Bonanza is an NBC television western series that ran from 1959 to 1973. Lasting 14 seasons and 431 episodes, Bonanza is NBC's longest-running western, and ranks overall as the second-longest-running western series on U.S. network television (behind CBS's Gunsmoke), and within the top 10 longest-running, live-action American series. The show continues to air in syndication. The show is set in the 1860s and it centers on the wealthy Cartwright family that live in the vicinity of Virginia City, Nevada, bordering Lake Tahoe. The series initially starred Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker, and Michael Landon and later featured (at various times) Guy Williams, David Canary, Mitch Vogel, and Tim Matheson. The show is known for presenting pressing moral dilemmas.
The title "Bonanza" is a term used by miners in regard to a large vein or deposit of silver ore, from Spanish bonanza (prosperity) and commonly refers to the 1859 revelation of the Comstock Lode of rich silver ore mines under the town of Virginia City, not far from the fictional Ponderosa Ranch that the Cartwright family operated. The show's theme song, also titled "Bonanza", became a hit song. Only instrumental renditions, absent Ray Evans' lyrics, were used during the series's long run.
In 2002, Bonanza was ranked No. 43 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, and in 2013 TV Guide included it in its list of The 60 Greatest Dramas of All Time. The time period for the television series is roughly between 1861 (Season 1) and 1867 (Season 13) during and shortly after the American Civil War.
During the summer of 1972, NBC aired reruns of episodes from the 1967–1970 period in prime time on Tuesday evening under the title Ponderosa.[
The show chronicles the weekly adventures of the Cartwright family, headed by the thrice-widowed patriarch Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene). He had three sons, each by a different wife: the eldest was the urbane architect Adam Cartwright (Pernell Roberts) who built the ranch house; the second was the warm and lovable giant Eric "Hoss" Cartwright (Dan Blocker); and the youngest was the hotheaded and impetuous Joseph or "Little Joe" (Michael Landon). Via exposition (S01:E01 – "Rose for Lotta") and flashback episodes, each wife was accorded a different ancestry: English (S02:E65 – "Elizabeth My Love"), Swedish (S03:E95 – "Inger My Love") and French Creole (S04:E120 – "Marie My Love") respectively. The family's cook was the Chinese immigrant Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung). Greene, Roberts, Blocker, and Landon were billed equally. The opening credits would alternate the order among the four stars.
The family lived on a thousand square-mile (2,600 km2) ranch called the Ponderosa on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe in Nevada opposite California on the edge of the Sierra Nevada range]. The vast size of the Cartwrights' land was quietly revised to "half a million acres" (2,000 km2) on Lorne Greene's 1964 song, "Saga of the Ponderosa." The ranch 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).
Pernell Roberts as Adam Cartwright (1959)
Original cast: Dan Blocker, Michael Landon, Lorne Greene and Pernell Roberts (1959)
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. "You always saw stories about family on comedies or on an anthology, but Bonanza was the first series that was week-to-week about a family and the troubles it went through. Bonanza was a period drama that attempted to confront contemporary social issues. That was very difficult to do on television. Most shows that tried to do it failed because the sponsors didn't like it, and the networks were nervous about getting letters", explains Stephen Battaglio, a senior editor for TV Guide magazine.
Episodes ranged from high drama ("Bushwhacked", episode #392, 1971; "Shanklin", episode #409, 1972), to broad comedy ("Hoss and the Leprechauns", episode #146, 1964; "Mrs. Wharton and the Lesser Breeds", episode #318, 1969; "Caution, Bunny Crossing", episode #358, 1969), and addressed issues such as the environment ("Different Pines, Same Wind", episode #304, 1968), substance abuse ("The Hidden Enemy", episode #424, 1972), domestic violence ("First Love", episode #427, 1972), anti-war sentiment ("The Weary Willies", episode #364, 1970), and illegitimate births ("Love Child", episode #370, 1970; "Rock-A-Bye Hoss", episode #393, 1971). The series sought to illustrate the cruelty of bigotry against: Asians ("The Fear Merchants", episode #27, 1960; "The Lonely Man", episode #404, 1971), African-Americans ("Enter Thomas Bowers", episode #164, 1964; "The Wish", episode #326, 1968; "Child", episode #305, 1969), Native Americans ("The Underdog", episode #180, 1964; "Terror at 2:00", episode #384, 1970), Jews, ("Look to the Stars", episode #90, 1962); Mormons ("The Pursued", episodes #239-40, 1966), the disabled ("Tommy", episode #249, 1966) and "little people" ("It's A Small World", episode #347, 1968).
