As the longest-running western TV show on NBC, Bonanza has certainly gathered a wagon-load of fans over the years. Spanning nearly two decades (from 1959 to 1973) this popular western series is also the second-longest-running on American television, close behind Gunsmoke on CBS. Bonanza lasted for a whopping 14 seasons and 431 episodes, before finally calling it a day in January 1973.
The title of the show actually comes from a term used by miners, referring to a large deposit or vein of ore, particularly the Comstock Lode discovery back in 1859. Funnily enough, the Comstock Lode is not far from the fictional ranch of the Cartwright family, who the show focuses on, named Ponderosa Ranch. The show takes place between 1861 during the American Civil War, through to 1867, which was shortly after the war had ended.
Bonanza follows the Cartwright family, the head of which is Ben Cartwright played by Lorne Greene. He has three sons by three different wives, all of whom have passed away (making him a widower three times over)! There is Adam Cartwright, the eldest, played by Pernell Roberts; Adam is an architect who actually built Ponderosa Ranch. There is the middle son, Eric “Hoss” Cartwright, played by Dan Blocker, and finally Joseph “Little Joe” Cartwright, known for being the hot-headed youngest, played by Michael Landon.
Through various flashback episodes, we actually get to see the three deceased wives. Elizabeth was English, Inger was Swedish, and Marie was French Creole. The storylines focus less on the ranch and more on the way the family looks after each other and the people around them, as well as their fights for just causes. It also touches upon issues such as caring for the environment, domestic violence, and even bigotry towards those of different ethnicities.
Bonanza was loved by millions, but there are some secrets even the super fans don’t know. As we dug deeper into the back stories and personal lives of the actors who made the show so heartwarming and timeless, we ourselves were surprised to discover some of those little-known details. Though the actors and characters they portrayed did not always match up, this much we can tell you – their juxtaposition certainly makes for an interesting read. As such and without further ado, take a look through these pages to discover things very few people know about Bonanza!
4 stars, same screen time
If there was one thing that was mostly important for the producers of Bonanza was that none of the lead actors would ever feel overshadowed by their co-stars. Therefore, they always made sure they were portraying all four stars equally so they would all be getting the same screen time when the opening credits were rolling. In fact, the producers were so sensitive about this issue that they actually swapped the order in which the lead stars were billed. This kept the show very well balanced in terms of how it let each actor shine in his own way.
Costumes on a budget
Usually when you have a vert successful show running, the budget is never an issue, especially not when it comes to the costumes. However, the main characters in Bonanza had only one set of clothes throughout ten seasons. This wasn’t only for economical reasons, but it was so the editing work would be easier when reshoots had to be made. This also made it easier to insert stock footage whenever it was necessary. This trick definitely made the editors’ job a much simpler one.
The show was almost canceled
Can you imagine that Bonanza almost never happened and fans wouldn’t have been able to follow the lives of the Cartwright family? At the time when the show was first aired, its biggest competition was a CBS production, Perry Mason that ran from 1957 to 1966 and starred Raymond Burr. The competition was apparently so big that people at NBC were on the verge of canceling the western series. However, one of the show’s strongest points was the fact that it was filmed in color, which led to more and more people buying color television sets, the same ones that were sold by RCA, NBC’s parent company. You can only imagine the pressure the company was putting on the network to keep the show running.
What ‘Bonanza’ really means
As previously mentioned, the name of the show Bonanza is actually a slang term that loosely means being luckily enough to find a “jackpot” of precious metal, or what have you. Interestingly enough, a real “bonanza” was found in 1859 very close to the Comstock Lode, which was also the fictional ranch that was operated by the Cartwrights. True to its name, Bonanza ended up being a real ratings jackpot, with scores of viewers tuning in to find what the Cartwrights have been up to.
Leaving on bad terms
Pernell Roberts had extremely high hopes for the role of Adam Cartwright, and so when the show turned in a different direction he was disappointed, especially because of the limitations that were forced on his characters. He was once quoted saying in an interview for a newspaper interview “I haven’t grown at all since the series began… I have an impotent role. Wherever I turn there’s the father image.” Eventually, after six years working on the show and after many disputes with producers, the actor left the show.
Further difficulties on set
Rumor has it that Landon, who played the impulsive and reckless younger brother, Little Joe, was extremely hard to work with, despite his obvious talent as an actor. This was heightened during the last five seasons of Bonanza. It was even rumored that Landon did everything in his power to ensure that there wouldn’t be new actors on the set of the show, which we can imagine caused a very difficult hindrance for the writing staff to have to overcome.
