As the network’s longest-running Western TV series, there wasn’t a family in America that wasn’t familiar with NBC’s Bonanza. Telling the story of Ben Cartwright and his three sons—Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe— the show was hands-down a fan favorite. With its picturesque shots of Nevada’s Lake Tahoe areas and its relatable characters, the show ran for 14 years and a total of 431 episodes!
With hundreds of episodes to keep track of, we’re sure that even Bonanza’s die-hard fans don’t know everything there is to know about the show. So, saddle up, partner! We’re going on a trip to the Ponderosa to visit some of our old friends. Here are some behind-the-scenes facts from NBC’s hit show, Bonanza!
America’s Second Favorite TV Dad
NBC’s Bonanza would have never been as popular as it was without actor Lorne Greene. In the series, Greene played Ben Cartwright, Bonanza’s main character, and the head of the Cartwright clan. Generations of kids grew up watching the show, and many saw him as a father figure. Although Cartwright was strict with his sons, he also had a soft, sympathetic side that audiences loved.
Unsurprisingly, Green was voted America’s second-favorite TV dad. In addition to his performance on Bonanza, science fiction fans may recognize him as Commander Adama in the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica television series and Galactica 1980. Greene was usually typecast as the wise father figure, which continued long after his run on Bonanza.
Single Father Figure
When Bonanza first aired in September 1959, other TV sitcoms depicted their father figures as dummies who need their wives to manage their everyday tasks. David Dortort, the show’s producer, decided to change that. He wanted to portray Ben Cartwright as independent, capable, and respectful, whether it was in his personal life or career. Each woman Ben courted was either killed off the show or ran away with someone else.
To make sure Ben and the other Bonanza characters had enough screen time, Dortort increased the show’s run-time from a half-hour to an hour. This allowed the writers enough time to explore the show’s characters and personalities. Dortort’s decision worked, and the actor Lorne Greene received several fan letters from teenagers wishing he was their father.
The Cast Never Changed Outfits?
Bonanza is an iconic TV show, not just because of its characters and scenic shots, but also because of its recognizable outfits. Interestingly enough, the show’s cast wore the same clothing in almost every episode, starting from the third season. There are two reasons that producers made this decision. One, it made it much easier to dress the show’s stunt doubles: Hal Burton, Bob Miles, Bill Clark, Lyle Heisler, Ray Mazy.
The decision also saved the series on filming costs. Since the characters wore the same outfit in every episode, the show could reuse action shots, such as horse-riding clips between scenes. Although Bonanza was one of the most well-funded shows at the time, the episode length and elaborate sets meant that it was very expensive.
Michael Landon’s Big Break
Actor Michael Landon’s big breakthrough was being cast as the youngest Cartwright son, Little Joe. Before the show, Landon had had a few small roles on numerous TV Westerns. After joining the cast of Bonanza, Landon began to develop his writing and directing skills. The show’s producers began to let him work more on the production side of filmmaking, starting with the Season 3 episode, The Gamble.
Most of the episodes that Landon wrote were dramas, including the two-hour special, Forever, which was named one of TV’s Best Specials by the TV Guide in 1993. While the actor grew tremendously during the show’s 14-year run, producer David Dortort felt that Landon became more and more difficult as the show went on, especially during its last five seasons.
Wait, What’s His Real Name?
Actor Michael Landon may have one of the most recognizable names in TV Westerns, but did you know that’s not actually his real name? Born in 1936 to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Landon’s real name was Eugene Maurice Orowitz. When he began looking for a job in the entertainment industry, Hollywood agent Bob Raison suggested the actor change his name to something more “mainstream.”
Following this advice, the actor settled on Michael Landon, after reading the last name in a phone book. After Bonanza, he was cast as Charles Ingalls in The Little House on the Prairie. He appeared on the cover of TV Guide more than twenty times, a record surpassed by one actress, Lucille Ball.
Part-Time Singers, Too
The show’s cast members were known for their amazing singing voices. All four of Bonanza’s lead actors could hold a tune and even sang in several musical tracks made especially for the show. Many fans may not remember, but the show actually released a holiday album called Christmas at the Ponderosa.
The album was a huge success, with many fans playing it as part of their Christmas celebrations. In the 1960s, actor Lorne Greene capitalized on his role as Ben Cartwright and recorded several country and folk albums. The actor even had a number one track named Ringo (which referred to the real Old West outlaw Johnny Ringo, not the Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr). Another famous track, Saga of the Ponderosa, also got a lot of playtime on the radio.
