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Bonanza: Ponderosa PartyTime - TV's Original Cast (1959 - 1973
Television Series) [CAST RECORDING music
: The Definitive Ponderosa Companion
Bonanza aired in 1959 in color which was a big deal back then. The series
helped to make color television very popular. Bonanza lasted for fourteen
years. That's pretty close to being the longest running western, which
goes to Gunsmoke.
The family oriented western Bonanza starred Lorne Greene, Michael Landon,
Pernell Roberts, and Dan Blocker. Sadly only one member of the cast is
still alive. Pernell Roberts, who quit after six seasons, is the only
surviving Cartwright. Pernell Roberts went on to star in Trapper John
Lorne Greene, who played the father and leader of the Cartwrights, Ben
Cartwright, went on to play on Battle Star Galactica which was a very
good sci-fi series.
Dan Blocker (Hoss) died of a blood clot when he was only forty-two in
the last season of Bonanza, and Little Joe (Michael Landon) went to make
great family shows like Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven,
which is one of my favorites from the eighties.
Despite the efforts to keep the show fresh, Bonanza began to slip
in the ratings after a dozen
years on the air. Dan Blockers sudden
death in 1972 spelled the end for Bonanza. The loss of the beloved Hoss
was a devastating blow to both the cast and the shows fans. Producers
reacted quickly, persuading David Canary ,who had played on the show before,
to return and recreate his role of Candy, and added Tim Matheson as Grif,
a troubled young cowboy, to the cast. But the loss of Blocker seemed to
take the heart out of the show. Bonanza limped a long for another season,
eventually being moved to Tuesday night, before being abruptly canceled
The last new episode aired on January 16, 1973, but the series has been
in syndication ever since.
Bonanza got its name from the Comstock Lode which was "an exceptionally
large and rich mineral deposit" of silver. Virginia City was founded
directly over the lode which was mined for 19 years. Ponderosa was an
alternative title of the series, used for the broadcast of syndicated
reruns while Bonanza was in first-run on NBC. Ponderosa is also the name
of a series prequel airing on PAX-TV from 2001-02.
The Bonanza pilot, "Rose for Lotta", was written by David Dortort, who
also produced the series. Dortort's other creations include The Restless
Gun, The High Chaparral, The Cowboys, and the Bonanza prequel, Ponderosa.
For most of its 430 episode run, the main sponsor of Bonanza was Chevrolet
and the stars occasionally appeared in commercials endorsing Chevrolet
automobiles. All of the regular cast members had appeared in numerous
stage, television and film productions before Bonanza, but none was
particularly well-known. Dortort was hired to create Bonanza by NBC's Vice
President of Network Television Programming Alan W. Livingston, who
oversaw production of the pilot.
In 1959, the series aired on Saturday evenings opposite The Perry Como
Hour. Bonanza was one of the first series to be filmed and broadcast in
color. RCA owned NBC (and the series) and wanted to use it to spur sales
of color television sets. However, the Saturday night ratings were dismal
and Bonanza was soon targeted for cancellation. Given one last chance, it
was moved to Sunday nights at 9:00 PM. The new time slot caused the series
to soar, and it eventually reached number one by the mid-'60s; by 1970, it
had become the first series to ever wind up in the Top Five for nine
consecutive seasons (a record which would stand for decades) and thus
established itself as the single biggest hit TV series of the 1960s; it
remained high on the Nielsen ratings until 1971, when it finally fell out
of the top ten.
The opening burning map of the Ponderosa Ranch was illustrated with
incorrect bearings. David Dortort, choosing not to redo the map, altered
the compass points. The original painting was done by artist Robert Temple
The show chronicled the weekly adventures of the Cartwright family, headed
by wise, thrice-widowed patriarch Ben Cartwright (played by Lorne Greene).
He had three sons, each by a different wife: the eldest was the urbane
architect Adam Cartwright (played by Pernell Roberts) who built the ranch
house; the second was the warm and lovable giant Eric, better known by his
nickname: "Hoss" (played by Dan Blocker); and the youngest was the
hotheaded and impetuous Joseph or "Little Joe" (played by Michael Landon).
The family's cook was the Chinese immigrant Hop Sing (played by Victor Sen
Yung). "Bonanza" was considered an atypical western for its time, as the
core of the storylines dealt with Ben and his three dissimilar sons, how
they cared for one another, their neighbors and their land.
