NBC’s hit western series, Bonanza had a nice long run, from 1959 to 1973, and produced a whopping 431 episodes! Since the first episode aired, the Cartwrights entered the hearts of all and the Ponderosa became a household name. Who would have thought so many people would tune in in to watch a show taking place in the 1860s? The show, starring Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Pernell Roberts and Dan Blocker was really about the American dream, and maybe that’s the reason why Bonanza has become the second longest-running Western in all of television history. Here are some facts you might not have known about this exciting Western.
You may remember actor Guy Williams as John Robinson in Lost In Space, but believe it or not, he was first-pick to play Adam Cartwright! However, before he could say yes to Bonanza, he joined the cast of Zorro. He did, however, join the cast for five episodes on season five.
Williams played Will Cartwright, the cousin. The producers wanted to be ready with a replacement for Pernell Roberts in case he decided to leave, and Williams was their go-to guy. Eventually, though, Pernell Roberts decided to stay for another season, and Williams was made redundant.
You may remember actor Pernell Roberts as playing the eldest Cartwright son, who just so happened to be an intellectual and an architect. Roberts considered himself to be similar to his Cartwright persona, to the point that he thought himself above the 34-episode season.
This resulted in Roberts’ 1964 departure from the Bonanza cast to join a theater company. On the show, it was explained as Adam Cartwright “going to sea.” Later on, Roberts found fame again in the series Trapper John, M.D. where Roberts played the titular character.
Indiana-born actor David Canary played Candy Cannady, who was brought on “Bonanza” to intensify the plot after Pernell Roberts role was terminated, and took on the role as “close as family” friends with the Cartwrights. Candy was known as the fun-loving guy who joined the family in their adventures on the ranch.
He was the Cartwright family’s foreman and brought anticipation from the fans, after being devastated that Adam Cartwright was killed off. After Bonanza, Canary had a number of high-profile appearances, his best-known one being the frequently-married Adam Chandler on All My Children.
“Bonanza” is actually a slang term that was used by miners to describe ore, or any other large mineral vein or deposit. It was after this real-world counterpart that Bonanza was named after. In Spanish, the term ‘bonanza’ usually means prosperity.
The term is also synonymous with “jackpot,” a blessing or a stroke of luck, and, amazingly, a real-life bonanza of silver ore was discovered close to the actual location of the Comstock Lode, the Cartwright’s ranch. What are the odds?
Anyone who has seen the series knows that female characters close to the Cartwright family were few and far between. Not that they never existed, but that they didn’t stick around long. It seemed like every poor girl who got involved with the family either died a tragic death or skipped town.
It became a long-running joke among the cast members that the Cartwright family was cursed. Pa, Ben Cartwright, had three wives. Where are they? Well, they all died before the show even started. But they do make appearances in a few flashback episodes. Unfortunately, no women survived more than a few episodes.
Keep on reading for more fascinating facts about Bonanza!
Victor Sen Yung played the character of Hop Sing, the Cartwright’s cook. While he never actually cooked on set, he was an accomplished Cantonese-style chef in real life. He published his first cookbook in 1974 called the Great Wok Cookbook. In 1980, he was found dead in his home under what the authorities called “mysterious circumstances.”
After police investigated his death, it was discovered that Yung died of asphyxiation after turning on a faulty kitchen stove for heat. The gas slowly killed him while he slept. He had been working on his second cookbook but passed away before completing it.
Michael Landon played the Cartwright’s youngest, and probably most popular, son Little Joe. It was a role that he was very committed to! He was so committed to the role, in fact, that he appeared in practically every single episode of the series.
There were only fourteen episodes that Landon didn’t appear in, making his grand total of Bonanza episodes a whopping 416 appearances out of the series’ total of 431 episodes. More incredibly, he even started writing and directing his own Bonanza episodes.
The show had several recurring characters throughout the seasons, but Roy Coffee was one of the ones who appeared the most often. He was on 98 episodes of the show! As you may remember, he was the nearby sheriff of Virginia City and an all-around decent bloke.
Coffee was played by Ray Teal, who acted in over 250 movies throughout his career and more than 90 TV shows. Some of his other famous appearances include 1937’s Zorro Rides Aagain, 1941’s Billy the Kid and 1951’s Ace in the Hole, alongside Kirk Douglas.