Travel Down to the Ponderosa Steakhouse
Actor Dan Blocker, who played the middle Cartwright son, Eric “Hoss” Cartwright, loved the show so much that he tied himself to the franchise in other ways besides acting. In 1963, Blocker opened the first Bonanza restaurant in Westport, Connecticut. Three years later, two brothers bought the Bonanza restaurant chain and went on to open over 600 restaurants by 1989.
Unfortunately, the buffet-style restaurant chain’s parent company filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and failed to get back on their feet since. It seems that every few months, another Ponderosa Steakhouse shutters its doors, leaving fans and customers to find a different spot to eat. As of 2019, there were only 75 locations left (and counting).
Hop Sing Could Cook
Actor Victor Sen Yung played the role of the family’s cook, Hop Sing, a man of many talents. Not only did the actor provide comic relief in the show, but he was also apparently a pretty great cook in real life. In 1974, the actor wrote The Great Wok Cookbook and appeared in many cooking programs at the time.
A year before the show wrapped, Sen Yung was aboard the Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 710 when it was hijacked by two Bulgarian immigrants. The FBI managed to storm the plane, but gunfire ensued, and the actor was shot in the lower back. He luckily survived the incident, but sadly passed away eight years later in 1980 from natural gas poisoning while making pottery in his home.
King Arthur and His Knights
The show’s producer, David Dortort, wanted Bonanza to be a modern version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In his vision, Ben Cartwright would be King Arthur, and his sons would be his knights. Ponderosa, therefore, was a modern-day Camelot. But the producer’s infatuation with King Arthur wasn’t just limited to the show’s premise.
In the sixth season’s episode, A Knight to Remember, the Cartwright clan actually encounters a knight in shining armor who scares a group of bandits. The sheriff doesn’t believe that a crazy man is running around dressed like a knight, and he blames the robberies on Adam. We later find out that the “knight” is, in fact, Uncle Leo, who was convinced that he is King Arthur.
Quite the Resume
Actor Dan Blocker was cast as Ben’s second son, Hoss Cartwright. While Hoss was portrayed as a clueless and gullible guy, Blocker was the complete opposite. The actor had a master’s degree in dramatic arts and was a Korean War veteran. A few years after returning from overseas, Blocker began his career in the entertainment industry.
He played a few small roles in shows like the Three Stooges, Gunsmoke, and Zorro, before he was cast in NBC’s Bonanza. Blocker became a star during the show’s run, but unfortunately, he didn’t get to see the series’ wrap. The actor passed away from a pulmonary embolism in 1972, just 19 days before production of the show’s final season was scheduled to start. He was only 43 years old.
Biggest Baby in Texas
A major part of Hoss Cartwright’s character was that he was a large guy, which worked out great for Dan Blocker. The actor was a large guy. Blocker weighed 14 pounds when he was born, making him the largest baby born in Bowie County, Texas. The actor went on to become a whopping six-foot-four, weighing around 300 pounds.
While he was in school, Blocker put his size to good use and became the star football player at Sul Ross State Teacher’s College in Texas. While filming Bonanza, extra-sturdy horses had to be used for his riding scenes. Apparently, ordinary horses had a hard time carrying him, and one even collapsed after he mounted it.
A Slow Start
Bonanza initially aired on Saturday nights but failed to leave a lasting impression on its audience. Surprisingly enough, NBC thought to cancel the show before the first episode premiered because of the high production costs, but they decided to keep it at the last minute because of the colored shots of the picturesque Lake Tahoe.
The show was also one of the first series to be filmed and broadcasted in color, which NBC knew would eventually rake in the ratings. It wasn’t until the network moved Bonanza to Sundays at 9 p.m. that the ratings started to soar. By 1964, the show reached number one, where it stayed until 1967. By 1970, Bonanza was the first TV series to remain in the Top Five list for nine consecutive seasons.
Another Cash Opportunity
The TV series was set in the fictional Ponderosa, which was a thousand-square ranch on the shores of Lake Tahoe. However, most of the scenes were filmed in the backlot at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles. But this didn’t stop several fans from driving to Nevada, only to be disappointed that the Ponderosa Ranch didn’t actually exist.
These disappointed fans inspired Bill and Joyce Anderson to turn their small horse farm into a Ponderosa Ranch Theme Park. When the park opened in 1968, the plan was to film the series at the theme park and then open the set up to tourists when filming completed. However, it became too expensive to shuttle the entire cast and crew, and only 15 episodes were actually filmed on location. Unfortunately, the theme park shut its doors in 2004.
Creative Ways to Save a Buck
Bonanza was a very expensive show to film. Although NBC reportedly had a budget of $150,000 per episode, they were always trying to find ways to save money. The series’ producers were tasked with creating an authentic Wild West world every week for 14 years. Filming in color also added to the costs.