The family lived on a thousand-square-mile ranch called Ponderosa on the
shore of Lake Tahoe in
Nevada; the 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).
Greene, Roberts, Blocker, and Landon were equal stars. The opening credits
would rotate the order among the four stars. As the series advanced,
writers began to showcase one or two Cartwrights in each episode, while
the others would be seen briefly in the prologue and epilogue. Not only
did this provide for more thorough character development, it also gave all
four actors more free time.
Originally, the Cartwrights tended to be depicted as put-off by outsiders.
Lorne Greene pointed out to the producers that as one of the region's most
affluent timber and livestock producers, they had better moderate their
clannishness. The producers agreed with this observation and changed the
Cartwrights to be more amiable.
Early in the show's history, the thrice widowed Ben Cartwright, recalls
each wife in flashback episodes. A recurring situation (which also occurs
in the TV western The Big Valley), was that every time one of the
Cartwrights became seriously involved with a woman, she died from a
malady, was slain, or left with someone else.
In a few 1964 episodes, Ben has a nephew named Will (Guy Williams a.k.a.
Zorro), who visits the Ponderosa ranch. He was the son of Ben's deceased
Though not familiar stars in 1959, the cast quickly became favorites of
the first TV generation. All but Roberts had appeared in Dortort's earlier
"Restless Gun" series. Lorne Greene, known as the "Voice of Canada", was a
fairly successful announcer, actor and drama coach in his native land; he
gained notoriety during World War II for his deep, resonant voice, and the
maudlin task of reading the weekly casualty list to his radio audience.
Ben Cartwright, as Greene once described him, was "suede leather", as he
was both a strong and soft patriarch. Greene recorded several record
albums in character as Ben Cartwright, scoring a #1 hit with his dramatic
spoken word performance of "Ringo". He also recorded a version of the
Georgia-born Pernell Roberts was a familiar face at television studio lots
in the late 1950s according to producer David Dortort, who saw him in a
Gunsmoke episode. The young actor won a prestigious Drama Desk award in
1955 for his performance in an off-Broadway rendition of Macbeth. Roberts
had long disdained the medium's commercialization of his craft for its
mass production, assembly-line mindset. In 1964 he told Look magazine's
John Poppy, "I just get on and ask somebody for the lines and say them.
They have to turn-out 34 a season, one every six days." But the B-movie
quality of the scripts were what the actor loathed most, "the plots, the
godawful plots. They take a plot and write it six different ways for six
different Sundays. One week it's lawyers night, next week it's ranchers
night. You change protagonist, but it's the same old plot. And the
writing-GAD!" An accomplished singer as well as stage actor, he recorded
an album of folk ballads entitled "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies". He
left the series in February 1965 after disagreements with writers and
producer David Dortort. According to the July 2005 Bonanza Gold issue,
David Dortort said his intent was to have a married Adam appear less
frequently, thus making him a semi-regular. It was a move to broker with
Roberts, who vowed not to renew his contract. Attempts to replace him were
made by introducing Ben's stepson, Clay, (played briefly by Barry Coe) and
Will, a nephew (played by Zorro star Guy Williams), but neither lasted.
Two of the remaining stars felt that storylines which created new
Cartwrights could potentially defeat their own contract negotiations, so
Williams' Will Cartright wound up leaving the series with Adam's fiancče.
Williams moved on to Lost in Space and never revived the Will role.
Three hundred pound Dan Blocker, played the gentle middle son Eric a.k.a.
Hoss. Born in Texas, he was a teacher before becoming Hoss. The character
had a warm heart and a penchant for lost causes. The Hoss character was
originally conceived as "lovable but slow-witted". Blocker, however, was
the only cast member with an advanced degree, a Masters in Dramatic Arts.
In 1972, Dan Blocker died suddenly from a post-op blood-clot to the lungs.
