwright, whose sons were each born to a different
wife, and when shown in flashback episodes, each wife died in the
same episode, except for the wife who gave birth to Hoss who lasted
The cast was very popular
with viewers, and Lorne Greene recorded several record albums in
character as Ben Cartwright, scoring a #1 hit with his dramatic
spoken word performance of "Ringo".
Pernell Roberts left the
series in 1965 after a dispute with the show's writers, which
contributed to the series' future slide from the #1 spot in the
Nielsen ratings. Some half-hearted attempts to replace him were made
by introducing Ben's step son Clay (played in one episode by Barry
Coe) and a nephew Will (played by Zorro star Guy Williams).
When the show's creator,
David Dortort, named himself executive producer in 1967, handing
production duties to Robert Blees and removing himself from the
day-to-day running of the show in order to spend more time producing
the series The High Chaparral, the show's popularity waned even more.
In 1967, David Canary
(below left) joined the cast as Candy Canaday, a drifting
cowboy-turned-ranch foreman; a popular addition to the cast. After
graduating from the University of Cincinnati, Canary was offered a
left-end position with the Denver Broncos, but pursued acting and
singing. His "Candy" character was a plucky Army brat
turned cowboy, who became the Cartwrights' confidant, ranch foreman,
and timber vessel captain. Dortort was impressed by Canary's talent,
but the character vanished in September 1970, after Canary had a
contract dispute. He returned two seasons later after co-star Dan
Blocker's death, reportedly having been approached by Landon. Canary
played the character on a total of 91 episodes. After Bonanza Canary,
who had started in "Peyton Place", went back to the soap
genre and to win multiple emmys for his dual portrayal of twins Adam
and Stuart Chandler on "All My Children".
In 1970, 14-year-old Mitch
Vogel (above right) joined the series as Jamie Hunter, the orphaned
son of a rainmaker. Ben adopted Jamie in a 1971 episode, and once
again Ben had three sons; this was not to last. In 1972, after the
sudden death of Dan Blocker, the show was moved to Tuesday nights
against a new CBS sitcom, Maude. Both signaled the end of the
program, and are often cited by fans as the moment the series
"jumped the shark."
Canary returned to his
former role of Candy (to make up for Blocker's absence), and a new
character named Griff King (played by Tim Matheson) was added. Griff,
accused of killing his heavy-handed step-father, was paroled into
Ben's custody and got a job as a ranch hand; several episodes were
built around his character, one Matheson never had a chance to fully
develop before the show's sudden demise in January 1973. Many fans
felt that the Hoss character was essential, as he was a nurturing,
empathetic soul that brought some balance to the all male cast.
was brought back as several made-for-television movies featuring
Cartwright offspring. These include Bonanza: The Movie (1988), Back
to Bonanza (1993), Bonanza: The Return (1993), Bonanza: Under Attack
(1995), and Bonanza: The Next Generation (1995).
In 2001, there was an
attempt to revive the series' ideas with a prequel, The Ponderosa,
with a pilot directed by Kevin James Dobson and filmed in Australia.
Covering the time when the Cartwrights first arrived at the
Ponderosa, it lasted 20 episodes.
Bonanza also featured a
memorable theme song by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans that is often
parodied. Lorne Greene and the cast recorded versions of the song
with lyrics. Although the Bonanza theme is one of the best known
pieces of made-or-television music, it was not used for the entire
run of the series. A new theme song was written in 1970 by episode
scorer David Rose and replaced the oft-remembered tune for seasons
twelve and thirteen. A new arrangement of the original theme returned
for the fourteenth and final season. The "Little House on the
Prairie" theme (also by Rose), can be heard first in a 1971
episode of "Bonanza".
The program's Nevada set,
the Ponderosa Ranch house, was recreated in Incline Village, Nevada,
in 1967, and remained a popular attraction world-wide until its sale
in September 2004.
A handful of episodes of
the series are in the public domain, and some TV showings of these
inferior picture quality episodes on low-budget stations and networks
(and also on low-budget public domain DVDs and VHS tapes) substitute
the familiar theme music for generic music.
1973, NBC sold the rights to the series to National Telefilm
Associates, which changed its name to Republic Pictures in the 1980s.
Republic would become part of the Spelling Entertainment organization
in 1994. Select episodes ("The Best of Bonanza") were
officially released in North America in 2003 on DVD via then-Republic
video licensee Artisan Entertainment (which was later purchased by
Lionsgate Home Entertainment). Republic still retains the syndication
distribution rights to the series, and lately the series is
distributed worldwide via CBS Television Distribution, which owns the
Republic Library (the TV Land repeats still end with the 1995 logos
of both Republic and Paramount Domestic Television). CBS DVD is now
the home video rights holder.
CBS/Paramount announced on
June 1, 2009 that the first season of Bonanza would be released to
DVD on September 1 of the same year. The first season will be
released in two, half-season volumes available separately or bundled
together. This will be the first pre-1973 NBC show (part of the NTA
package) to be distributed on DVD by CBS and Paramount, as the first
such show to get any sort of release, Get Smart, has ancillary rights
owned by HBO, and thus DVD rights are held by Warner Home Video.