Bonanza was a show with four main cast members, and they were all truly equal when it came to being stars. The four leads were Patriarch Ben, Adam (the oldest son), Hoss (the best son), and Little Joe (the youngest, and most handsome, son).
The producers really wanted to make sure that everything was fair on set, so much so that they would even swap the billing order of the cast members to create a sense of equality among the show’s leading men.
The next fact is about Lorne Greene’s post-Bonanza career!
After Bonanza became successful, Lorne Greene’s career became even bigger, and he took advantage of that success by releasing a set of folky country-and-western albums. In 1964, he even managed to score a number one hit with his spoken word ballad “Ringo.”
Later, the Canadian-born actor would even record a fictional history of the Ponderosa, which he would entitle the “Saga of the Ponderosa.” Greene eventually released ten albums throughout his caereer. What’s even more surprising is that Greene actually started his career as a summer camp drama instructor!
Two years before his untimely death in 1972, Dan Blocker was one of the main candidates that Robert Altman was considering for an unknown lead role in M*A*S*H. As a Korean War veteran, Blocker’s resume was on point for a M*A*S*H regular.
The actor actually served as an infantry sergeant during the war, and even recieved a Purple Heart after suffering injury in combat. Unfortunately, Altman never got permission to cast Blocker and we missed out on a potentially wonderful M*A*S*H regular.
Believe it or not, most of Bonanza‘s stars created musical albums at some point, and all four of the Cartwrights even sang on a 1964 album entitled “Christmas at the Ponderosa.” The album included classic Christmas favorites like “Deck The Halls,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Jingle Bells.”
The Ponderosa patriarch, Lorne Green was especially successful when it came to music, and he had a big hit with his single “Ringo” in 1964. Of course, he was also known for a great performance of the Bonanza theme song.
The next fact is about how Lorne Greene transformed the TV dad role.
David Dortort, one of the show’s producers, didn’t like the way that American fathers were being represented on sitcoms. He thought that most TV dads were being made to look like fools, and he wanted to change that with Bonanza.
He really wanted to flesh out Lorne Greene’s character, so he made his series an hour long, as opposed to the typical half hour. He wanted him to be a kind, caring father that other men could strive to be like!
Bonanza nearly lost out to its competition, the legal hit drama Perry Mason, prompting NBC to almost cancel the show. However, because Bonanza was one of the first shows to be filmed in color, it gave people a reason to buy color TVs.
Actually, NBC’s parent company RCA just happened to sell such TVs. Coincidence? We think not. The show was eventually moved over to Sundays, boosting the ratings and making Bonanza a huge hit.
Enjoyed this fun fact? Wait till you read the next one!
Remember when the Star Trek Enterprise landed at the Ponderosa? Don’t worry, that didn’t actually happen. But Bonanza does have a very strong Star Trek connection. Almost every character from Star Trek: The Original Series made a guest appearance on Bonanza at one time or another.
Hard-core fans of the show surely remember the various roles from guest stars such as Captain Kirk himself aka William Shatner, as well as James Doohan, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Grace Lee Whitney, Majel Barrett, and Walter Koenig.
Bonanza was known for having some amazing guests on the series. But did you know that the guests usually got paid more than the regular cast? They did! At least during the first season. Now we know how Star Trek was able to afford all the Christmas lights and papier-mache.
After rating stated to rise in the second season, the regular cast started pulling in the big bucks, overtaking the guests. But one reoccurring guest sadly never made the big bucks, even though he appeared in 107 episodes. Actor Victor Sen Yung was reportedly paid very little for his role as Hop Sing, one of the reasons he began writing cookbooks after the series ended.
No, seriously. As an infant, the future actor and war hero was actually recorded as the largest baby in Bowie County, Texas. He weighed in at a whopping fourteen pounds! That is a whole lot in case you didn’t know.
But his reputation didn’t quite stop there. When Dan was a first grader, he had already past the 100-pound mark! He made use of his physique as a football player in school. Now we know where those chubby cheeks come from!
From season four to season fourteen, all of the show’s characters wore pretty much only one set of distinctive outfits. Cowboy attire to the extreme, the characters became very associated with the look. Fun fact: Dan Blocker’s memorable oversized Stetson hat was purely coincidental!
The actor got it during costume fitting as a joke, but everyone agreed it was the perfect look for Hoss. The reasoning behind it, however, was purely economical. It made the costume budget much cheaper, and also made editing a lot easier when it came to re-shoots and using stunt doubles.
