30 Surprising facts about ‘Bonanza’
“Bonanza” ran for 14 seasons between 1959 and 1973. While the western was set between 1861 and 1867, the show often grappled with contemporary social issues, which set it apart from many of the other shows of the time; especially other westerns. Here are some surprising facts you may not know about “Bonanza.”
Michael Landon was difficult
Despite his young age and inexperience at the time, Landon quickly grew a reputation for being difficult on set. It wasn’t that he wasn’t hard-working or that he was mean-spirited, it was just that he had a narrow vision of how he wanted scenes to look and be acted.
You can’t blame the guy for having passion about his craft, but it did get on some crew member’s nerves from time to time. He also wasn’t afraid to argue with the network when he felt they were steering the show in the wrong direction. Being stubborn seemed to pay off well for him, as Landon became one of the driving creative forces behind the show and enjoyed a long career in television.
A gloomy first gig for Lorne Greene
While Lorne Greene’s face and voice came to be loved when he appeared on screen, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, his voice used to signify the very opposite of joy for people listening to the radio during World War II. As a war reporter, it was often Greene’s job to deliver terrible news.
This earned him an ominous nickname, “The Voice of Doom,” due to his deep voice and the bad news that so often accompanied it. Fortunately for Greene, his new acting gig as Ben Cartwright was far removed from his old job. Of all the things associated with Ben Cartwright, “doom” is not one of them — unless perhaps you were one of his three wives.
Why did their costumes stay the same?
Dan Blocker’s signature oversized Stetson hat happened purely as a joke. He wore it to the audition as a gag, but when the casting team and other actors saw him wear it, they knew it was perfect for Hoss Cartwright. The rest is history.
The reason the cast wore the same outfits all the time was purely economical. Why change costumes all the time when it’s cheaper if everyone wears the same outfit every shoot. It also made it easier if and when they had to re-shoot a scene or use a stunt double. There was a good reason they needed to save money where they could…
Michael Landon wore platform boots
Image is so important in Hollywood. While Michael Landon isn’t unnaturally short, at 5 foot 9 he felt insecure standing next to his fellow Cartwrights, who stood well above him at over 6 feet each. He didn’t want his character’s name “Little Joe” to be quite so literal.
To make up the difference, Landon wore special boots that added a few extra inches to his height. This was a trick he’d end up sticking with. Later, after Bonanza ended and Landon joined the cast of Little House on the Prairie, he continued augmenting his height with special boots and camera illusions.
Pernell Roberts got sick of the show
Sometimes it takes a while, but most people tire of a job after a while — even in show business. Such was the case for Pernell Roberts, who played Adam Cartwright on the first six seasons of Bonanza. He had some choice words when he left the show. “I feel I am an aristocrat in my field of endeavor,” Pernell said.
“My being part of Bonanza was like Isaac Stern sitting in with Lawrence Welk,” the young actor continued, implying the western was beneath him. He frequently complained about the show but did little to try and fix it, according to Michael Landon. When he left to pursue theater acting and more high brow entertainment, the three remaining Cartwright actors distributed his salary evenly among themselves.
Candy didn’t have the warmest reception at first
Fans of Bonanza weren’t thrilled when Adam Cartwright left Ponderosa. In fact, many were devastated. It’s no surprise then, that they took a while to warm to Cartwright’s replacement, Candy Cannady (played by David Canary). Cannady was the Cartwright’s amiable friend and ranch foreman.
Though he was supposed to be as close as family to the Cartwrights, seeing him replace Adam was a bitter pill to swallow for many Bonanza fans. However, most seem to have gotten past it, since the show ran for eight more seasons without Adam, which is longer than he remained on the show. Still, some fans will tell you the show was never the same after Adam Cartwright’s departure.
Guy Williams almost played Adam Cartwright
NBC originally wanted another man for the role of Adam Cartwright — and he would have accepted, had he not been offered another starring role first. Guy Williams was their first choice to play Adam, but he had to decline after he accepted the eponymous role of Zorro on ABC.
Unfortunately, this led to scheduling conflicts that prevented him from playing Adam. However, he still got to play a Cartwright, after all. He guest-starred in five episodes as Will Cartwright, a cousin of the three brothers. It’s hard not to wonder how the show would have changed if Williams had played Adam. Would he have left after six seasons as Pernell Roberts did?
