In the June 25, 1960 issue of TV Guide, the new western series Bonanza is described as an antidote to emasculating situation comedies like Make Room for Daddy in which the husband typically gets himself in a pickle and has to be rescued by his wife. Bonanza producer David Dortort describes his show thusly: "We do not have any Moms built into our show--or, for that matter, any women. We are, as it were, anti-Momism." This anti-feminist agenda wouldn't play well in today's world, but when the show began its run of 14 seasons, from 1959-73, it quickly became very popular, reaching #17 by its second season and #2 by its third. Still, TV Guide speculates that the show's success is due to its emphasis on family, though certainly not the traditional model thereof--Ben Cartwright's three sons Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker), and Little Joe (Michael Landon) all come from different mothers, all deceased. However, they are a family with deep roots in their 100,000 acre kingdom the Ponderosa, whereas the majority of other westerns at the time were centered on loners and drifters.
The Ponderosa almost functions as a fifth major character, a land that must be defended at all costs, protected against environmental damage by mining entrepeneurs like Len Keith in "Bitter Water" (April 9, 1960), and that offers the promise of healing to ostracized Indian Matsou in "Day of Reckoning" (October 22, 1960), abused and isolated Norwegian immigrant Ruth Halverson in "The Savage" (December 3, 1960), and revenge-thirsty orphan Todd Grayson in" The Blood Line" (December 31, 1960). Ironically, though, none of these outsiders find that healing at the Ponderosa because it seems to be a land to which only the Cartwrights belong: numerous episodes revolve around one of the sons falling in love with a woman from another culture or place who ultimately cannot or will not fit in, as with Adam's romance with Amish-like religious devotee Regina Darrien in "The Hopefuls" (October 8, 1960), or the aforementioned Ruth Halverson, or Little Joe's infatuation with gypsy outcast Tirza in "Dark Star" (April 23, 1960).
The Cartwrights' wealth is another point of contention. Dortort maintains that the show does not "believe in the philosophy that life favors the underdog," and many episodes feature characters who begrudge the Cartwrights' affluence or respect in the community. But these characters invariably prove to be either criminal or misguided, as in the case of Dianne Jordan in "The Blood Line," who claims that Ben has gotten away with killing her lover only because he is a Cartwright, when in fact the dead man shot at Ben first. However, one thing is indisputable, other characters become horrible shots whenever they point a gun at a Cartwright.
Despite the show's foundational conservatism, it also tackled some rather progressive themes for its era. "A House Divided" (January 16, 1960), as the title implies, deals with the Civil War without ever directly mentioning its root cause--slavery. The episode takes place in the days leading up to the war when Abraham Lincoln is still a candidate for president and plays out the division that would eventually tear the country in two not only in the townspeople in Virginia City, stirred up by Confederate fund-raiser Frederick Kyle, but also in the Cartwright household, where Yankee-bred Adam (his mother was the daughter of a New England sea captain) squares off against Little Joe (whose mother was from New Orleans), when the latter comes under Kyle's spell. Though the show leans heavily to the side of preserving the status quo union, it comes down against the more liberty-driven southerners.
In "The Fear Merchants" (January 30, 1960), the show deals with racial prejudice and the politics of xenophobia when self-proclaimed lawyer Andy Fulmer decides to run for mayor on a platform of driving out immigrants like the Cartwright's Chinese cook Hop-Sing and his friends and relatives. Fulmer's rhetoric sounds exactly like that employed today by the anti-illegal immigration cadre, but unlike in real life, he is shown to be a coward and subsequently abandoned by the Virginia City citizenry.
Where the show is less successful is in its rare attempts at comedy, as in the heavily Mexican-stereotyped episode "El Toro Grande" (January 2, 1960) and the mistaken-identity farce "The Gunmen" (January 23, 1960), in which Hoss and Little Joe are mistaken for two vicious killers. Both episodes are extremely corny and painful to watch, but to the writers' credit "El Toro Grande" ends with Ben looking over a prized stud and saying, "That's a lot of bull."
The music for the series was composed by David Rose, whom we profiled in our post for Men Into Space, though the Bonanza theme song, as viewers were reminded in the credits of each episode, was composed by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans.
The first five complete seasons have been released on DVD by CBS Home Entertainment.
Greene was born as Lyon Himan Green to Russian Jewish immigrants in Ottawa, Canada in 1915. He began acting while attending Queen' s University and was hired as a radio announcer after college, eventually becoming the head newsreader for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. During World War II he was given the nickname The Voice of Doom for his sonorous voice and the usually dreary news he had to deliver. In the 1950s he pursued an acting career in Hollywood and appeared in numerous TV live drama series and in major films such as The Silver Chalice (1954) and Peyton Place (1957). He had a regular role as Captain Grant "Mitch" Mitchell on the Canadian TV series Sailor of Fortune from 1955-58 before being cast as patriarch Ben Cartwright on Bonanza. During his years on Bonanza he also released a number of spoken word albums and singles, with the ballad "Ringo" reaching #1 on the charts in 1964. After Bonanza he played the title character in the short-lived series Griff in 1973-75 before being cast as Commander Adama on Battlestar Galactica and Galactica 1980. He also starred in the 1981-82 TV series Code Red. He died from complications from prostate cancer on September 11, 1987 at the age of 72.