You wouldn’t necessarily connect our favorite TV western and the medieval legend of King Arthur, right? Well, British Screenwriter and producer, David Dortort actually used King Arthur’s story as inspiration for Bonanza, with patriarch Ben Cartwright portraying the legend himself.
The three Cartwright sons took the role of his knights in the famous tale of brotherhood. The analogy came about when Dortort viewed the paternal character as an example to his children, something that was also felt by Bonanza fans.
Bonanza is still considered one of the most expensive shows to have been produced up until today. The series’ production blew a lot of a cash especially on the set and the salaries. Apparently, the network paid the guest actors more than the recurring ones.
According to several sources, this happened because they initially believed the standard cast wasn’t good enough. NBC allocated between $100,000-$150,000 per episode! That is a costly season but not to worry, the hit show was so successful, they could afford to splurge.
Bonanza had a full stock of hair pieces! Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and Lorne Greene were all shedding their hair as they grew older onset and following Blocker, who began using a toupee as he turned 40, the rest of the cast got their own hairpieces.
Not all cast members wore hair pieces though – Michael Landon was the only one of the fabulous four who managed to keep his head full of hair. Believe it or not, even the character Hop Sing had a fake ponytail.
Physical appearance has always been a priority in Hollywood, even in Westerns. This was especially amplified by the introduction of color television. Now you can see it all! Not only did most of the actors wear hairpieces, there was one actor that wore heels.
Actor Michael Landon who played Little Joe wore heels while filming. He was particularly short, measuring in at 5’9, but he felt he had to keep up with his fellow actors. Most of the men were six feet or over, so he added a few inches with his shoes.
When Adam Cartwright actor Pernell Roberts left Bonanza, the network decided to split his income into the rest of the actors’ salaries. The three remaining Cartwrights ended up receiving his share and Michael Landon commented that they “splitted it three ways.”
It has been quoted that Lorne Greene had told Pernell Roberts not to quit the show because of the high income they received. But that didn’t stop Roberts from pursuing a bigger dream of his, and eventually became a successful stage actor.
Bonanza’s run on the air spanned three decades and consistently ranked in the top three most watched network TV series. They also gained a number of A-list viewers along the way. Elvis was a huge fan of Bonanza and even requested a picture with some of the stars upon meeting them.
After moving to a new time slot and gaining Chevrolet as a sponsor, the series rocketed to the number one spot on television by 1964. A title that Bonanza held onto through 1967 when it was usurped by the variety show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS.
“Little Joe” actor Michael Landon was so passionate about Bonanza that he wanted to be a contributor to the script, however, show producer David Dortort wouldn’t allow it. Landon tried to win him over and after several failed attempts, finally succeeded in doing so.
Landon was eventually upgraded to being a regular writer for the show and was then introduced to the world of scriptwriting. He even wrote for the hit TV series, Little House on the Prairie, in which he played patriarch Charles Ingalls
Ben Cartwright’s wives, much like the premise of the entire series, was centered on breaking down hate and stereotypes. As such, each of his wives were from different nationalities and backgrounds. His first wife, Elizabeth Stoddard was played by actress Geraldine Brooks.
Elizabeth came from English ancestry and was living in Boston when she met Ben. She was the daughter of a sailor and met her future husband while he himself was a seaman. The two married and together had a son, Adam Cartwright, but Elizabeth died soon after childbirth.
Ben Cartwright’s second wife was Inger Borgstrom, played by actress Inga Swenson. The character on the show was Swedish and was instantly attracted to Adam with her motherly-instincts and love of children. She fell in love with Ben and the two went out West together.
Not to fear though, it wouldn’t be long until the Cartwright Curse reared its ugly head again. The newly married couple was only out West for a few weeks before she was killed by a band of Native Americans. She gave birth to Hoss Cartwright before her death. According to Little Joe, Inger “was like a clean, fresh sunrise”
Pa’s third and final wife was a French-Creole woman from New Orleans named Marie DeMarigny. She, like poor Inger before her, also took a liking to his children. Marie had a somewhat sordid past. Her son was stolen away by a wicked step-mother and her ex-husband died in a scandal.
In the series, it’s suggested that Marie was once a prostitute and that her father was hung for being a pirate. She gave birth to a son with Ben, Joseph “Little Joe” Cartwright and tragically died in a horse accident when her son was only five-years-old.
