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"It's like My Three Sons in the old west."

- W.J. Flywheel, Webporium Curator


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 it’s 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 (NBC’s 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

Born 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 (1961–1987, 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 1964–65 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."

Roberts, 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 (1972–1975) 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 "Hoss" Cartwright

Dan 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.

Michael Landon – 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.

Beginning 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 Spanish–American 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.

After 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 owned outright.

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 green scarf.

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 Unchained (2012).

Hoss Cartwright: White shirt, brown suede vest, brown pants, large beige flat-brimmed, ten-gallon hat.

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 two episodes.

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.

Bonanza" 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.

In 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.


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