Born in Waycross, Georgia in 1928, Roberts began his career as a performer during high school, where he acted and sang in USO shows. After flunking out of Georgia Tech and the University of Maryland, he moved to New York to try his hand at acting while supporting himself with a series of odd jobs such as a butcher and forest ranger. He won a Best Actor Drama Desk award for an off-Broadway production of Macbeth in 1955 and a few years later relocated to Hollywood, where he mostly appeared in TV guest spots but also had a major role in the Anthony Perkins-Sophia Loren production of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms. While playing Adam Cartwright on Bonanza Roberts had frequent disagreements with the show's producer David Dortort (some of them documented in the above-mentioned TV Guide article) that eventually led to his leaving the show after the 1964-65 season. However, his acting career did not exactly thrive after the departure, though he did land some major roles in doing musicals on Broadway. He was also active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, including the march on Selma, Alabama. It wasn't until 1979 that he scored another major role on TV when he was cast for the lead on Trapper John, M.D., which ran for 7 seasons. He also served as host of FBI: The Untold Stories from 1991-93. He died from pancreatic cancer January 24, 2010 at the age of 81.
Born in DeKalb, Texas in 1928, Blocker's family soon relocated to O'Donnell, Texas where his father ran a grocery store after losing the family farm during The Depression. Blocker attended and played football at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, then moved on to Sul Ross State Teacher's College in Alpine, Texas, where he met his future wife Dolphia. He became an English and drama teacher in Sonora, Texas, taught 6th grade in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and also taught in California before embarking on his acting career. He also was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. Reportedly he was discovered by an acting agent while standing in a phone booth dressed in western garb after driving his family from Sonora to Hollywood for a family vacation. He appeared in a Three Stooges short Outer Space Jitters and several TV westerns, including four appearances on The Restless Gun produced by future Bonanza producer David Dortort, before landing a recurring role as Tiny Budinger on Cimarron City in 1958-59. During the Bonanza years he occasionally appeared in films, such as Frank Sinatra's Lady in Cement, and was considered for the role of Major T.J. "King" Kong in Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove before his agent rejected it for being "too pinko." Ironically, he was himself a staunch liberal so opposed to the Vietnam war that he moved his family to Switzerland in protest. He died May 13, 1972 at age 43 after gall bladder surgery while Bonanza was still on the air. The show continued only one more season after his death. At the time he was also cast to play Roger Wade in Robert Altman's film The Long Goodbye. Altman, who had directed several early episodes of Bonanza, was a good friend of Blocker's and dedicated the film to him.
Landon was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz in Queens, New York in 1936, the son of a Jewish actor and a Catholic dancer and comedienne. In high school he was a star javelin thrower, which earned him a scholarship to USC, but an arm injury ended his athletic career, at which point he turned to acting. He appeared in a number of TV shows beginning in 1956 before landing the lead role in the feature film I Was a Teenage Werewolf the following year. The TV appearances continued, as did lesser roles in films like High School Confidential! and God's Little Acre before he landed the role of Little Joe Cartwright on Bonanza. More than any of the other actors on the show, Landon had a long and successful career after the show ended, as he moved into directing, screenwriting, and producing, as well as acting, on his next series Little House on the Prairie, which ran for 9 seasons from 1974-83. He followed that with Highway to Heaven for 5 seasons from 1984-89 as well as three Little House on the Prairie TV movies. After he was let go by NBC, he moved to CBS and starred in, directed, and wrote a 2-hour pilot called Us, which was intended to be a full-fledged series, but Landon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April, 1991 and died July 1 at the age of 54.
Notable Guest Stars
Season 1, Episode 17, "The Outcast": Jack Lord (shown on left, played Stoney Burke on Stoney Burke and Det. Steve McGarrett on Hawaii Five-O) plays outlaw Clay Renton. Susan Oliver (Ann Howard on Peyton Place) plays his girlfriend Leta Malvet. Roy Engel (the Police Chief on My Favorite Martian and Pres. Ulysses S. Grant on The Wild, Wild West) plays Dr. Paul Martin.