The Cartwrights had a cook on the show, Hop Sing, who portrayed a very stereotypical Asian character, despite the show’s progressiveness. It wasn’t the best situation, but on the bright side, for over 100 episodes he did help the Cartwrights out quite a bit.
Hop Sing was played by Victor Sen Yung, who had a very successful Hollywood career as a character actor. Sen Yung always gave a sunny performance, making him one of the more memorable parts of the show according to fans.
Pernell Roberts Played the character of Adam Cartwright, the oldest son in the family who had a university degree and was the more polished of the brothers. After six years of portraying the eldest Cartwright brother, he threatened to leave the show.
This resulted in him getting fired from the cast by NBC. Pernell Roberts claimed he didn’t enjoy making the series any longer and that he had different expectations for the outcome. Well, at least “Bonanza” paved the way for him as an actor.
Michael Landon may have been one of the most committed actors on the show but that also made him one of the most difficult actors to work with. The actor contributed creatively to the series and had a “crystal clear vision” of what the show should be.
Landon was described as “fearless” in his dealings with network brass by co-star David Canary. The actor was known for fighting with the network and personally making changes to the show, with or without approval. As an unreplaceable character on the show, they didn’t have much of a choice.
The infamous term “rural purge” refers to a period starting in 1970 when many still popular rural-themed TV shows were canceled across all major US networks. Shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Hee-Haw, Lassie and Green Acres all got the chop.
Producers found that while the shows were popular, there were far too many rural-themed shows on the air and that they targeted a much smaller demographic. Bonanza was one of the final victims of the rural purge, being abruptly canceled in 1972. The final episode aired in 1973.
The iconic and historic Comstock Lode was right in the center of Virginia City – the 1859 silver strike. It was the stunning image of the Old West boom town, featuring everything you could possibly imagine: fortunes, laborers, and struggles with the Native Americans.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer writer Mark Twain, even worked in Virginia City! It was the perfect colorful setting for Bonanza. Comstock Lode was actually not far away from the location of the fictional Ponderosa Ranch.
In Eric “Hoss” Cartwright’ actor Dan Blocker’s tiny hometown of O’Donnell, Texas, there’s an entire room in a museum dedicated to him. The old room is filled with tons of memorabilia, including pieces from O’Donnell’s favorite son. What an honor to Blocker, and what a pleasure to Bonanza fans!
Because of the Blocker room, the museum itself is often referred to as the Dan Blocker museum. Some of the pieces you might find include the adult-sized clothes that Blocker wore at the age of eleven. Can you believe that?
A lot of fans of Bonanza would visit the Eastern side of Lake Tahoe in search of Ponderosa, only to find a regular old lake! So, when land developers Bill and Joyce Anderson found out about this, they decided to develop a large theme park at Incline Village, Nevada.
The park opened in 1967 and included a complete recreation of the Bonanza ranch home. Being able to travel to a theme park at the site of Bonanza allowed fans to relive their favorite movie. Unfortunately, the park closed in 2004.
Did you know that the Ponderosa and Bonanza Steakhouses are, in all actuality, inspired by the Bonanza television series? Dan Blocker was the one to actually start the Bonanza Steakhouses, though the Ponderosa Steakhouses were started by businessmen in Canada.
The two eventually merged, and both are now owned by the same company. It was a different business venture from what some might expect from a celebrity today, like cologne brands or clothing lines. But it sure lasted, so go eat up!
While recording the pilot for the first season, Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon sang lyrics together for the intro tune that would later become so famous. But perhaps it was just for the fun of it, or maybe the producers preferred a starker division of labor.
For unknown reasons, they did not end up using their voices for the show’s theme song and their recordings never aired. They decided to stick with the main singers, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. The song was also played as a cover by the legendary Johnny Cash.
Michael Landon was actually born Eugene Maurice Orowitz, which is not hard to guess why he wanted to change it a sturdier name like he chose. He decided on taking on the name by flipping through a phonebook and trying his luck.
His first preference was Michael Lane. However, he found out that there was already an actor that exists by that name, and is a part of the Screen Actors Guild Awards. He thus adopted Michael Landon as his stage name.
As you already know by now, Bonanza is slang used by miners for “jackpot” or wherever the gold was flowing – it’s something that happened more than some might expect in the wild West. This is attributed to the series’ plot as the patriarch finds gold on his ranch.
