‘Bonanza’ gallops to half-century milestone
“Bonanza” premiered on NBC the night of Sept. 12, 1959. By the time the trail dust cleared 14 years and 430 episodes later, the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa rode themselves into history and the hearts of a half-billion people around the planet.
The Western featuring Pa, Hoss, Little Joe and Adam living large on their Lake Tahoe ranch got off to a rough start and was almost shot down before it began. The 1959 and ’60 seasons aired in the 7:30 p.m. time slot on Saturday night against CBS’s “Perry Mason,” who single-handedly came very close to dispatching the Cartwrights all the way to Boot Hill.
By the start of the 1961 season, NBC execs had the foresight to move “Bonanza” to Sunday night at 9 p.m. Sponsored by Chevrolet, “Bonanza” was about to make its move into prime time history.
The show also had to wade through a glut of Westerns that were clogging the airwaves at the time, with “Gunsmoke” sitting atop the Nielsen heap. Ironically, the creation of “Bonanza” was not to compete with other Westerns, but to sell color television sets. At the time RCA, parent company of NBC, was perfecting color television technology, and needed a program on the air to showcase the new medium.
NBC turned to veteran writer and TV producer David Dortort to develop the new show, making “Bonanza” the first hour-long Western broadcast in color.
When the show was under development, its biggest controversy was the casting of the Cartwright clan. NBC execs wanted known actors in the major roles, while Dortort lobbied for new faces to give “Bonanza” a fresh look, and let the new actors develop their characters. Thankfully, Dortort won out on this issue.
Lorne Greene would star as patriarch and Ponderosa Ranch owner Ben Cartwright with Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon as his three sons. The chemistry among these four men was immediate, and by the 1964-’65 season “Bonanza” was Nielsen’s No. 1 program.
“Bonanza” held the top spot for three consecutive seasons in its 14-year run, and became the second-longest-running Western in TV history, outdistanced only by “Gunsmoke,” which ran for 20 seasons.
Thanks to Dortort, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of Northern Nevada history, seven of Bonanza’s first 10 episodes were stories based on actual events that took place in Virginia City’s past. This, coupled with the Cartwrights saddling up every Sunday night and riding into Virginia City, created a tourist stampede to the Comstock not seen since the days of the silver strike of the 1870s.
In 1962 Virginia City businessman Don McBride, owner of the Bucket of Blood Saloon, spearheaded a drive to bring the Cartwrights to the Comstock for a “Bonanza Days” celebration. The event was so well-attended that the town was gridlocked in a sea of humanity for three days, as fans couldn’t get enough of their TV heroes.
Fans also flocked to Lake Tahoe to get a glimpse of the Ponderosa Ranch and were disappointed to find that the Cartwright spread was an imaginary location found only in Burbank, Calif. The Ponderosa Ranch finally became a reality in 1967 when Bill and Joyce Anderson opened the theme park at Incline Village. The ranch was officially dedicated on June 13, 1968, by then-Gov. Paul Laxalt.
In the next several years, exterior shots for the program were filmed at the Incline facility. The Ponderosa Ranch eventually became one of Northern Nevada’s most popular tourist attractions, and had an incredible 37-year run until closing its gates on Sept. 11, 2004, when it was sold to PeopleSoft co-founder David Duffield.
At the end of the 1965 season, Pernell Roberts, who played Adam Cartwright, decided to leave the show. Roberts, a trained stage thespian, wanted more realism in scripts dealing with controversial social issues, such as interracial relationships and larger parts for minorities. Bonanza brass however, were not receptive to changing a proven formula that made Bonanza the No. 1 show in America, and Roberts’ pleas fell on deaf ears. Roberts went on to star in CBS’ “Trapper John, M.D.” and ABC’s “FBI: The Untold Stories.” Born in Waycross, Ga., in 1928, Roberts is the lone surviving member of the original “Bonanza” cast.
Bonanza continued to stay in the top 10 through the 1970-’71 season, but on May 13, 1972 tragedy struck with the sudden death of 43-year-old Dan Blocker following gall bladder surgery in Los Angeles. At 6′ 4″ and 300 lbs., Blocker, who played Eric “Hoss” Cartwright, presented a huge image on those small early day television screens. Blocker’s role was so strongly attached to “Bonanza,” and with only two Cartwrights remaining on the Ponderosa, the show was doomed.
Bonanza aired its last episode, No. 430, on Jan. 16, 1973. By then the show had dropped out of Nielsen’s top 20. It would be the first time in the last decade that “Bonanza” failed to make the top 10.
Lorne Greene went on to star in TV’s “Griff,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “Code Red,” all with moderate success. In 1981, he hosted “Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness.” Greene however, could never shake the dust from the Ponderosa, for he was and always would be Ben Cartwright.
In 1987, plans were in the works to reprise the role that had made him an icon almost three decades earlier. “Bonanza: The Next Generation” was scheduled to begin production that summer at Lake Tahoe. Ben Cartwright would once again ride the Ponderosa, but it wasn’t to be. Greene was admitted to a Santa Monica hospital for a perforated ulcer and caught pneumonia from which he never recovered. America’s favorite Pa died on Sept. 11, 1987. He was 72.
Michael Landon, who played Joseph “Little Joe” Cartwright, went on to have a phenomenal career in television after “Bonanza.” Landon created “Little House on the Prairie” in 1974, “Highway to Heaven” in 1984 and was starting production on another show in 1991 when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Landon died from the disease in Malibu, Calif., on July 1, 1991, at age 54.
The most talented of the Cartwrights, Landon left an impressive body of work – 107 hours of written material, 208 hours of directing, 330 hours of producing and over 800 hours in front of the camera. More than just the numbers he established, Landon will always be remembered for creating the ideal family for television.
Today, “Bonanza” is seen in syndicated reruns around the world and probably will be for generations to come, for it truly is an American cultural icon that transcends time.
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