Season 1, Episode 18, "A House Divided": Cameron Mitchell (starred in Death of a Salesman, Les Miserables, How to Marry a Millionaire, and Carousel and who played John Lackland on The Beachcomber, Buck Cannon on The High Chaparral, and Jeremiah Worth on Swiss Family Robinson) plays Confederate fund-raiser Frederick Kyle. Kenneth MacDonald (played the judge 32 times on Perry Mason, played Col. Parker on Colt .45, and appeared in several Three Stooges shorts) plays the sheriff. Stafford Repp (Chief O'Hara on Batman) plays a silver mine owner.
Season 1, Episode 19, "The Gunmen": Henry Hull (starred in Little Women, Werewolf in London, Great Expectations, High Sierra, and The Fountainhead) plays Sheriff B. Banneman Brown. Ellen Corby (Henrietta Porter on Trackdown and Esther Walton on The Waltons) plays townswomen leader Lorna Doone Mayberry.
Season 1, Episode 21, "The Spanish Grant": Paul Picerni (Agent Lee Hobson on The Untouchables) plays Spanish thug Sanchez. Sebastian Cabot (shown on right, played Dr. Carl Hyatt on Checkmate, Commissioner Andrew Crippen on The Beachcomber, Mr. Giles French on A Family Affair, and Winston Essex on Circle of Fear) plays avaricious Spaniard Don Antonio Luga. Patricia Medina (Margarita Cortazar on Zorro) plays supposed Spanish heir Isabella Maria de la Cuesta.
Season 1, Episode 23, "Desert Justice": Wesley Lau (Lt. Andy Anderson on Perry Mason and Master Sgt. Jiggs on The Time Tunnel) plays accused murderer David Walker. Claude Akins (Sonny Pruett on Movin' On and Sheriff Elroy P. Lobo on B.J and the Bear and on Lobo) plays U.S. Marshal Emmitt Dowd. Ron Hayes (Wyatt Earp on Bat Masterson, Lincoln Vail on Everglades, Ben Jones on The Rounders, and Hank Johnson on Dallas) plays Walker accomplice Hurd Cutler. Will Wright (Mr. Merrivale on Dennis the Menace and Ben Weaver on The Andy Griffith Show) plays station master Micah Bailey.
Season 1, Episode 26, "The Avenger": Vic Morrow (Sgt. Saunders on Combat! and Capt. Eugene Nathan on B.A.D. Cats) Lassiter, a drifter looking for the man who hanged his father.
Season 1, Episode 27, "The Last Trophy": Hazel Court (starred in Devil Girl From Mars, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Raven, and The Masque of the Red Death and who played Jane Starrett on Dick and the Duchess, Liz Woodruff on 12 O'Clock High, and Norma Hobart on Dr. Kildare) plays Lady Beatrice Dunsford. Edward Ashley (starred in Pride and Prejudice and Macao) plays her husband Lord Marion Dunsford. Bert Freed (Police Sgt. Joe Gillen on Johnny Staccato and Rufe Ryker on Shane) plays renegade Solomon Belcher. Naomi Stevens (Juanita on The Doris Day Show, Mama Rossini on My Three Sons, Rose Montefusco on The Montefuscos, and Sgt. Bella Archer on Vega$) plays old squaw Touma.
Season 1, Episode 28, "San Francisco": David White (Larry Tate on Bewitched) plays saloon owner Alexander Pendleton. Richard Deacon (shown on left, played Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show and Roger Buell on The Mothers-in-Law) plays ship Captain Shark. Kathleen Crowley (Terry Van Buren on Waterfront and Sophia Starr on Batman) plays barmaid Kathleen. James Hong (Barry Chan on The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, Frank Chen on Jigsaw John, and Doctor Chen Ling on Dynasty) plays Hop-Sing's cousin #3. Tor Johnson (starred in Bride of the Monster, Night of the Ghouls, and Plan 9 From Outer Space) plays wrestler Busthead Brannigan.
Season 1, Episode 29, "Bitter Water": Merry Anders (Joyce Erwin on The Stu Erwin Show, Val Marlowe on It's Always Jan, Mike McCall on How to Marry a Millionaire, and Policewoman Dorothy Miller on Dragnet 1967) plays mining heiress Virginia Keith. Rhys Williams (Doc Burrage on The Rifleman) plays rancher Andy McCarren.
Season 2, Episode 2, "The Mission": Henry Hull (see "The Gunmen" above) plays alcoholic old scout Charlie Trent. John Dehner (Duke Williams on The Roaring '20's, Commodore Cecil Wyntoon on The Baileys of Balboa, Morgan Starr on The Virginian, Cyril Bennett on The Doris Day Show, Dr. Charles Cleveland Claver on The New Temperatures Rising Show, Barrett Fears on Big Hawaii, Marshal Edge Troy on Young Maverick, Lt. Joseph Broggi on Enos, Hadden Marshall on Bare Essence, and Billy Joe Erskine on The Colbys) plays army Captain Pender. Peter Whitney (Sergeant Buck Sinclair on The Rough Riders and Lafe Crick on The Beverly Hillbillies) plays disreputable scout Cutter.