The vast majority of movie plots don’t foreshadow anything about the films themselves. But in this case, the show’s success and the Cartwright family’s success have something in common… They both got a big bonus. Maybe starving screenwriters should pay more attention to the gold jackpot theme.
Bonanza was the first show in television history to address the death of a character. After the sudden death of Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright, the directors decided that no other actor would be able to take his place. So they added his death into the show.
The character’s death was mentioned in the show “very simply, in passing” and the episode became one of the most-watch Bonanza episodes ever. But audiences quickly lost interest in the series post-Blocker. It wasn’t until Bonanza: The Next Generation that audiences learn Hoss drowned while trying to save a man’s life.
Actor Dan Blocker was nothing like his character Eric “Hoss” Cartwright. On screen, he was a big, friendly and highly gullible man. But in real life, Blocker was an educated war veteran. Dan served as a combat soldier in the Korean War, he received the Purple Heart for the wounds he sustained in battle.
Blocker received a master’s degree in dramatic arts and worked as a teacher prior to his acting career. He taught high school English and drama at various schools in Texas, New Mexico and finally California. This man was anything but gullible.
Ever wonder why “Candy” Candiday mysteriously vanished from the series only to return a few years later? He apparently left due to a salary disagreement, i.e. he wanted more money and they said no. After that, the actor decided to immediately leave the show.
Candy remained in touch with the regulars on the show and two years later, Landon and Dortort decided that they wanted him to make. After leaning on the producers, Candy came back. He picked up right where he left off, even if two years had passed. Oh, and he was given a significant raise to come back to the series.
The Bonanza theme song, orchestrated by David Rose, remains on the list of Top 100 Western songs of all time to this day. In fact, it was so popular that iconic country singer Johnny Cash recorded a full-length vocal version.
The lyrics of the song were slightly altered but still directly referenced the Cartwright family and the Ponderosa. Singer Ralf Paulsen even went so far as to record a version of the song in German while retaining the same style and mood.
With the introduction of color TVs, the producers of Bonanza were certain that an entirely new generation of stars would be born. As such, they wanted to cast actors who were not well-known. Big name stars were always avoided in the show’s leading roles.
Their decision certainly paid off. All the leading roles quickly became international stars. Bonanza was one of the first series filmed in color and it definitely added to the show’s success. The main cast rocketed to fame and went on to lead successful careers after the series needed.
In the first few episodes of Bonanza the Cartwrights were actually relatively hostile to visitors at the Ponderosa. But seeing as the family ran an important business for the community and neighboring areas they realized that many more people would be visiting the homestead.
The series quickly took a different direction and the characters were altered to be more friendly and approachable. Because hey, what kind of series would you have without visitors at the Ponderosa? A boring one is what it would have been.
Bonanza was a certainly a Western. But did you know that it was the first Western that didn’t revolve around hunting down and killing bad guys? The series was the very first TV Western “drama” that focused on issues in modern day society.
Every episode of the show addressed an issue in society such as racism, prejudice, and social justice. The Cartwrights were very much the social justice warriors of their time, but with guns and cowboy hats… so yeah, you’d better listen to them.
One actor was not at all happy with the social issue progress of the show. Actor Pernell Roberts who played Adam Cartwright. He wasn’t angry with talking about the issues, he was angry that the show was holding back and being far too conservative.
Roberts believed that the writing was too low-brow, demeaning to women and glorifying wealth in an age of poverty. His beliefs were far more liberal than the others. He even tried to push producers to have his character marry a Native American woman, played by a black actress.
The rural purge aside, Bonaza may have had another few strong years ahead of itself had it not been for one thing. The sudden death of Dan Blocker. He suffered a pulmonary embolism following gallbladder surgery and passed away at the age of 43. He was survived by a wife and four children.
The episodes memorializing his death were some of the most watch episodes of the entire series. But his absence was sorely missed, viewers thought so too. The season that aired post-Blocker was the lowest rated in Bonanza history and quickly canceled.
As we already know, the show’s producers made sure that all the actors felt equal in their roles. So if you pay attention to the opening credits, the four names were exchanged every week so that no one actor would get more exposure than the rest.
The production crew verified that all four actors felt like they were the all the stars of the show. No wonder the show was such a triumph!
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Sources: Fame Focus, Neatorama, worldlifestyle