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The backstory of TVs huge hit, Bonanza (1959-1973)

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Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright), Michael Landon (Little Joe Cartwright), Lorne Green (Ben Cartwright)

Bye, bye Bonanza

By Jerry Buck

Few people thought “Bonanza” would last long after its shaky start in 1959. When it finally caught on and became ingrained in the viewing habit, it seemed it would never end.

But the end came swiftly in the middle of the 14th year. Dan Blocker, as Hoss Cartwright — the most popular attraction — died last May. NBC switched the show from its comfortable Sunday niche to Tuesday.

When it faltered in the ratings, the network abruptly killed it. The last show will be aired Tuesday, Jan. 23 [1973].

Despite its removal from the network, there is no chance that “Bonanza” will fade away like a played-out silver mine.

The show, with 431 episodes in living color, has entered the fabric of American folklore. The mythical Ponderosa, the father image of Lorne Greene, Blocker’s gentle giant, the other larger-than-life inhabitants and the horseback morality plays they participated in, will glow on tubes around the world for many years to come.

WATCH BONANZA: Get the show on-demand or on DVD here!

David Dortort, the executive producer, still nursing his bitterness over the cancellation, said, “I broke the tradition of the Western hero as a rootless, homeless wanderer with no family who went out with the sunset.

“I said this wasn’t true at all. So we started the tradition of a group of people in one place.”

Dortort said he wanted a strong father image and a strong feeling of mutual respect and love among the family to counteract television’s portrayal of the father as a boob.

At the time the show was being formulated, a Canadian named Lorne Greene, who had not taken up acting until after a successful career as a newscaster, was closing a play in New York.

His agent told him “Omnibus” wanted him for a starring role, but he decided to turn it down. Next, he was offered a guest part on “Wagon Train.” He took it, but his agent was aghast that he would spurn a $4,000 job and take one for $1,000.

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But that role brought him to the attention of the people at NBC who were looking for a cast of father and three sons. Greene was first offered the role of the oldest son, but he said he’d rather play the father, Ben Cartwright.

Cast of Bonanza TV show 1968

He said he was attracted to the show because “it was a love story of four men. A true story of mankind. It showed the difference between good and bad. And I liked the idea of the strong father and based my characterization upon my own father.”

So in early 1959, they were cast. Lorne Greene as the father, Ben Cartwright; Pernell Roberts as Adam, the oldest son; Dan Blocker as Hoss, the gentle giant, and Michael Landon as Little Joe, the hot-headed, fun-loving youngster.

Each received $1,250 an episode in the beginning, but as the show became successful the salary steadily climbed. Roberts left the show in 1965. Near the end, the other three were getting $15,000 a show, plus another $15,000 for the first rerun.

Three years ago the principals sold the residual rights to the first 11 years back to NBC. The figure was undisclosed, but it made them millionaires. Personal appearances and shrewd investment of their earnings also added to their fortunes.

“Bonanza,” shown in 87 countries, undoubtedly is the most successful television show ever made. Dortort figures that since the beginning the show has taken in $250 million, although he is not certain what the profit has been. He said his take has been “a good percentage” of the profits.

With 431 episodes — all in color- -and the timeless nature of the stories, “Bonanza” is certain to continue earning millions of dollars a year in reruns.

Dortort, Greene and Landon could live comfortably for the rest of their lives without working again. Blocker’s family is financially fixed for life. But, of course. none of them wants to lay back and live off the profits.

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Dortort has moved onto the Universal lot, where he has a series under development and is discussing other deals with ABC and CBS.

Bonanza cast TV show

Acting is a series of beginnings and endings, and there is always the fear that each ending may be the last.

Greene said, “What ‘Bonanza’ has given me is freedom without fear. Actually, I never was fearful. I gave up a $70,000-a-year job as a newscaster to go into acting. But today I have a firm financial base to work from. I can only wish it for every actor.”

ALSO SEE: Bye, bye Bonanza after 14 seasons and 431 episodes (1973)

Since the end of “Bonanza,” the offers have been pouring in to Greene.

“I’ve had offers from two networks, two major studios. offers to do Broadway musicals,” he said. “It’s too early to tell.”

Landon, who joined the series as a youth with only a few minor movie credits, grew to manhood on the show and matured as an actor and developed into a writer and director.

The last “Bonanza” will be one he wrote and directed.

“I’m reading a lot of properties and working on some of my own,” Landon said. “I’d like to do whatever is good. As an actor, writer and director, although not necessarily all at the same time.”

Mitch Vogel. who played the adopted Cartwright son. Jamie, is making a movie in Canada.

Victor Sen Yung, the other actor in the show from the beginning, as Hop Sing. recently appeared in a “Kung Fu” episode and will be seen in the NBC movie special “The Red Pony.” He has no firm plans for the future.

Pernell Roberts, who left the series in 1965, has had a successful career as a free-lance actor. Most recently. he was filming a guest role for “Marcus Welby, M.D.” He declined to discuss his connection with “Bonanza.”

Bonanza Lorne Greene Michael Landon Dan Blocker

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2 Responses

  1. That was a bad season for westerns. They also cancelled James Garner’s “Nichols’ after only one season, killing off the main character in the last episode and replacing him with his twin brother, who was a tougher gunslinger. This series introduced us to Margot Kidder.

  2. That’s isn’t a backstory, it’s a forward story about where the actors are going to go after the end of the show. I wanted to read about the family came to be, a widower with 3 sons, and such a huge estate to manage. A long synopsis, if you will, about how this family came to be.

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