Bonanza was expensive to shoot
Even by today’s standards, NBC’s budget for Bonanza was insane. They were given between $100,000 and $150,000 to shoot each episode, which they routinely met. Over the course of Bonanza’s 14 seasons, they shot 431 episodes. Of course, the hefty investment paid off.
By 1970, Bonanza had made the top five in Nielsen ratings nine years in a row — a record that would not be broken for years to come. But it wasn’t just the show itself that brought it revenue — clothing, toys, and other merchandise sold well. So did a series of officially licensed Bonanza-inspired folk music albums.
What does ‘Bonanza’ mean?
The term “bonanza” is an old mining term that was used to describe a deposit or vein of a valuable mineral. It came to be synonymous with prosperity, similar to a stroke of luck, or the way people exclaim “jackpot.” People often use the term to describe a sudden opportunity to turn a profit.
The Oxford dictionary defines the word “bonanza” as: “a situation or event that creates a sudden increase in wealth, good fortune, or profits.” The name for the show is a reference to the Comstock Lode in Nevada, not far from where the fictional Ponderosa Ranch is set.
The Cartwright’s cook was an accomplished chef IRL
Though he never actually cooked on the set, Victor Sen Yung who played the Cartwright’s cook Hop Sing, was an acclaimed Cantonese-style chef in real life. The chef-turned-actor even published his own popular cookbook in 1974, titled the Great Wok Cookbook.
Sadly, Sen Yung died in 1980 under mysterious circumstances. He was found dead in his home, and the police weren’t sure who to blame. Eventually, the investigators determined that he had died due to a freak accident. His faulty kitchen stove had been leaking gas as Sen Yung slept through the night. He never woke up and got the chance to finish the second cookbook he’d been working on.
Hairpieces and cowboy hats
Three of the four Cartwrights were hit hard by nature’s cruel aging process while filming the show and had to resort to donning toupees to conceal their baldness. The first one to reach for a hairpiece was Dan Blocker (Hoss), and the other Cartwrights quickly followed suit.
Of course, Landon was blessed with a full head of hair. However, even his wasn’t entirely au natural — Landon’s mane started turning gray early in life and he resorted to using dye to get those signature brown locks. He would continue this on Little House on the Prairie and throughout his career.
‘The King’ was a big fan
Quickly after moving to its time slot on Sunday, Bonanza rose to number one in the ratings. It picked up a lot of well-known viewers along the way. One such fan was “the king of rock n’ roll” himself — Elvis Aaron Presley. In fact, when Presley met the cast he was starstruck and asked them to take a picture with him.
The storylines and relatable characters made Bonanza popular with a variety of audiences. The western comedy held the number one spot until 1967 when it was ousted by a variety comedy show called The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS.
The final frontier
While the settings of the two shows couldn’t be more different, there is still quite a strong connection between the original Star Trek and Bonanza. In fact, practically every cast member of the original Star Trek makes a guest appearance on Bonanza.
William Shatner (Captain Kirk), James Doohan (Scotty), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), and George Takei (Sulu) all appear on episodes of the western. It’s a testament to these actors ability that they can play such a wide array of characters. The original Star Trek began in 1966, seven years after the beginning of Bonanza and ran for only three seasons despite its immense cultural impact.
Ben Cartwright as the ideal father
Rather than focusing on life on the range, the primary focus of Bonanza was the dynamic between a caring father and his three wildly different sons. Producer David Dortort was sick of the bumbling way American fathers were often portrayed on sitcoms. He wanted Bonanza to paint the familial patriarch in a positive light.
Producers hired Lorne Greene to bring life to the thoughtful, kind head of the Cartwright family. Unlike most other TV series at the time, Bonanza was given a full hour time slot — the primary reason for this was that writers felt they needed the extra time to develop the characters, especially Pa.
A big baby
Dan Blocker (Hoss Cartwright) was a big man. Apparently, he’d always been that way. Blocker held the record for the largest newborn baby born in Bowie County, Texas — weighing in at a whopping 14 pounds. That’s nearly double the average weight of a baby.
