Hand color tinted photo of Pernell Roberts, Michael Landon, Dan Blocker & Lorne Greene from the 1960s television series, Bonanza
Bonanza is an American Western series that ran on NBC from September 12, 1959 to January 16, 1973. Lasting 14 seasons, it is among the longest running Western television series (second behind Gunsmoke) and continues to air in syndication, starring Pernell Roberts, Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, and Michael Landon.
Bonanza originally referred to the Comstock Lode which was “an exceptionally large and rich mineral deposit” of silver, and is derived from a Spanish word meaning “fair weather”, and by extension, “prosperity”. Virginia City was founded directly over the lode which was mined for 19 years. Ponderosa was an alternative title of the series, used in 1972 for the broadcast of syndicated reruns while Bonanza was in first-run on NBC.
The Bonanza pilot, “Rose for Lotta,” was written by David Dortort, who also produced the series. Dortort worked as producer or executive producer on several other series including The Restless Gun, The High Chaparral, The Cowboys, and the Bonanza prequel, The Ponderosa. For most of its 430 episode run, the main sponsor of Bonanza was Chevrolet and the stars occasionally appeared in commercials endorsing Chevrolet automobiles. All of the regular cast members had appeared in numerous stage, television and film productions before Bonanza, but none was particularly well-known. Dortort was hired to create Bonanza by NBC’s Vice President of Programming Alan W. Livingston, who oversaw production of the pilot.
The opening burning map of the Ponderosa Ranch was illustrated with incorrect bearings. David Dortort, choosing not to redo the map, altered the compass points. The original drawing was done by artist Robert Temple Ayres.
The show chronicled the weekly adventures of the Cartwright family, headed by the thrice-widowed patriarch Ben Cartwright (played by Lorne Greene). He had three sons, each by a different wife: the eldest was the urbane architect Adam Cartwright (played by Pernell Roberts) who built the ranch house; the second was the warm and lovable giant Eric, better known by his nickname “Hoss” (played by Dan Blocker); and the youngest was the hotheaded and impetuous Joseph or “Little Joe” (played by Michael Landon). The family’s cook was the Chinese immigrant Hop Sing (played by Victor Sen Yung). Bonanza was considered an atypical western for its time, as the core of the storylines dealt less about the range but more with Ben and his three dissimilar sons, how they cared for one another, their neighbors and just causes.
The family lived on a thousand-square-mile ranch called 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), or his deputy Clem Foster (Bing Russell). Greene, Roberts, Blocker, and Landon were equal stars. The opening credits would rotate the order among the four stars. As the series advanced, writers began to showcase one or two Cartwrights in each episode, while the others would be seen briefly in the prologue and epilogue. Not only did this provide for more thorough character development, it also gave all four actors more free time.
Originally, the Cartwrights tended to be depicted as put-off by outsiders. Lorne Greene however, objected to this, pointing out that as the area’s largest timber and livestock producer, the family should be less clannish. The producers agreed with this observation and changed the Cartwrights to be more amiable.
Early in the show’s history, Ben Cartwright recalls each of his late wives in flashback episodes. A recurring situation (which also occurs in the TV western The Big Valley) was that every time one of the Cartwrights became seriously involved with a woman, she died from a malady, was slain, or left with someone else.
In a few 1964 episodes, Ben has a nephew named Will (Guy Williams), who visits the Ponderosa ranch. He was the son of Ben’s deceased brother John.
Lorne Greene – Ben Cartwright
Canadian-born Lorne Greene began his career as the chief radio announcer for CBC radio from 1939 thru 1942, becoming known as the “Voice of Doom” for his deep, gravelly voice. Although his distincitive voice had propelled him into newcasting, he had earlier shown an interest in acting during his education at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. After a stint in the military in 1945, Lorne co-founded the Acadmy of Radio Arts in Canada as well as the Jupiter Theatre.
In 1953 he moved to the U.S. to pursue his acting career, making numerous appearances on various telecasts before landing the role of Ben Cartwright on Bonanza in 1959, a role he would continue to play for the next 14 years. After Bonanza’s cancellation in 1973, Lorne Greene went on to star in 1978’s Battlestar Galatica and then in the 1980s he hosted the television series, Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness. He died in 1987 at age 72.
Dan Blocker – Hoss Cartwright
Three hundred pound Dan Blocker played the gentle middle son Eric a.k.a. Hoss. Born in Texas, he was a teacher before Hollywood. The Hoss character had a warm heart and a penchant for lost causes. The character was originally conceived as “lovable but slow-witted.” Blocker, however, was the only cast member with an advanced degree, a Masters in Dramatic Arts. Prior to starring in Bonanza, Dan had a recurring role as Tiny Budinger in the 1958–1959 TV western series Cimarron City starring George Montgomery, also on NBC. That series’ cancellation after only one season freed him to be cast as Hoss Cartwright, his most famous role.