This doesn’t include the number of horses, costumes, actors, writers, and producers it took to film the show. To save on production costs, Bonanza’s producers were forced to get creative. Besides making the cast wear the same costumes for most of the series, showrunners relied on stock footage for transition scenes. This helped to cut back on costs, saving the production team thousands of dollars.
Zorro as Adam Cartwright?
Actor Guy Williams is best known for playing the main character in another popular show of the time: Disney’s Zorro. But what many fans don’t know is that Williams was actually approached by Bonanza’s showrunners to play the role of Adam Cartwright. However, as we all know, Williams declined the offer, but that wasn’t the last of his involvement with the series.
In 1964, the actor returned to Hollywood and was added to the series’ cast as Will Cartwright, Ben’s nephew. Unfortunately, the actor was written off the show after only five episodes despite the fact his character was originally written to replace Adam Cartwright since actor Pernell Roberts planned to leave the show. Fans were disappointed about Roberts’ planned departure.
His Name Wasn’t Hoss?
Although fans grew to know the show’s most likable character as Hoss, it actually wasn’t his real name. The middle Cartwright son was actually named Eric, after his mother’s father. The name Hoss was a nod to the character’s size, as the name is an endearing term for “big and friendly” in Swedish.
“In the mountain country, that is the name for a big, friendly man,” his mother, Inger, says in an episode flashback. Well, the nickname fits because anyone who’s a fan of the show knows that Hoss is loveable and gentle deep down. The nickname Hoss could have also worked for actor Dan Blocker himself. He was reportedly known around set as a friendly guy and the most likable cast member.
The “Cartwright Curse”
A large part of the show’s storyline was that each one of Ben Cartwright’s sons was from a different wife. Adam’s mother was British, Hoss’ was Swedish, and Little Joe’s mother was of French Creole descent. Anytime one of the Cartwright men courted a woman, she died or left with another man, and none of his previous wives lived to see their sons grow up.
While this became known as the “Cartwright Curse,” it was actually standard practice for most Westerns at the time. Showrunners would usually introduce a romantic interest but stayed clear of weddings, which meant that very few cowboys had on-screen wives. This left Ben to raise all three of his boys as a single father.
That Wasn’t Their Real Hair
While the actors playing Ben, Adam, and Hoss weren’t actually related in real life, they did have at one physical characteristic in common: they were all balding! In 1968, Dan Blocker’s hair loss was becoming more evident, and showrunners forced him to start wearing a toupee. Blocker was the last cast member to start wearing a wig, as Lorne Green and Pernell Roberts were already sporting hairpieces since the beginning of the show.
But while Green wore his toupee in his private life too. Roberts had a hard time wearing one. Refusing to wear one during rehearsals, the actor would only wear a toupee during filming. Michael Landon was the only original Bonanza cast member who went wig-free throughout the series. Even Victor Sen Yung wore a fake rattail!
Bonanza Means What?
For those who don’t know, “Bonanza” means “jackpot.” It was used by miners to refer to a large deposit of silver or gold. It comes from the Spanish word with the same spelling, which means fair weather or good luck, depending on the context. The word was most commonly used in referring to Comstock Lode, which was the first major discovery of silver ore in the United States.
Comstock Lode is located in Virginia City, Nevada, not far from the Cartwright’s fictional Ponderosa Ranch. The show’s name proved to be fitting, not just because of the series’ storyline, but because the show itself was a bonanza for NBC.
Pushing Color Television
By the time Bonanza premiered in 1959, color televisions were just hitting the markets. However, despite their obvious advantages, it took a while for people to actually start buying them. Bonanza was one of the earliest TV shows to be filmed and broadcast in color, even though many of their fans watched earlier episodes in black and white.
But as the show began to gain traction, more and more people bought color TVs. Even when Bonanza had low ratings, NBC continued to air the show with the purpose of selling more color television sets. Of only three networks in the United States, NBC was the only one invested in pushing color televisions.
Adam Cartwright’s Departure
At the start of the series, actor Pernell Roberts Jr. had high hopes for what he could contribute to Bonanza. However, as the series went on, Roberts became frustrated with the direction of the show and his character’s limitations. “I haven’t grown at all since the series began… I have an impotent role. Wherever I turn, there’s the father image,” he said in a Washington Post interview.
After disagreeing with writers over scripts, and the show refusing to let him perform elsewhere, Roberts did not extend his six-year contract with Bonanza. Writers explained Roberts’ departure from the show with the explanation that Adam moved away. In some episodes, he was at sea. In others, he had moved to Europe or was working on the East Coast.