The show's producers chose to simply mention the character's death in
passing (TV producer Sheldon Leonard was the first to "kill off" major
characters, starting in 1956 with Make Room For Daddy and in 1963 with The
Real McCoys, wherein the female leads of each show chose not to renew
Little Joe Cartwright
It was young Michael Landon who received most of the fan mail, and was
seen in female oriented teen magazines. Taking advantage of that appeal,
there were several episodes in which Landon and David Canary appeared
shirtless, either separately or together. In addition to acting, Landon
began to develop his skills in writing and directing Bonanza episodes,
starting with "The Gamble." Some of the shows Landon directed are
considered to be the most moving including, "The Wish", "He Was Only
Seven", and "Forever". According to David Dortort, Landon himself grew
difficult during the last five seasons the show ran, "Nearly every line,
every scene, every set up... everything would halt for endless story
conferences on the set... it got increasingly bitter toward the end." In a
1992 memorial retrospective directed by the star's son Michael Jr.,
"Michael Landon: Memories with Laughter and Love", cast member David
Canary said that the one word that most described Landon to him was,
In the episode, "Marie, My Love" (1963), the episode detailing Ben
Cartwright's wooing of Little Joe's mother, we find out that Little Joe
has an older half-brother that nobody knows about. Marie's
then-mother-in-law spirited the child away moments after Marie gave birth,
then told her that he died.
In 1967, David Canary joined the cast as "Candy" Canaday, a plucky
army-brat turned cowboy, who became the Cartwrights' confidant, ranch
foreman and timber vessel captain. The character vanished in 1970 after
Canary himself had a contract dispute with Dortort. He would later return.
In 1970, 14-year-old Mitch Vogel joined the series as Jamie Hunter, the
orphaned son of a rainmaker. Ben adopted Jamie in a 1971 episode. During
this character's run on the show, Bonanza ratings fell greatly.
In the fall of 1972, Bonanza was moved to Tuesday nights against a new CBS
sitcom, Maude. The scheduling change, as well as Dan Blocker's death
several months earlier, resulted in plunging ratings for the show. David
Canary returned to his former role of Candy (to make up for Blocker's
absence), and a new character named Griff King (played by Tim Matheson)
was added to lure younger viewers. Griff, in prison for nearly killing his
abusive stepfather, was paroled into Ben's custody and got a job as a
ranch hand. Several episodes were built around his character, one Matheson
never had a chance to fully develop before the show's sudden demise in
January 1973. Many fans felt that the Hoss character was essential, as he
was a nurturing, empathetic soul who rounded-out the all-male cast.
From the third season on, the Cartwrights and nearly every other recurring
character on the show wore the same clothing in almost every episode. This
was done to cut the cost of refilming action shots (such as riding clips
in-between scenes), as previously-shot stock footage could be reused.
* Ben Cartwright: Taupe shirt, Brown leather vest, gray pants, creme
colored hat, occasional green scarf
* Adam Cartwright: Black Shirt, Black or dark blue pants, black hat.
Elegant city wear. Cream-colored trail coat.
* Hoss Cartwright: White shirt, brown suede vest, brown pants, distinctive
* Little Joe Cartwright: cream, gray or white shirt, green corduroy
jacket, tan pants, tan hat. Black leather gloves from 10th season on.
* Candy Canaday: Crimson shirt, black pants, black leather vest and hat,
In 1968, Blocker began wearing a toupee on the series as he was
approaching forty and losing hair. He joined the ranks of his fellow
co-stars Pernell Roberts and Lorne Greene, both of whom began the series
with hairpieces (Greene wore his modest frontal piece in private life too,
whereas Roberts preferred not wearing his, even to rehearsals/blocking).
Michael Landon was the only original cast member who was wig-free
throughout the series, as even Victor Sen Yung's Hop Sing wore an attached
queue (pony tail).
For 14 years, the Cartwrights were the premier western family on American
television and have been immensely popular on cable networks such as TV
Land, ION (formerly PAX), Family Channel (before Fox Family & ABC Family
era) and the Hallmark Channel. TV Land airs a package of Bonanza 1959-1970
package. Pax aired that same package too. Hallmark Channel & the original
Family Channel aired a Lost Episode package 1966-1973 package. Family
Channel aired it as "Bonanza: The Lost Episodes"
Bonanza was brought back for three made-for-TV movies featuring the
Bonanza: The Next Generation (1988), Bonanza: The Return (1993) and
Bonanza: Under Attack (1995). Michael Landon, Jr., played Little Joe's
son Benji while Gillian Greene, Lorne's daughter, played a love interest.
In the second movie, airing on NBC, a one hour retrospective was done to
introduce the drama. It was hosted by both Michael Landon Jr. and Dirk
Blocker. According to TV Guide, NBC told Blocker he was too old to play
the Hoss scion, but was given the role of an unrelated newspaper reporter.