In 1972, Dan Blocker died suddenly from a post-op blood-clot to the lungs. The show’s producers chose to simply mention the character’s death in passing (TV producer Sheldon Leonard was the first to “kill off” major characters, starting in 1956 with Make Room For Daddy and in 1963 with The Real McCoys, wherein the female leads of each show chose not to renew their contracts). Hoss’s horse was Chub, a Thoroughbred/ Quarter horse standing 15.3 hands high and weighing 1,250 lb. Chub had a stripe face marking.
Michael Landon – Little Joe Cartwright
It was young Michael Landon who received most of the fan mail, and was seen in female-oriented teen magazines. In addition to acting, Landon began to develop his skills in writing and directing Bonanza episodes, starting with “The Gamble.” Some of the shows Landon directed are considered to be the most moving including, “The Wish,” “He Was Only Seven,” and “Forever.” According to David Dortort (Bear Family boxed CD liner notes), Landon himself grew difficult during the last five seasons the show ran, “Nearly every line, every scene, every set up… everything would halt for endless story conferences on the set… it got increasingly bitter toward the end.” In a 1992 memorial retrospective directed by the star’s son Michael Jr., “Michael Landon: Memories with Laughter and Love,” cast member David Canary said that the one word that most described Landon to him was “fearless.”
In the episode, “Marie, My Love” (1963), the episode detailing Ben Cartwright’s wooing of Little Joe’s mother, we learn that Little Joe has an older half-brother named Clay Stafford, who later spends time at the ranch. On Lorne Greene’s 1964 song “Saga of the Ponderosa” (Bear Records), Marie’s first husband was “Big Joe” Collins who dies saving Ben. After Ben marries Marie, they chose to call their son “Little Joe”. Whether to Stafford or Collins, Marie Cartwight was previously married.
After Bonanza, Landon produced and starred in two other successful NBC series, the first being the pioneer adventure, Little House on the Prairie, which aired for roughly nine and a half seasons between 1974 and 1983. Landon’s character was absent the ninth season with the final half season a series of movies. Landon also appeared in all but fourteen Bonanza episodes for its 14 years on-air, a total of 416/430 episodes. Little Joe’s horse was Cochise, a black and white paint horse. Cochise was male and enjoyed an occasional sip of cofffee. Cochise was made into a breyer animal creations model in 2009.
David Canary – Candy Canaday
In 1967, David Canary joined the cast as “Candy” Canaday, a plucky army-brat turned cowboy, who became the Cartwrights’ confidant, ranch foreman and timber vessel captain. The character vanished in 1970 after Canary himself had a contract dispute with Dortort. He would later return.
Mitch Vogel – Jamie Hunter/Cartwright
In 1970, 14-year-old Mitch Vogel joined the series as Jamie Hunter, the orphaned son of a rainmaker. Ben adopted Jamie in a 1971 episode.
Initially, the series aired on Saturday evenings opposite Perry Mason. The Saturday night ratings were dismal and Bonanza was soon targeted for cancellation. It was kept on the air, however, because it was one of the first series to be filmed and broadcast in color, and NBC corporate parent RCA wanted to use the show as a vehicle to spur sales of RCA-manufactured color television sets (RCA was also the primary sponsor of the series during its first two seasons). Given one last chance, it was moved to Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, for new sponsor Chevrolet (replacing The Dinah Shore Chevy Show). The new time slot caused the series to soar, and it eventually reached number one by the mid-’60s. By 1970, it had become the first series to ever wind up in the Top Five for nine consecutive seasons (a record which would stand for decades) and thus established itself as the single biggest hit TV series of the 1960s. It remained high on the Nielsen ratings until 1971, when it finally fell out of the top ten.
In the fall of 1972, Bonanza was moved to Tuesday nights against a new CBS sitcom, Maude. The scheduling change, as well as Dan Blocker’s death several months earlier, resulted in plunging ratings for the show. David 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 to lure younger viewers. Griff, in prison for nearly killing his abusive stepfather, was paroled into Ben’s custody and got a job as a ranch hand. Several episodes were built around his character, one that Matheson never had a chance to fully develop before the show’s sudden cancellation in January 1973. Many fans felt that the Hoss character was essential, as he was a nurturing, empathetic soul who rounded-out the all-male cast.
For 14 years, the Cartwrights were the premier western family on American television and have been immensely popular on cable networks such as TV Land, ION (formerly PAX), Family Channel (before Fox Family & ABC Family Era), and the Hallmark Channel.
Bonanza was brought back for three made-for-TV movies featuring the Cartwrights’ offspring: Bonanza: The Next Generation (1988), Bonanza: The Return (1993) and Bonanza: Under Attack (1995). Michael Landon, Jr., played Little Joe’s son Benji while Gillian Greene, Lorne’s daughter, played a love interest. In the second movie, airing on NBC, a one hour retrospective was done to introduce the drama. It was hosted by both Michael Landon, Jr., and Dirk Blocker. According to TV Guide, NBC told Blocker he was too old to play the Hoss scion, but was given the role of an unrelated newspaper reporter. Clips of his appearance were heavily used in advertisements promoting the “second generation” theme, leading audiences to believe that he was playing Hoss’ offspring, given that the younger Blocker’s face and unusual voice were practically identical to his father’s, although he was physically much smaller. Hoss’ son Josh was born out-of-wedlock, as it is explained that Hoss drowned without knowing his fiancee was pregnant. Such a storyline could have been problematic in the original series. (The Big Valley, however, had a major character in Heath, who was presented as illegitimate. The Gunsmoke movies of the early 1990s employed a similar theme when Matt Dillon learned he sired Michael Learned’s daughter via a short-lived romance. The initial story was first introduced in 1973, when depiction of fornication courted protests, so CBS insisted their hero Matt have the encounter when he had amnesia).
