Saluting ‘Bonanza,’ the most popular TV show of the swingin’ sixties
Premiering September 12, 1959, on NBC, Bonanza was television’s first full hour western series filmed in color. For a prime time sagebrush saga, it is second only to Gunsmoke, running a staggering 14 seasons into 1973 and producing a grand total of 431 episodes.
Facing possible cancellation after its first season — the writing was clichéd and the characters were not always delineated sympathetically— Bonanza was saved by network executives keen on promoting new RCA color television sets to an audience still satisfied with black and white sets. And full disclosure — RCA was NBC’s corporate parent.
Given a new lease on life, Bonanza settled comfortably into the Nielsen Top Five by 1961, staying there through season 11 — ten astonishing years later. It was by far the most popular series of the 1960s. In fact, Bonanza ranked No. 1 from 1964–1967 in the ratings, and it still airs perpetually around the world.
During a July 5, 1973, Tonight Show appearance only six months after Bonanza’s untimely cancellation, Michael Landon related with unmitigated glee how awful pilot episode “A Rose for Lotta” was when it originally debuted.
“Two years ago we showed the pilot of Bonanza to the crew,” admitted Landon to pal Johnny Carson. “Now after all these years you forget what it was you really made in the beginning. Lorne Greene wasn’t there. I don’t know if he could have taken it. Really. It was camp. And it’s hilarious. Lorne’s constant line is (Landon adopts a mockingly serious tone), ‘If we’re not back in five minutes, kill him.’
“And Dan Blocker, every time a girl would get off a stage, Dan would go (Landon makes a goofy swooning face). I was jumping around with an umbrella stabbing people in the stomach.
“We sat and watched this, all the guys that had worked together for so many years, and just yucked for one hour. Actually at the time we filmed the pilot we thought it was rotten. We were very lucky that the show got on because the pilot was not a particularly good pilot. Once it got on, things started to gel…”
Bonanza’s premise finds a three-time widower, Ben Cartwright — portrayed by Canadian actor Lorne Greene — one of the largest landowners in Nevada. Nicknaming his sprawling home the Ponderosa, Ben had three sons — each from a different mother who conveniently perished much too soon — who helped him on his ranch. Plenty of adventure was always thrown in for good measure.
Greene was the ultimate authority figure. He possessed a deep, resonating voice that lent itself well to radio and narration during his long career. “The Prime of Life” , “Love Me Not” , “A Good Night’s Rest” , “To Die in Darkness” , and “Search in Limbo”  all feature excellent, nuanced performances from the actor in dramatic, romantic, and comedic settings, respectively.
His eldest son was Adam, portrayed by mercurial Waycross, Georgia, native Pernell Roberts. He was essentially the more serious and level-headed of the brothers, very similar to his pa.
The finest example of Roberts’s acting range is demonstrated in “The Crucible,” a 1962 episode where guest star Lee Marvin vividly embodies a demented desert hermit who torments him so severely that Adam is virtually reduced to a crying, helpless animal at its finale. It is one of the greatest episodes of the series, bar none.
Annoying his fellow cast mates and crew, Roberts burned his bridges and controversially left the series at the end of the 1964–1965 season in order to seek more quality roles and return to his first passion, theatre. David Canary quasi-replaced him two years later as affable drifter Candy Canady, hired by the Cartwrights to assume ranch foreman duties in the thrilling “Sense of Duty” episode.
Mind you, Bonanza was the No. 1 show in America at this time. Roberts became a punching bag for late night icon Johnny Carson, as he found little mainstream success until his comeback in 1979 with the medical drama Trapper John, M.D., on CBS. However, Roberts had the last laugh, outliving all of his Ponderosa family, succumbing to pancreatic cancer in Jan. 2010 at age 81.
Dan Blocker embodied middle son Hoss Cartwright. Hoss was a very big man, able to win any fight, yet his heart was as large as his empowering frame. It’s difficult to list his best episodes, as there were so many. Blocker was probably the first cast member to totally inhabit his role during the early seasons. Viewers believed Blocker was Hoss and considered him to be the heart of the show.
Two episodes from the first season which demonstrate his fine acting skills are “The Newcomers” — the romantic scenes between Hoss and the talented Inger Stevens are heartbreaking — and “Feet of Clay” in the moment where child actor David Ladd cries upon learning that Hoss killed his outlaw father in self-defense, pummeling Hoss’s chest uncontrollably with his tiny fists.
Blocker passed away unexpectedly following a routine gall bladder operation in 1972, which was ultimately one of the factors leading to the show’s cancellation midway through its 14th season in Jan. 1973. His final film was The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County, and Blocker seemed poised to transition into movies at the time of his death.