Originally, the Cartwrights tended to be depicted as put-off by outsiders. Lorne Greene 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.
Though not familiar stars in 1959, the cast quickly became favorites of the first television generation. The order of billing at the beginning of the broadcast appeared to be shuffled randomly each week, with no relation whatsoever to the current episode featured that week. The main cast of actors portraying Cartwrights is listed here in the order of their characters' ages, followed by an array of recurring supporting players:
Lorne Greene – Ben Cartwright
Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright
Born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, to Russian-Jewish parents, Lorne Greene was chosen to play widowed patriarch Ben Cartwright. Early in the show's history, he recalls each of his late wives in flashback episodes. A standard practice with most westerns was to introduce some romance but avoid matrimony. Few media cowboys had on-screen wives. Any time one of the Cartwrights seriously courted a woman, she died from a malady, was abruptly slain, or left with someone else.
Greene appeared in all but fourteen 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.
Pernell Roberts – Adam Cartwright
Pernell Roberts as Adam Cartwright
Pernell Roberts 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 (202 episodes) 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), 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 fiancée 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.'"
Dan Blocker – Eric "Hoss" Cartwright
Dan Blocker as Hoss
Dan Blocker as "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." According to a biography, 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 was also tough. Several years after his death, Landon appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and related the following anecdote. 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
Michael Landon as 'Little Joe' Cartwright; this shot was taken before the wardrobe was standardized for continuity purposes. Landon is seen in black attire akin to that worn in later seasons by Pernell Roberts
Landon as Little Joe
The role of "Little Joe" was given to Michael Landon, who had earlier played the title role in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. He portrayed the youngest Cartwright son, whose mother (Felicia in the pilot, and later changed to Marie) was of French Creole descent. Landon began to develop his skills in writing and directing Bonanza episodes, starting with "The Gamble." 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 television's best specials (November 1993).[vague] 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".
Ray Teal – Sheriff Roy Coffee
Veteran character actor Ray Teal essayed the role of Sheriff Roy Coffee on 98 episodes from 1960 to 1972. He appeared in more than 250 movies and some 90 television programs during his 37-year career. His longest-running role was as Sheriff Roy Coffee. He had also played a sheriff in the Billy Wilder film Ace in the Hole (1951). Teal co-starred in numerous TV westerns throughout his career: he appeared five times on Cheyenne, twice on The Lone Ranger, on The Alaskans, a short-lived series starring Roger Moore, three times in different roles on another long-running western series, Wagon Train, on NBC's Tales of Wells Fargo with Dale Robertson, on the ABC western series Broken Arrow, five times on the ABC western comedy Maverick starring James Garner and Jack Kelly, on the CBS western series The Texan with Rory Calhoun, the NBC western series The Californians, twice on Colt .45 with Wayde Preston, once on Wanted: Dead or Alive with Steve McQueen and as "Sheriff Clay" for a single 1960 episode of the NBC western series Riverboat with Darren McGavin, and four times on a western series about the rodeo entitled Wide Country.
Teal was a bit-part player in western films for several years before landing a substantial role in Northwest Passage (1940) starring Spencer Tracy. Another of his roles was as Little John in The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946). Notable film roles include playing one of the judges in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) with Spencer Tracy, and an indulgent bar owner to Marlon Brando's motorcycle gang in The Wild One (1953), which was the second of three times that Teal appeared with Brando, having done so already as a drunk in Brando's debut in The Men (1950) and later in Brando's only directorial effort, One-Eyed Jacks (1961), as a bartender.