The King was a fan
When you have such a big show running, especially when it spans over decades, you can only expect a huge fan base that naturally includes A-listers and other celebrities. After all these stars are also regular people who like to watch TV and spend their time off screen in front of a screen. In fact, one of the show’s biggest fans was none other than Elvis Presley. We’re not sure who is more excited in the picture, Lorne Green, Dan Blocker or The King!
Lorne Greene the music star
Lorne Greene was what you would call these days, actor turn singer and he sure knew how to capitalize on his Bonanza image when he turned to a career in music. He released several albums that had a folk-country-western sound to them, and he even hit the charts with his number one hit, ‘Ringo’. In fact, Greene wasn’t the only Bonanza star which had a wandering eye to music, all four stars were part of the 1964 Christmas album, ‘Christmas at the Ponderosa’.
The Cartwright curse
Some may call it a Cartwright curse, others might think it’s just really bad timing, either way, the fact remains that every time a member of the Cartwright family became close to a woman that was their object of affection at a certain point in time, the poor lady either ended up dying, becoming extremely ill or just leaves to be with another man. It literally became a joke on set among the cast members, that there was an actual curse on the Cartwright men and their love life.
A made-up stage name
You have to admit that the sound of the name “Michael Landon” sounds not only very impressive, but also like it’s always been around. However, Michael Landon wasn’t the hunky actor’s birth name, as he was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz. When he wanted to choose a stage name he would go by, he initially wanted it to be “Michael Lane,” but since that was already taken, he flipped through the phone book when he came across the name Alf Landon, he thought it would sound great to combine the two.
Things were cooking
In retrospect, it wasn’t hard to notice that Hop Sing, who was the Cartwright family’s cook was portrayed in some of the most racist ways and had a stereotypical role – a Chinese man serving the white western family. Hop Sing, appeared in more than a hundred episodes and his passionate character was always one of the show’s bright spots. Sing was played by Victor Sen Yung, who happened to have a very prosperous career in Hollywood prior to the show and after it ended.
Hoss Died Way Too Soon
The lovable and warm and middle son, Hoss, who was played by Dan Blocker, a talented actor who left way too soon. Tragically enough, Blocker died at the age of 43 of a pulmonary embolism when he was undergoing a failed gall bladder surgery. When he passed, the writers had a very hard time finding a suitable replacement for the beloved actor, and so the show just continued without him and the audience found themselves clueless as to why he had suddenly left the show.
No commitment issues
Apparently, the heartthrob actor, Michael Landon, was very much committed to the show he was on, as his character, Little Joe, has appeared in almost all of the 431 episodes.To be exact, he appeared in all but 14 episodes, though who’s counting? The NBC production was running for so long that it seemed like he was in each and every one of them.
Landon Took Things Into His Own Hands
In fact, Landon was so committed to the show and the creative process that he did some writing for Bonanza and he is in charge of some of the greatest and most popular storylines that were being told on camera. As time passed by, Landon was involved in directing and writing and he eventually became one of the regular writers. It could be very interesting to get an insight from an actor who has seen both sides of the camera.
Unlucky in love?
Perhaps it was part of the original “Cartwright Curse,” but don’t you find it odd that all three wives of patriarch Ben Cartwright had died in some mysterious way? Each wife left the poor man with a son to raise on his own. When Elizabeth, his first wife, died, Ben decided he wanted to leave New England. His second wife, Inger, died when the family was in its way to the West Coast, and Ben’s third wife, Marie, died after she fell off a horse.
The Real Dan Blocker
A lot can be said about Ben Cartwright’s middle son, Eric “Hoss.” He was sweet, big, friendly, and quite a gullible guy. His character on set couldn’t be more different from what he was like in real life. In reality, Blocker wasn’t as dopey, as his first professional career was as an English and Drama teacher at a high school in Sonora, Texas, a coach at an Elementary School in New Mexico and later in California. Call him Mr. Blocker.
Canary’s paycheck dispute
David canary’s journey on the show resembled in a way the journey that many soap opera stars take as he left the show and then came back. When the actor who played the role of Candy Canaday left the show in 1970 it was due to disagreements regarding his salary. The producers refused to give him a raise and so he left. However, two years later, Landon and the show’s producer Dortort wanted the actor back on it, so they renewed his contract and promised him a decent raise.