In 2001, there was an attempt to revive the series’ concept with a prequel, Ponderosa, with a pilot directed by Kevin James Dobson and filmed in Australia. Covering the time when the Cartwrights first arrived at the Ponderosa, when Adam was a teenager and Joe a little boy, the series lasted 20 episodes and featured less gunfire and brawling than the original. Bonanza creator David Dortort approved PAX TV’s decision to hire Beth Sullivan, a producer from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, which some believe gave the series more depth as well as a softer edge.
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.
The Bonanza theme is one of the best known pieces of made-for-television music, and variations of it were used for twelve seasons of the series. Only in the pilot episode was the vocal version used. Immediately after the pilot, they dropped the lyrics and vocal and used only an instrumental theme. In 1968, a new percussion-heavy arrangement of the original theme was introduced; the new version was used until 1970. A new theme song, called “The Big Bonanza” was written in 1970 by episode scorer David Rose, and was used from 1970–1972. A faster rendition of the original theme returned for the 14th and final season.
The theme song has been recorded by numerous artists in a diverse variety of styles. The biggest hit version is an instrumental by Al Caiola, which reached number 19 on Billboard in 1961. Country singer Johnny Cash recorded a vocal version of the theme song, released on his sixteenth album: Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash. Singer Ralf Paulsen recorded a German-language version of the song in 1963. Bad Manners did a ska version of the song. Michael Richards, as Stanley Spadowski, sang a bit of the theme song while being held hostage by Channel 8’s news goons in UHF (he didn’t know the words to the song he was originally supposed to sing, Helter Skelter). Michael Feinstein was the last to record the song in 2002 on his, “Songs of Evans and Livingston” tribute CD. The Little House on the Prairie theme (also by Rose), was heard first in a 1971 episode of Bonanza. The overture for The High Chaparral composed by Harry Sukman can be heard briefly at the start of the 1966 episode “Four Sisters from Boston.”
The first Virginia City set was used on the show until 1970 and was located on a backlot at Paramount and turned up in episodes of Have Gun – Will Travel, Mannix and The Brady Bunch. On a 1970 Bonanza episode entitled “The Night Virginia City Died,” Deputy Clem Foster’s pyromaniac fiancee leveled the town in a series of fires. This allowed for a switch to the less expensive Warner studios from September 1970 through January 1973.
The program’s Nevada set, the Ponderosa Ranch house, was recreated in Incline Village, Nevada, in 1967, and remained a tourist attraction worldwide until its sale in September 2004.
Bonanza has had a highly profitable merchandising history. Currently, Bonanza Ventures, Inc. grants merchandising and licensing rights worldwide. The original series spawned successful novelty folk albums from 1962–65, two Dell Comic books in 1961 and 1964, a series of “Big-Little” books from 1966–1969, a chain of Bonanza and Ponderosa steakhouses from 1963–present, the Lake Tahoe-based “Ponderosa” theme park from 1967–2004; a line of action figures, lunch buckets and View Master sets from 1965–1973. A series of Hamilton collector plates 1989–1990; Six Bonanza novels have been published: Bonanza: One Man With Courage by Thomas Thompson (1966); The Ponderosa Spirit by Stephen Calder (1988); The Ponderosa Empire by Stephen Calder (1991); Bonanza: High Steel Hazard by Stephen Calder (1993); Bonanza: Felling of the Sons by Monette B. Reinhold (2005) & Bonanza: Mystic Fire by Monette B. Reinhard (2009). Bonanza Gold, a current magazine, features detailed information about the show, including interviews with guest actors and other production personnel, articles about historical events and people depicted in the series, fan club information and fan fiction.
The last 14 episodes of Season One and the first 17 episodes of Season Two have fallen into the public domain. These 31 episodes have been released by many different companies in many different configurations, usually with the familiar theme music replaced with 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 (through CBS Television Distribution, which holds the television side of Republic’s holdings) still retains the syndication distribution rights to the series. Incidentally, 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, while the series copyright remains with NBC Universal. Bonanza Ventures, however, remains a co-licensee of the Bonanza material with both NBC and CBS.
CBS/Paramount announced on June 1, 2009 that the first season of Bonanza would be released to DVD on September 15 of the same year. The first season (which was released on schedule) was issued in two, half-season volumes available separately or bundled together. This release is one of the few CBS DVD box sets to be issued uncut, in their original broadcast versions with all the original music as telecast. This is 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 HBO Home Entertainment, with distribution through Warner Home Video. Seasons 1-7 was released on dvd in Germany, uncut with a choice between German dub and original English audio.