Sheriff Coffee was occasionally the focus of a plot as in the episode "No Less a Man" (broadcast March 15, 1964). A gang of thieves has been terrorizing towns around Virginia City and the town council wants to replace Coffee, whom they consider over-the-hill, with a younger sheriff before the gang hits town, not realizing that they'd been spared earlier because the gang's leader was wary of Coffee's longevity and only acquiesced to rob the Virginia City bank after extreme pressure from other gang members. Coffee ends up showing the town that youth and a fast gun don't replace experience.
Guy Williams - Will Cartwright
Guy Williams was slated in 1964, the year that Bonanza hit #1 in the ratings, to replace Pernell Roberts upon Roberts' departure, enabling the series to preserve the four-Cartwright format for the run of the series. His character, Ben's nephew Will Cartwright, was introduced and was the lead character in five episodes, receiving "Starring" billing after the four original rotating Cartwrights during his second appearance going forward, but Roberts changed his mind later and decided to stay for one more season, whereupon Williams found himself pushed out of the part; it was rumored that Landon and Greene felt threatened by the studio initiating a precedent of successfully replacing one heroic leading man Cartwright with a new one, particularly in view of Williams' popularity with viewers. Williams had previously portrayed the titular character in Walt Disney's Zorro television series, and went on to play the lead in Lost in Space, a science fiction television series, after the role in Bonanza ended.
David Canary – "Candy" Canaday
After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, David Canary was offered a left-end position with the Denver Broncos, but pursued acting and singing. In 1967, he joined the cast as "Candy" Canaday, 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. Canary joined the cast in Season 9.
Victor Sen Yung – Hop Sing
Main article: Hop Sing
Chinese American actor Victor Sen Yung played the Cartwrights' happy-go-lucky cook, whose blood pressure rose when the family came late for dinner. Cast here as the faithful domestic, the comedy relief character had little to do beyond chores. He once used martial arts to assail a towering family foe. Though often referenced, Hop Sing only appeared in an average of eight to nine shows each season. As a semi-regular cast member, Sen Yung was only paid per episode. After 14 years, he was widely known, but making far less than his Ponderosa peers. The Hop Sing character was central in only two episodes: "Mark Of Guilt" (#316) and "The Lonely Man" (#404).
Mitch Vogel – Jamie Hunter/Cartwright
After Canary's departure in mid-1970, and aware of the show's aging demographic, the writers sought a fresh outlet for Ben's fatherly advice. Fourteen-year-old Mitch Vogel was introduced as Jamie Hunter in "A Matter of Faith" (season 12, episode 363). Vogel played the red-haired orphan of a roving rainmaker, whom Ben takes in and adopts later in a 1971 episode, called "A Home For Jamie."
Tim Matheson – Griff King
During the final season, in 1972–1973, Tim Matheson portrayed Griff King, a parolee who tries to reform his life as a worker at the Ponderosa Ranch under Ben Cartwright's tutelage.
Lou Frizzell - Dusty Rhoades
Following Canary's departure, Frizzell's character accompanied Jamie Hunter to the Ponderosa and became the Cartwright's foreman.
Cast episode count
Lorne Greene – Ben Cartwright - 417 episodes (Season 1-14)
Michael Landon – Joseph "Little Joe" Cartwright - 416 episodes (Season 1-14)
Dan Blocker – Eric "Hoss" Cartwright - 401 episodes (Season 1-13)
Pernell Roberts – Adam Cartwright - 173 episodes (Season 1-6)
Victor Sen Yung – Hop Sing – 107 episodes (Season 1-14)
Ray Teal - Sheriff Coffee – 98 episodes (Season 2-13)
David Canary – "Candy" Canaday - 91 episodes (Season 9-11, 14)
Mitch Vogel – Jamie Hunter Cartwright - 47 episodes (Season 12-14)
Tim Matheson – Griff King - 12 episodes (Season 14)
Guy Williams - Will Cartwright - 5 episodes (Season