Everybody wanted to visit Ponderosa
A movie or a show’s set location will always be a place of interest for many fans who wish to see where their favorite scenes were taking place. This is one of the reasons why there organized set tours in Hollywood, because everybody wants a piece of the fantasy. Due to the show’s success, many fans took a road trip to Incline Village in Nevada where the fictional ranch of Ponderosa was located. However, when they got they were disappointed to see that the place doesn’t exist. Because of the high demand for the location to be there, the producers partnered with a couple of land developers and created a theme park where they recreated the famous ranch house. The recreation was so good that some scenes were actually shot there.
After becoming so successful on the Bonanza, Dan Blocker became a star and many producers wanted to work with the promising actor. In 1970, director, Robert Altman thought Blocker would be a perfect fit for the lead role in MASH. The director fought for him to get the part, but the producers refused to cast him. The movie turned out to be a mega hit and would have definitely given a push to Blocker’s career had he been cast.
Zorro was almost on the show
Guy Williams will probably always be mostly known for his unforgettable role as Zorro on the TV series, which is why it’s almost mind blowing to think that he could ever be associated with any other big role. Williams was actually offered to play the role of Adam Cartwright, the educated eldest son of the Cartwright family, however, the actor eventually declined the offer and chose to play Zorro instead. Williams did however appear in five episodes playing cousin, Will Cartwright.
The Johnny Cash connection
Johnny Cash is one of the most iconic country singers in history and one of the most influential musicians of our time. When the singer with the deep, bass voice wants to work with you, you don’t say no. In fact, Cash was the first singer to record the theme song of Bonanza in its full version. He did change the lyrics around a little bit, but remained true to the storyline. The single was released in September, 1962 on Capitol Records and was featured in Cash’s sixteenth album, Ring of Fire.
There’s no doubt that the portrayal of women, men and fathers on television have changed dramatically over the years. At the time that the show was filmed, the producer of Bonanza, David Dortort, wasn’t quite pleased with how the American father was portrayed on television and in the media in general and so he decided to change the episodes to be one hour long so there would be screen enough time to portray Lorne Greene, who played Ben Cartwright, as the caring father.
Hop Sing the chef
Many times when actors are a part of a show for so many years and for so long, they tend to take on some of their character’s attributes in their lives off screen. This was the case for actor, Victor Sen Yung, who played the Cartwright’s cook, Hop Sing. Yung pursued a culinary career in real life and became a chef. He even published a cookbook in 1974, named The Great Wok Cookbook.
Teal’s tales in Hollywood
Actor Ray Teal played the role of the Virginia City Sheriff, Roy Coffee. While he wasn’t a regular, he did have the most amount of reappearances on the show where he appeared in 98 episodes from 1960 to 1972. An even more interesting fact is that Teal continued his acting career and later went on to star in over 250 films! Some of these films include the 1951 film, The Wild One, The Men and more. He also appeared in almost 100 TV shows.
The biggest boy in Bowie
Some of Blocker’s charm is found in the fact the he was a big guy, to say the least. In fact, Blocker’s weight has been a topic of interest since he was just a little boy. He was born weighing 14 pounds, which is absolutely unbelievable and he even won a title (that we’re not sure if he was ever proud of or not), he was considered the biggest baby that was ever born in Bowie, Texas. By the age of six he was already weighing in at 105 pounds!
Bonanza, the food chain
Dan Blocker knew how to turn his passion for food combined into a successful business. In 1963, Hoss founded the Ponderosa/Bonanza Steakhouse chain, where the first one opened in Westport, Connecticut. The restaurant became a great hit amongst meat lovers and probably fans who wanted ‘a piece’ of the show, literally and by 1989 there were over 600 restaurants all over the country. The Ponderosa chain was founded in 1965 and its first restaurant was in Kokomo, Indiana.
‘The Voice of Doom’
Before he landed the role of Ben Cartwright, the patriarch of the family and the father of three sons, actor Lorne Greene was working as a radio announcer and reporter during World War II for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Greene was born in 1915, so it all adds up. He was in charge of delivering the sad news during the horrible war. He earned his nickname, “The Voice of Doom,” because of the type of news he was announcing as well as his famous deep voice.
It paid off to be a guest star
Interestingly enough, guest stars who were appearing on the show in its first season, were getting paid much more than the stars of the show were. Apparently, when Bonanza first aired, the producers weren’t confident that the cast was famous enough to gain enough audience to tune in and watch the show, so they brought in different famous stars to spice the show up. This changed by the second season when ratings were rising and he main cast of the show have started to gain their stardom status.