Clips of his appearance were heavily used in advertisements promoting the
"second generation" theme. Hoss' son Josh was born out-of-wedlock, as it
is explained that Hoss drowned without knowing his fiancee was pregnant.
Such a storyline could have been problematic in the original series. ("The
Big Valley", however, had a major character in Heath, who was presented as
illegitimate. The "Gunsmoke" movies of the early 1990s employed a similar
theme when Matt Dillon learned he sired Michael Learned's daughter via a
short-lived romance. The initial story was first introduced in 1973, when
depiction of fornication courted protests, so CBS insisted their hero Matt
have the encounter when he had amnesia).
Ponderosa on DVD
In 2001, there was an attempt to revive the series' concept with a
prequel, Ponderosa, with a pilot directed by Kevin James Dobson and filmed
in Australia. Covering the time when the Cartwrights first arrived at the
Ponderosa, it lasted 20 episodes. The prequel had less gunfire and
brawling than the original. Bonanza creator David Dortort approved PAX
TV's decision to hire Beth Sullivan, a producer from
Medicine Woman, which some believe gave the series a softer edge.
Bonanza also featured a memorable theme song by Jay Livingston and Ray
Evans that is often parodied. Lorne Greene and the cast recorded versions
of the song with lyrics.
The Bonanza theme is one of the best known pieces of made-for-television
music, and variations of it were used for twelve seasons of the series. In
1968, a new percussion-heavy arrangement of the original theme was
introduced; the new version was used until 1970. A new theme song, called
"The Big Bonanza" was written in 1970 by episode scorer David Rose, and
was used from 1970-1972. A faster rendition of the original theme returned
for the 14th and final season.
The theme song has been recorded by numerous artists in a diverse variety
of styles. Well known American country singer Johnny Cash recorded a
version of the theme song, released on his sixteenth album: Ring of Fire:
The Best of Johnny Cash. Singer Ralf Paulsen recorded a German-language
version of the song in 1963. Michael Feinstein last recorded the song in
2002 on his, "Songs of Evans and Livingston" tribute CD. Bad Manners did a
ska version of the song. Michael Richards, as Stanley Spadowski, sang a
bit of the theme song while being held hostage by Channel 8's news goons
The Little House on the Prairie theme (also by Rose), was heard first in a
1971 episode of Bonanza. The overture for The High Chaparral composed by
Harry Sukman can be heard briefly at the start of the 1966 episode "Four
Sisters from Boston."
The first Virginia City set was used on the show until 1970 and was
located on a backlot at Paramount and turned up in episodes of Have Gun -
Will Travel, Mannix and The Brady Bunch. On a 1970 Bonanza episode
entitled "The Night Virginia City Died", Deputy Clem Foster's pyromaniac
fiancee leveled the town in a series of fires. This allowed for a switch
to the less expensive Warner studios from September 1970 through January
The program's Nevada set, the Ponderosa Ranch house, was recreated in
Incline Village, Nevada, in 1967, and remained a tourist attraction
worldwide until its sale in September 2004.
Currently, Bonanza Ventures, Inc. grants merchandising and licensing
rights worldwide. The original series spawned successful novelty folk
albums from 1962-65, a series of "Big-Little" books from 1966-1969, a
chain of Bonanza and Ponderosa steakhouses from 1963-present, the Lake
Tahoe-based "Ponderosa" theme park from 1967-2004; a line of action
figures, lunch buckets and View Master sets from 1965-1973. Two Ponderosa
novels were written from 1996-1999.
Bonanza Gold, a current magazine, features detailed information about the
show, including interviews with actors and other production personnel,
articles about historical events and people depicted in the series, fan
club information and fan fiction.
A handful of episodes of the series are in the public domain, and some TV
showings of these episodes on low-budget stations and networks (and also
on low-budget public domain DVDs and VHS tapes) substitute generic music
for the familiar theme music.
In 1973, NBC licensed the syndication rights to the series to National
Telefilm Associates, which changed its name to Republic Pictures in the
1980s (by then part of the Spelling Entertainment organization). Select
episodes ("The Best of Bonanza") were officially released in North America
in 2003 on DVD via then-Republic video licensee Artisan Entertainment
(which was later purchased by Lionsgate Home Entertainment). Republic
still retains the syndication distribution rights to the series, and
lately the series is distributed worldwide via CBS Paramount Television,
which owns the Republic Library. DVD distribution details are currently
under on-going negotiation, but CBS DVD is now the home video rights