By the time Blocker was in first grade, he’d already grown to be over 100 pounds. Naturally, Blocker put his weight to use and joined his high school football team. He must have made for a threatening sight charging toward you on the football field! Before he joined the Army, he found work as a bouncer.
Dan Blocker was as tough as he looked
The simple, gullible Eric “Hoss” Cartwright often played the fool — but he was always one you’d want to have on your side in a scuffle. Dan Blocker, who played Hoss, was similarly tough. Once while filming a scene, Blocker was thrown from his horse and snapped his collarbone.
Rather than seek immediate medical attention, Blocker decided to set the break himself and film through the pain until they finished. Not many people are tough enough to shake off a broken collarbone. He took six weeks off to recover and put on considerable weight while resting. Ironically, the same horse that had violently thrown him off weeks ago was no longer able to carry him.
Johnny Cash recorded a version of the song
Evidently, Johnny Cash was a fan of the show, too. Cash recorded a version of the show’s theme song. He altered the lyrics slightly but the theme and story remain. In fact, Cash was the first singer to record their own full version of the song. The song appears as a single released by Capitol Records in 1962 and on his legendary 16th album Ring of Fire.
Johnny Cash’s version of the song was wildly popular. Several artists decided to record covers of Cash’s take on “Bonanza,” including popular country singer Faron Young, who released the song on his 1963 album Aims at the West on Mercury Records.
Bonanza wasn’t an immediate success. At the time, prime time drama was ruled by the CBS courtroom drama Perry Mason. NBC nearly canceled the western but instead decided to double down. Was it because they believed so strongly in the show?
Probably not. It likely had more to do with the fact that Bonanza was one of the first television shows to be filmed in color. Therefore, you needed color to see it; Guess who sold color TVs? RCA, the parent company of NBC had that market well cornered. Instead of canceling the show, they moved it to Sunday, and Bonanza’s popularity spiked instantly.
Unlikely inspiration for a western
If there ever was a show that was purely American, it’d be Bonanza, right? Well, not quite. David Dortort, one of the show’s primary screenwriters and producers was British and he frequently drew from the lore of his homeland for inspiration. Many of the Cartwright family’s exploits were based on those of King Arthur and his knights.
Ben Cartwright was meant to mirror King Arthur, and his sons represented his closest knights. Of course, some episodes were more literal in wearing the influence on its sleeve. One such episode A “Knight to Remember” featured a mysterious armor-clad vigilante that called himself King Arthur. No one believes Adam Cartwright when he explains how he witnessed “King Arthur runs off a gang of would-be bandits.
Life was short and cruel for the Cartwright women
Pa Cartwright was thrice widowed before the show even started. Over the course of Bonanza, the women didn’t fare much better. A lot of Cartwright love interests passed through Ponderosa — but none stayed too long. The cast began to joke that there was a Cartwright curse.
Female characters on Bonanza never lasted. Sadly the women that entered the Cartwright’s lives left one of two ways — they were bound to skip town or die tragically. In fact, no women last longer than a few episodes, though we do get glimpses of Pa’s wives during flashbacks from time to time.
The main cast members were paid evenly
Bonanza was a show that centered predominantly around four characters. The storylines focused on each of the four characters pretty equally. Therefore, it stood to reason that the actors that played these characters should all be paid equally. Throughout the first four seasons, Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, Michael Landon, and Pernell Roberts all made the same salary.
When Roberts left the show, Greene, Blocker, and Landon absorbed his salary evenly between them. To make sure everything was fair, producers would make sure they swapped the billing order during the opening credits of the show. It was nice of them to share the spotlight.
Lorne Greene pursued a career in music
At the end of the pilot episode, all four Cartwrights sing the lyrics of the Bonanza theme song (the song in the show’s introduction is the instrumental version). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that some cast members might have a passion for music. In fact, Lorne Greene helped write the lyrics of the show’s theme.
Taking advantage of the show’s popularity, Greene began to pursue a career in music. He recorded several folk and country albums. He even scored a number one hit in 1964 with his ballad “Ringo.” In total, he’d release 10 albums over the course of his career.
Guest stars were paid well
Though the four Cartwrights were the true stars of the show, guest actors were paid handsomely. In fact, they were usually paid better than the main stars — at least during the first season. It sounds crazy, but there’s a reason behind the madness.