Landon rounded out the main cast as Little Joe, Ben’s youngest son. Often letting his Scorpio emotions get the best of him, Little Joe was quick to fight, and many girls fell for his handsome, charming attributes.
“The Truckee Strip”  may have been the earliest example of these endearing characteristics. Little Joe’s sense of loyalty was paramount, and if a friend was wronged, the villain had better watch out [e.g. “The Last Haircut”, 1963].
During later seasons of Bonanza, Landon cultivated his writing and directing skills, always wringing the emotion out of any scene he oversaw. Tragic, gut-wrenching episodes like “He Was Only Seven” and “Forever” [both from 1972] should be required viewing for first-time directors and writers. As an example of Landon’s impressive versatility, witness the hilarious dry wit found in “Dead Wrong” .
Landon went on to even greater artistic heights in the series Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven, staying on television continually from 1959 until his sudden pancreatic cancer ordeal ended in 1991, a remarkable achievement and probable record in the television industry.
In an exclusive interview with Mitch Vogel, who joined the Bonanza cast for three seasons as orphaned rainmaker Jamie Hunter and ultimately became the adopted son of the Ponderosa patriarch, the former child star reveals, “I actually did a guest star part on Bonanza when I was 12 years old — two seasons before I officially joined the cast. The episode was called ‘The Real People of Muddy Creek’ [broadcast on Oct. 6, 1968 during season 10].
“I was a young, working child actor who had only appeared onscreen up to that point in Yours, Mine and Ours with Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball. I didn’t even have to audition for ‘The Real People of Muddy Creek.’ They just asked me to do it. Even though it was a small part, I had a great time being there. I remember being on the set for about two days.
“The thing that impressed me so much was that Lorne, Michael, and Dan were all so very nice to me. They brought me pictures — which I didn’t ask for — that they signed to me. They made me feel so special.
“Fast-forward a bit…David Dortort had apparently seen me in The Reivers with Steve McQueen. I got a call from David saying he would like to use me in one of his shows. At that time he didn’t know if it was gonna be Bonanza or The High Chaparral [Mark Slade, who played heartthrob Blue Boy Cannon, decided to exit Chaparral at the conclusion of its third season].
“David decided to cast Rudy Ramos as a half-Pawnee, half-white youth named Wind, so he wrote the part of Jamie Hunter for Bonanza. The first appearance of Jamie was in ‘A Matter of Faith’ — the rainmaker episode [broadcast on Sept. 20, 1970; the second episode from season 12].
“David actually didn’t tell me that I was going to be a series regular. He kinda said, ‘You can come and stay with us.’ But it wasn’t a commitment at that point for a series. I guess David wanted to see how the character would resonate with people. Apparently it resonated well. He officially asked me to join the cast not long after. It was quite exciting to be asked to do something like that without having to audition or anything [laughs].”
So, why is Bonanza still successful 60 years later? When millennials watch Bonanza, the vivid color and cinematography of the series create a timeless quality. The show simply does not look its age.
The opening credits cue a crucial, eye-catching moment as a map of the Ponderosa appears. Suddenly erupting into burning flames, the instrumental theme song, driven by Wrecking Crew member Tommy Tedesco’s ringing electric guitar, promptly roars along at full gallop — Johnny Cash later had a hit single with a vocal version. It’s really easy to get hooked and not change the channel.
Consider that Bonanza had its fair share of fisticuffs and gunfights, but the show always centered on the family bond between the four Cartwrights. Even if an attractive lady fell in love with one of the Cartwrights, the audience knew the family would never split up. Succumbing to bullets from a bad man’s revolver or meeting with a debilitating illness were frequent plot devices for the doomed pretty lead.
Today families can still watch Bonanza without worrying about excessive violence, profanity, or sexual themes. A strong sense of morality maintained the show’s backbone. Episodes were not strictly shoot-em-ups, either.
Bonanza was innovative in devoting full episodes to comedy that actually gelled, often focused on Blocker and Landon’s strong sense of comedic timing [i.e. “Hoss and the Leprechauns,” (1964), “Ponderosa Birdman” (1965), “Ponderosa Explosion”, “Maestro Hoss” (both 1967) or “The Last Vote” (1968)].
Little Joe would always encourage his older brother to participate in these harebrained, sometimes get-rich schemes, while Pa Cartwright played the consummate straight man. Joe’s impish laughter was especially contagious.
