Bonanza: The Hayburner
Bonanza – also known as Ponderosa
Bonanza is an NBC-produced western television series that ran on the NBC network from September 12, 1959 to January 16, 1973. Lasting 14 seasons and 430 episodes, it ranks as the second longest running western series (behind Gunsmoke) and still continues to air in syndication, The show centers around the Cartwright family, who live in the area near Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The show stars Lorne Greene,Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker, Michael Landon, and David Canary. The show’s title “Bonanza” is a term used by miners in regard to a large vein or deposit of ore, and commonly refers to The Comstock Lode. In 2002, Bonanza was ranked No. 43 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.
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” (Dan Blocker); and the youngest was the hotheaded and impetuous Joseph or “Little Joe” (Michael Landon). Via exposition (Bonanza, “Rose For Lotta”, premiere, 9/12/59) and flashback episodes, each wife was accorded a different ethnicity: English (Bonanza, “Elizabeth My Love”; episode #65) Swedish (Bonanza, “Inger My Love”, episode #95) and French Creole (Bonanza, “Marie My Love”, episode #120) 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 600,000+ acre ranch (over one thousand square-miles) called the Ponderosa on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe in Nevada. The vast size of the Cartwrights’ land was quietly revised to “half a million acres” 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).
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 (Paulette Cohn, “Bonanza: TV Trailblazer”, American Profile Magazine, p. 12, June 5, 2009).
Episodes ranged from high drama (“Bushwacked”, episode #392, 1971; “Shanklin”, episode #409, 1972) to broad comedy (“Hoss and the Leprechauns”, episode #146, 1964; “Caution, Bunny Crossing”, episode #358, 1969) and addressed such meaty issues 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), andillegitimate 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); 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, 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.
Though not familiar stars in 1959, the cast quickly became favorites of the first television generation.
Lorne Greene – Ben Cartwright
Canadian-born Lorne Greene starred as family patriarch Ben Cartwright. Early in the show’s history, Ben Cartwright 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 (save Roy Rogers and Fess Parker‘s Daniel Boone) had on-screen wives. Any time one of the Cartwrights seriously courted a woman, she died from a malady, was slain, or left with someone else.
Georgia-born Pernell Roberts played eldest son Adam, an architectural engineer with a university education. Adam built the impressive ranch house (“The Philip Diedesheimer Story”, Oct. 31, 1959; “Bonanza: The Return”, NBC TV, April 21, 1993). Roberts disdained the assembly-line mindset of serial television, and fought with series writers regarding Adam’s lack of independence. Despite the show’s success, Roberts departed the series following the 1964–65 season (after 202 episodes) and returned to theater. Attempts to replace him with a Cartwright cousin (Guy Williams) and Little Joe’s maternal half-brother (Barry Coe) were unsuccessful (“Bonanza: Scenery of the Ponderosa: Candy Canaday”).
Dan Blocker was six foot four and roughly three hundred pounds when chosen to play the gentle middle son Eric, also 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 (& uncle, Gunnar), or a rib to his humiliating, failed attempt to break a horse (“Ponderosa”, episode No. 1, PAX TV 2001). In the Bonanza flashback (Bonanza, “Journey Remembered”; episode #142, NBC-TV, 1964), 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.”
In May 1972, Blocker died suddenly from a post-operative pulmonary embolism following surgery to remove a failing 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 major male character (though it was done twice previously with female leads- in 1956 on Make Room For Daddy, and again in 1963 with The Real McCoys). It was not until the movie, Bonanza: The Next Generation (Syndicated, 1988), that it was explained that Hoss had drowned attempting to save a woman’s life.
Michael Landon as ‘Little Joe’ Cartwright; this shot was taken before the cast’s clothing was standardized for continuity purposes and Landon is seen in black attire akin to that worn in later seasons by Pernell Roberts
Michael 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 1972 two hour, “Forever”, which was recognized by TV guide as being one of televisions best specials (November 1993). According to David Dortort, Landon grew difficult during the last five seasons the show ran. (“Bonanza” four DVD set biography notes, Bear Family Records). Landon appeared in all but fourteen Bonanzaepisodes for its run, a total of 416 episodes.
In the episodes “First Born” (1962) and “Marie, My Love” (1963), viewers learn of Little Joe’s older half-brother Clay Stafford, born to his French Creole mother Marie. According to Lorne Greene’s song “Saga of the Ponderosa” (“Bonanza” four CD set biography notes/song, Bear Family Records, 1964), Marie’s first husband was “Big Joe” Collins, who dies saving Ben’s life. Ben travels to Marie to break the sad news, and the two bond. After Ben marries Marie, they choose to honor “Big Joe” by calling their son “Little Joe”. Whether to Stafford or Collins, Marie Cartwright was previously married.
In 1967, David Canary joined the cast as “Candy” Canaday, a plucky Army brat turned cowboy (“Sense of Duty”, episode 271, September 24, 1967), 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 would return two seasons later after co-star Dan Blocker’s death, reportedly having been approached by Landon.
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 (Bonanza, “Stage Door Johnnies”, 7/28/68). Though often referenced, Hop Sing only appeared in an average of seven to eight shows each season. As a semi-regular cast member, Sen Yung was only paid per episode. After 14 years, Sen Yung was widely known, but financially struggling. The Hop Sing character was central in only two episodes: “Mark Of Guilt” (#316) and “The Lonely Man” (#404).
Absent Canary in mid 1970, the writers sought a fresh outlet for Ben’s fatherly advice, and so a teen boy was introduced. Fourteen-year-old Mitch Vogel joined the series as Jamie Hunter, the orphan son of a roving rainmaker, in the 363rd episode, “A Matter of Faith” (aired September 20, 1970). Ben adopted Jamie in a 1971 episode.