While Greene, Landon, Roberts, and Blocker all rose to stardom due to Bonanza, when the show first began they were all relatively unknown. NBC thought that the only way they stood a chance to get people interested in the show was to hire more famous guest stars to appear in some episodes. By the time the second season rolled around, the main actors were bonafide stars and were given a well-deserved pay raise.
Both sides of the camera
Michael Landon was committed to Bonanza. So much so, that he wanted to try his hand at writing. Show creator David Dortort, on the other hand, wasn’t too sure. After denying Landon multiple times, Dortort finally relented and let the young actor give writing a shot.
Taking the chance paid off. Landon was brought on as a regular writer for the show. Michael Landon was able to use the skills he learned as a scriptwriter for Bonanza throughout his career. He has writing credits on a number of TV series and movies — most notably on another popular show, he starred on — Little House on the Prairie.
The sad fates of Pa’s wives
Poor Pa Cartwright was widowed three times over. Who were these unfortunate wives of his, and how did they meet their early ends? In the spirit of the show, each of Ben’s wives were given different nationalities and cultural backgrounds. The first of Ben’s wives was Elizabeth Stoddard, a Boston woman of English ancestry played by Geraldine Brooks.
The daughter of a sailor, her and Ben seemed made for each other. Ben and Elizabeth met while Ben was working as a first mate aboard a sailing ship. Sadly, Elizabeth died shortly after giving birth to their first son, Adam Cartwright.
Wife number two
Inga Swenson played Ben’s second wife, Inger Borgstrom. The Swedish woman was affectionate and gentle, with a special place in her heart for children. She and Ben quickly fell in love, but she had to resist the strong opposition of her brother and one of her suitors to marry the one she loved.
After the birth of Hoss, Ben and Inger decided to move their family West. What could go wrong? She only got to enjoy their new home out West for a few weeks before she was massacred by a raiding band of Native Americans. Rest in peace, Inger Cartwright.
Ben’s final wife
Third time’s the charm, right? Well, not for Ben Cartwright. Pa’s third wife was Marie DeMarigny, a French-Creole woman from New Orleans with a dark past played by Felicia Farr. Her first son was stolen from her to be raised by her evil stepmother.
Ben and Marie’s paths first crossed when one of Ben’s close friends made a dying request that Ben travel to New Orleans and pass a message to his estranged wife. The estranged wife happened to be Marie, who’d eventually fall in love with Ben and the two promptly married and had a child of their own. Marigny died in a horse-riding accident when Little Joe was just five years old.
Shot on location, kind of
Unlike many westerns of the time, Bonanza was not shot in a film studio (at least for the first few seasons it aired). At first, the show was filmed at Lake Hemet before it moved to Lake Tahoe, which is where the fictional Ponderosa Ranch was set.
Filming on location granted the show more authenticity, but it came with its own struggles. Later, when the budget improved on the show they began to film at a Paramount Studio lot and later at a Warner Brothers studio lot. The show’s introduction shows footage shot at North Lake Tahoe near Incline Village.
Bonanza didn’t have too many minority characters, but most of the time they were portrayed by members of the same ethnic group. Often this was at the insistence of Pernell Roberts, who was vehemently against white actors playing minority characters, which was an especially common practice at the time.
Roberts was highly critical of the stereotypical portrayal of minority characters on the show (it was one of the main reasons he decided to leave). However, the inclusion of characters like Hop Sing (played by Victor Sen Yung) lent some authenticity to the show. Indeed, the old American west was a more diverse place than other shows at the time would have you believe.
All good things must come to an end
It came to be known as the “rural purge,” and no western television shows were safe. Television networks felt there were just too many westerns on TV. Despite their popularity, the shows targeted a small demographic, and the networks felt they could capture wider audiences with other shows.
Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Hee-Haw, and others all fell. Bonanza, the longest-running western was the last to be canceled. In truth, after the sudden death of Dan Blocker caused by a pulmonary embolism, and subsequent absence of “Hoss,” the show ran out of steam. “I didn’t see how the show could continue…,” Lorne Greene said. “That’s it. It’s finished.”