Racism was addressed on Bonanza during a time when it was not fashionable to do so, ranging from the persecution of Chinese workers [“The Fear Merchants”, 1959] to the horrific effects of slavery. Landon wrote and directed “The Wish”  which dealt with Hoss trying to help a black family combat prejudice after the Civil War’s conclusion, an episode Landon called his favorite of the entire series.
Actress Lee Purcell of later Big Wednesday and Valley Girl fame talked about her appearance in “The Weary Willies” , a notable post-Civil War episode tackling rape and the plight of young battle-scarred soldiers attempting to readjust to civilian life, with this writer.
“Being on Bonanza was very interesting for me,” confirms Purcell. “I had grown up watching it with my grandmother, and then, there I was on the show! Leo Penn chose and directed me [helming a total of 11 Bonanza episodes, Penn was Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn’s father].
“I portrayed a very young girl who was beaten and raped by a young Civil War veteran, played by Richard Thomas. Richard and I became friends, and we worked together again on The Waltons. Lonny Chapman played my father, and he was very kind to me.
“The Bonanza episode was considered to be a very shocking and brave bit of television history at the time. Portraying the subject of rape on Bonanza, which was a culturally iconic All-American series, and to have the perpetrator be a Civil War veteran, another historical icon, was a big risk then. But, there are historical accounts of those types of crimes that actually happened during the period after the Civil War in the Old West. Those were brutal times.
“As the episode was shot during the latter years of the series, they really took some chances. In those days, I played a lot of young girls who were victimized by something or someone.”
The writing and direction were also commendable. Storylines were never convoluted, always following a logical progression. The majority of episodes did not follow a serial format like many modern-era programs, ensuring channel surfers to perhaps pause and view an episode without having to dwell on the back-story.
The four main leads were all highly skilled, proficient actors, able to make the audience believe and identify on some level with whatever situation they faced. When Little Joe had terrible nightmares due to his fear of heights [“Between Heaven and Earth”, 1964], the viewer felt his anguish.
Notable guest stars are also a draw for audiences. It is amazing to spot all the stars that did some of their earliest work on Bonanza, including Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Jodie Foster, Marlo Thomas, Dennis Hopper, Jack Lord, or Carroll O’Connor. In a lost art form, each guest star with a significant role was featured in the opening credits, posing in costume with their name then listed underneath.
The current popularity of Bonanza shows no sign of wavering. Much of the credit falls on the shoulders of creator and producer David Dortort and his extraordinary vision for the show. He also masterminded The High Chaparral, another popular western series centered on a family, their vast ranch, and their many adventures.
The first season of Bonanza finally arrived on DVD in 2009 to commemorate its 50th anniversary. Each season is split into halves with 16 episodes per release. Thus far, the first eight seasons are available. However, a number of episodes, including the later seasons, can be seen on YouTube.
At 14 seasons, it is difficult to determine how many years it will take for the full show to be available. Consequently, bootleg DVDs are rampant, especially of the first two seasons. A number of those episodes are in the public domain.
Two cable channels, TV Land and INSP, are currently home to Bonanza. TV Land explores the early, popular episodes featuring Roberts, while the latter airs the second syndication package often referred to as the “lost” episodes.
Actually a misnomer, the 171 “lost” episodes begin after Roberts’ departure from the series at the end of season six in 1965. They continue until the show’s cancellation some eight years later. Rick Miller, owner of the excellent Ponderosa Scenery website, was largely responsible for the “lost” episodes returning to television. Me-TV, a smaller network airing on digital subchannels of affiliated television stations, also carries this package.
Bonanza is the epitome of television excellence, and thanks to syndication and dedicated online fan clubs, ensuing generations will continue to discover this classic western series for years to come.
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Exclusive Interview: Determined Arkansan Beth Brickell had an intimate meeting with Princess Grace Kelly at the Palace of Monaco to figure out whether it was feasible for her to pursue her dream of acting. How did she manage such an unheard-of feat? By going the tried and true route and writing a letter. After years of toiling at the prestigious Actors Studio in New York City, she found herself cast in a breakout smash television series in 1967 as the dependable wife of Florida Everglades game warden Tom Wedloe [Dennis Weaver] on the half hour family adventure series Gentle Ben. Into the late 1970s Brickell dropped by Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Emergency!, Hawaii Five-O, and Fantasy Island…occasionally enlivening a feature film such as Kirk Douglas’s underappreciated, decidedly cynical Western Posse. “The Unconventionally Persistent Journey of ‘Gentle Ben’ Heroine Beth Brickell” stands as her most comprehensive, intimate interview in years. And oh yeah, she passionately locked lips with Michael Landon in “Emily” and nursed an accidentally rifle-shot Dan Blocker back to health in the Emmy-considered “A Single Pilgrim.”
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