Season 2, Episode 3, "Badge Without Honor": Dan Duryea (starred in The Little Foxes, The Pride of the Yankees, Scarlet Street, and Winchester '73 and who played China Smith in China Smith and The New Adventures of China Smith and Eddie Jacks on Peyton Place) plays U.S. Deputy Marshal Gerald Eskith. Christine White (Abigail Adams on Ichabod and Me) plays Mariette Blaine, wife of the man sought by Eskith. James Hong (see "San Francisco" above) returns as cousin #3.
Season 2, Episode 4, "The Mill": Claude Akins (shown on right; see "Desert Justice" above) plays hired hand Ezekiel. Dianne Foster (starred in Night Passage, The Last Hurrah, and The Deep Six) plays Joyce Edwards, wife of a paraplegic.
Season 2, Episode 5, "The Hopefuls": Hank Patterson (Fred Ziffel on Green Acres and Hank on Gunsmoke) plays an unnamed blacksmith. Charles Maxwell (Special Agent Joe Carey on I Led 3 Lives and who was the voice of the radio announcer on Gilligan's Island) plays outlaw Shenendoah. Larry Gates (starred in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Some Came Running, and The Young Savages and who played H.B. Lewis on Guiding Light) plays Jacob Darien, leader of an Amish-like religious group. Patricia Donahue (Hazel on The Thin Man and Lucy Hamilton on Michael Shayne) plays his daughter Regina.
Season 2, Episode 6, "Denver McKee": Franchot Tone (starred in Moulin Rouge (1934), Mutiny on the Bounty, Fast and Furious, Dark Waters, and I Love Trouble and who played Dr. Daniel Niles Freeland on Ben Casey) plays retired sheriff Denver McKee. Natalie Trundy (starred in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes) plays his daughter Connie. Bob Barker (shown on left, host of The Price Is Right) plays suitor Mort.
Season 2, Episode 7, "Day of Reckoning": Ricardo Montalban (shown on right, starred in The Kissing Bandit, On an Island With You, The Singing Nun, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and who played David Valerio on Executive Suite, Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island, and Zach Powers on The Colbys) plays Indian-turned-famer Matsou. Madlyn Rhue (Marjorie Grant on Bracken's World, Angela Schwartz on Fame, and Hilary Mason/Madison on Executive Suite) plays his wife Hatoya. Karl Swenson (Lars Hanson on Little House on the Prairie) plays racist rancher Ike Taggert. Roy Engel (see "The Outcast" above) returns as Dr. Martin.
Season 2, Episode 9, "Breed of Violence": John Ericson (starred in Bad Day at Black Rock, Pretty Boy Floyd, The Bamboo Saucer, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks and how played Sam Bolt on Burke's Law and Honey West) plays outlaw Vince Dagen. Myrna Fahey (Katherine "Kay" Banks on Father of the Bride) plays his girlfriend Dolly Kincaid.
Season 2, Episode 10, "The Last Viking": Neville Brand (starred in D.O.A., The Mob, Stalag 17, Riot in Cell Block 11, and The Three Outlaws and who played Al Capone on The Untouchables and Reese Bennett on Laredo) plays Hoss' uncle Gunnar Borgstrom. Al Ruscio (Paul Locatelli on Shannon, Sal Giordano on Life Goes On, and Frank Ruscio on Joe's Life) plays comanchero Vaca. Herbert Lytton (Admiral Reynolds on McHale's Navy) plays rancher Abe McClane.
Season 2, Episode 11, "The Trail Gang": Edgar Buchanan (shown above, played Uncle Joe Carson on The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction, Red Connors on Hopalong Cassidy, Judge Roy Bean on Judge Roy Bean, and J.J. Jackson on Cade's County) plays trail cook Hallelujah Hicks. Linda Lawson (shown on right, recording artist who played Renee on Adventures in Paradise, Pat Perry on Don't Call Me Charlie, and Laura Fremont on Ben Casey) plays saloon girl Melinda Bowers. James Westerfield (starred in On the Waterfront, The Absent Minded Professor, and The Love God?) plays Sheriff John Logan.
Season 2, Episode 13, "Silent Thunder": Stella Stevens (shown on left, starred in Girls! Girls! Girls!, The Nutty Professor, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, The Silencers, Where Angels Go Trouble Follows, and The Poseidon Adventure and who played Lute-Mae Sanders on Flamingo Road) plays deaf mute Annie Croft. Albert Sami (Yadkin on Daniel Boone and Pete Ritter on Petrocelli) plays lascivious trapper Albie.
Season 2, Episode 14, "The Ape": Leonard Nimoy (shown on right, played Mr. Spock on Star Trek, Paris on Mission: Impossible!, and Dr. William Bell on Fringe) plays saloon owner Freddy.