It’s been several years since the Cartwright boys rode the vast ranges of the Ponderosa, overseeing their land and fighting to protect their own little slice of the American Dream. What began as an almost failure blossomed into the second-longest running Western to hit the small screen, airing from 1959 to 1973, and then in perpetual syndication somewhere. The lives and loves of the Cartwright men were some of the most beloved and enduring tales on television. The history of this storied drama is as vast as the Ponderosa itself, so here are a few facts about one of the most popular TV Westerns ever.
1. Truly Equal Billing
There really was no star on Bonanza. Its four leads — Patriarch Ben, oldest son Adam, best son Hoss, and youngest son Little Joe — were given equal screen time in the opening credits. The producers even went so far as to swap the order in which the cast members were billed in order to keep things fair.
2. Papa Cartwright Might Have Been a Murderer
Okay, so Ben Cartwright was totally a good guy … but is the fact that he was thrice-widowed not a cause for concern for anyone? I know the frontier is hard, but three mysterious deaths for the mothers of each of his three sons? I don’t want to say “weird heir collector” but sometimes you have to wonder about a man who’s THAT open-hearted. Just sayin’.
3. His Sons Had Weird Proclivities, Too
Again, this is absolutely just a reflection of the times in which it was cool to flirt but not cool to seal the deal. That being said, every single time one of the Cartwright boys got close to a woman, they either died of an illness, were killed suddenly, or they left with someone else.
4. Lorne Greene Was a Music Star, Too
Once Bonanza caught on, Lorne Green actually capitalized on his image by releasing a string of folksy country-and-western albums. In 1964, he even scored a number one hit with his spoken word ballad, “Ringo”. Greene even performed a fictional history of the Ponderosa, called, appropriately enough, “Saga of the Ponderosa”.
5. ‘Bonanza’ Means Exactly That
The show was named Bonanza after its real world counterpart, a slang term used by miners to describe a large mineral deposit or ore. Its meaning is synonymous with “jackpot”. A real life bonanza was discovered close to the Cartwright’s ranch, the famous Comstock Lode.
6. A Quick Note About Hop Sing
These days, educated viewers know that the Cartwright’s cook, Hop Sing, is a massively racist stereotype. However, over more than 100 episodes, the cook was there to help the Cartwrights out as much as possible. Hop Sing was played by Victor Sen Yung who had an extremely successful character acting career in Hollywood. What’s more, throughout the series, the actor’s enthusiastic performance remained a bright spot on the show.
7. Those Costumes
From season four to season fourteen, the characters on the show only wore one set of distinctive outfits. The reason for this was purely economical. Not only did it make the costume budget easier to swallow, but it also made for easier editing in the event of reshoots.
8. ‘Bonanza’ Almost Got Cancelled … Like Immediately
At first, Bonanza’s competition (Perry Mason) proved to be too powerful and NBC was tempted to cancel the cowboy show. However, Bonanza was one of the earliest shows to be filmed in color, so it provided temptation for people to buy color TVs like the ones sold by NBC’s parent company RCA. Thanks to pressure from the television company, the show was switched to Sundays, which ultimately proved to be a huge ratings … well, bonanza.
9. Dan Blocker Died Before the Show Finished
The beloved middle son, Hoss, was played by the talented Dan Blocker. Unfortunately, Blocker succumbed to a pulmonary embolism during a failed gall bladder surgery. The producers, as a result, found themselves incapable of replacing the gentle giant and so the show went on without him. What’s odd, though, is that fans didn’t get an explanation for Hoss’ death (he drowned trying to save someone’s life) until a TV movie years later.
10. Pernell Roberts Wasn’t a Fan of Bonanza
The oldest Cartwright son, played by Pernell Roberts, was an intellect and architect. Roberts considered himself in a similar school, thinking himself above the grueling 34-episode season. In 1964, Roberts left the program to work in the theater. On screen it was explained that Adam had “gone to sea”.
11. Oh that Michael Landon (Part 1)
Michael Landon was extremely committed to his role as the Cartwright’s youngest son, Little Joe. In fact, he was so committed to the role that he appeared in every single episode of the series except for fourteen, a total of 416 appearances. What’s more, it was on Bonanza that Landon began writing and directing, even turning in some of Bonanza’s most beloved episodes.
12. Oh that Michael Landon (Part 2)
Of course, that creative spark was also a thorn in the side of several of Landon’s co-workers. Though he was a talented all-around performer, he was apparently extremely difficult to work with, especially during the last five seasons of the show. What’s more, he was reportedly the reason that no new major characters were admitted to the cast.
13. Sheriff Roy Coffee
Roy Coffee was one of the more frequently recurring characters on the show. The sheriff of nearby Virginia City, Coffee was a decent man who happened to be embodied by one of the most prolific actors of his generation. Ray Teal was on 98 episodes of Bonanza, but he was also in more than 250 movies throughout his career as well as 90 TV shows.
14. Lorne Greene Is One Of America’s Favorite TV Dad’s
One of the show’s producers, David Dortort, was appalled at the way American fathers were represented in the media when Bonanza aired (because he thought most TV Dads were morons). So, he made his series an hour long (as opposed to half and hour) in order to have time to flesh out the character of Lorne Green (who was Canadian) in order to turn him in to the kind, caring father that men should strive to be. Of course, it was a little unhealthy and adolescent how three grown men had to kowtow to their dad all the time.
15. Dan Blocker, Almost MASH Star
In 1970, two years before his death, Dan Blocker was considered one of Robert Altman’s top choices for an unknown lead role in MASH. Unfortunately for Blocker, the film’s producers refused to give Altman permission to cast the actor.
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