Candy Filled the Void
After Pernell Roberts left the show, producers had to fill the void left by his fan-favorite character, Adam. So, for Season 9, Bonanza producers and writers then came up with the idea of the character Candy, who was played by actor David Canary. The football player turned actor had just turned down a left-end position with the Denver Broncos so he could focus on his career in the entertainment industry.
Candy was an Army brat turned cowboy who was very close with the Cartwright family. Candy was very popular with the show’s fans, but he disappeared in September 1970 over a contract dispute. After Dan Blocker’s sudden death two seasons later, Canary returned.
Difficult to Work With
When actor Michael Landon took on the role of Little Joe Cartwright, he was very committed, maybe a bit too committed, according to producer David Dortort. Landon didn’t just act in 416 of the show’s 431 episodes. He also wrote and directed. However, the more that Landon got involved behind the scenes, the harder he made it for the production teams to do their jobs.
According to Dortort, the actor’s dedication and perfectionism were some of the major reasons for long shooting days and production delays. Landon was also so protective about his character and his development that he often argued with the show’s writers. He also reportedly never wanted new characters to be introduced.
The Catchy Theme Song
As any Bonanza fan knows about the show, and they’re most likely going to start humming the theme song to themselves. While the theme song is pretty catchy, but many fans don’t know that it actually had lyrics, which were originally sung by the show’s leading men. However, this version of the song was only played at the end of the pilot, as producers decided to go with the instrumental version. Various country Western singers also had their own renditions of the song.
In order to avoid paying royalties, they wrote and sang their own words. There are many artists that came out with their own covers, including Marty Gold, Buddy Morrow, and Johnny Cash. However, the biggest hit (according to the music charts) was Al Caiola’s guitar version. The track reached number 19 on the Billboard music charts in 1961.
Thank you, Chevrolet
While no cars actually appeared on Bonanza (after all, it was set in the 1860s), Chevrolet was a major sponsor of the show. The car manufacturer helped finance over 430 episodes, and, in return, Bonanza’s four leading men endorsed the brand. The actors appeared in many Chevrolet commercials, which turned the car company into a brand associated with the rugged countryside, strong family values, and the All-American beliefs that Bonanza depicted on screen.
Also, for the first time in history, the car company played a special, 5-minute commercial that introduced their new 1963 model cars. The commercial ran during the series’ fourth season. Well, what can we say! The sponsorship worked both for Chevrolet and Bonanza.
Calling all Trekkies!
While Bonanza is a nostalgic Western and Star Trek is a science fiction series, many of Star Trek’s leading actors appeared as guests at the Ponderosa ranch. Why is that? Well, just as Bonanza was supposed to be a Western with a King Arthur spin, Star Trek was supposed to be a space Western.
The show was even described by one critic as the “Wagon Train to the stars,” referring to the Western hit series, Wagon Train. So, which of your favorite Star Trek stars had small roles on Bonanza? Actors James Doohan, William Shatner, and Leonard Nimoy, to name a few. It seems like it was a rite of passage to appear on an episode on Bonanza!
Tackling Taboo Subjects
While most Westerns, or reality TV shows in general, at the time focused on action and adventure, Bonanza tried to do things differently. The show didn’t lack adventure per se, but it made an effort to talk about uncomfortable subjects. Issues of racism and social justice were addressed during the show’s run, and writers reflected that in the show’s script.
Many shows steered far away from controversial issues because they were scared to lose viewers, but not Bonanza. The show created another space where issues of social justice could be discussed. The show tackled subjects varying from anti-Semitism to interracial marriage and discrimination against Chinese Americans. It’s safe to say that Bonanza was ahead of the times!
Everyone Gets Time in the Spotlight
To make sure that the ensemble cast was treated equally, producers made sure that each actor was given a chance to appear in the show’s opening sequence. Bonanza’s opening sequence rotated the characters each week, giving all four actors the chance to headline the show. The equality between characters wasn’t just limited to Bonanza’s credits each week.
Each episode focused on a different character, giving Ben, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe each the chance to develop on their own. Although Pernell Roberts Jr. (Adam) left the series because of disputes with the show’s creators over his character, the other actors liked the producers’ approach to giving everyone equal screen time, and they remained until the series ended in 1973.
Bonanza Reruns Have a Different Name
In the summer of 1972, NBC decided to play reruns of episodes from 1967 to 1970. But since Bonanza still had one more season, the network decided to call the reruns by a different name: Ponderosa. When the series was canceled in November 1972, the reruns’ names were changed back to their original title, Bonanza.
The cancellation came as a shock to everyone in the show, and the entertainment industry as a whole, especially after their strong season premiere. However, the show began to fumble for the rest of the season, losing thousands of viewers. This left network executives no choice but to cancel the show. Luckily, the show was in syndication, and generations of kids were still able to tune into their favorite Western, even years later.