“We can’t ignore the rest of the world. We’re the only stabilizing influence in the country.” — Ben Cartwright
No one who watched television in the 1950s and ’60s can forget the theme music of “Dum-dee-dee-dum-dee-dee-dum-dum-dum” that opened the iconic “Bonanza” western about a fictional Nevada land baron named “Ben Cartwright” and his three very different sons as they dealt with life on the Western Frontier.
And who can forget the shy, loveable “Hoss,” Ben’s “gentle giant” son with a big heart for those in trouble played by Dan Blocker?
In the story, his older brother “Adam” played by Pernell Roberts was an architectural engineer with a university education who built the family home on the 600,000-acre “Ponderosa Ranch” on the east side of Lake Tahoe — not far from Virginia City, Carson City and Reno.
And Michael Landon was the impetuous, hotheaded “Little Joe,” youngest of the three brothers.
Though their thrice-widowed father Ben Cartwright starring Lorne Greene taught the boys to think for themselves, there was no doubt that he ruled the roost.
Ruling the kitchen at Ponderosa Ranch however was diminutive “Hop Sing,” a volatile Chinese cook with a mind of his own, featuring Victor Sen Yung — also known for his role as second son in the Charlie Chan detective series.
The Cartwrights were a tightly knit family of the Old West that helped their friends and fought just causes, with the story taking place during the time of the Civil War and afterward.
Why did the three brothers not look like brothers? They were half-brothers — each with a different mother. Ben’s first wife Elizabeth Stoddard — Adam’s mother — was English. Hoss’s mother was Inger Borgstrom from Sweden, and Little Joe’s mom was Marie DeMarigny, a French Creole.
The Bonanza television show started in 1959, appearing Saturday nights on NBC, competing with “Perry Mason.” It almost didn’t last a year, but was saved by the novelty of being one of the first TV shows in color. Then a few years later, RCA — parent company of NBC — was selling color TV sets and switched the show to 9 p.m. Sunday primetime for greater exposure. Viewership skyrocketed and watching Bonanza became part of family life in America, and by 1964 was the top show in the nation.
Bonanza was a pioneer in weaving social commentary into its plots at a time when advertisers were fearful of flak from viewers. The show bravely had the Cartwrights fighting racism, prejudice and social injustice toward the disabled, Native Americans, Jews, Mormons and Asians, while also spotlighting substance abuse, domestic violence and illegitimacy.
As tightly knit family as the Cartwrights were, not so with the Bonanza production family. For six years Pernell Roberts tried to get out of his contract and finally did. His beef was mostly with the writers, complaining he thought the 30-plus year old Adam should be a more independent character, rather than kowtowing so much to his father.
Roberts wasn’t liked very much by the rest of the cast or crew either, for constantly criticizing the quality of the production. And he ignored Michael Landon — the two rarely speaking to one another.
Most popular with the production team was Dan Blocker. “Over the years he gave me the least amount of trouble,” said producer David Dortort.
At 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, Blocker played Hoss as uncommonly strong, not the brightest, a bit naïve, kind-hearted, and slow to anger but swift to help. His credo — quoting Quaker missionary Stephen Grelette — “We shall pass this way on Earth but once, if there is any kindness we can show, or good act we can do, let us do it now, for we will never pass this way again.”
Riding a beautiful pinto, Michael Landon’s Little Joe with his flashy smile made girls’ hearts flutter, but in the storyline, neither he nor his brothers ever married. Whenever romance seemed imminent, something always happened to the bridal candidates.
On May 13, 1972, Dan Blocker died in Los Angeles at age 43 of a pulmonary embolism following gall bladder surgery, and from then on it was downhill for Bonanza.
NBC shifted the show to Tuesday nights and ratings plummeted. Hoss’s death was written into the story plot, and the studio tried reworking the show with new characters but nothing clicked. A year later in 1973, the great 14-year Bonanza television run ended.
After that, what happened to the original cast stars?
Malibu named a beach after Dan Blocker, and other memorials to him soon sprang up across the country, and Michael Landon told an incredible story about him on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show:
During filming, Hoss’s horse stumbled and fell, throwing him and breaking his collarbone — with the bone sticking through his skin. The big fella calmly pushed the bone back in place himself — and then resumed filming!
Little Joe, who received more fan mail than any other cast member, went on to more Hollywood glories with the lead role in “Little House on the Prairie” that aired for nine seasons, followed by five years of “Highway to Heaven.”
Away from the studio lot however, Michael Landon’s life was anything but glamorous. His first marriage ended in divorce, and he remarried. Then while making “Little House.” he spotted 23-year old makeup artist and stand-in Cindy Clerico.
Another divorce followed — ending a marriage of 19 years and seven children — and he married Cindy.
His public image took a beating.
The press hammered him; NBC wondered how he could play “Charles Ingalls,” happily married frontiersman and devoted father in Little House; and Kodak fired him as their spokesman because “his image as a father at home was no longer positive and truthful.”
Lorne Greene’s image never faltered. Producer Dortort saw Bonanza as a modern adaption of the King Arthur legend, with Ben Cartwright as the king and his sons knights of the Roundtable. Thousands of fan letters from teenage boys said they wished he was their father.
TV Guide listed him second among the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time.”
Greene would go on to star in television’s “Battlestar Galactica” and “Galactica 1980.”
Lorne Greene died of pneumonia following heart surgery at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica in 1987, age 72.
Pernell Roberts struggled for 10 years after Bonanza, but kept busy as an activist — participating in the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in the 1960s, and pressuring NBC not to the use white actors to play minority roles.
When Roberts tried leaving the series, Lorne Greene advised him that if he stuck with it he’d become rich. He rejected the advice and left the show anyway and didn’t make a comeback until 1979, when he landed the lead role in “Trapper John, M.D.”
Meanwhile, Greene, Landon and Blocker all became very wealthy from Bonanza and invested wisely.
Roberts was married four times — his first wife, Vera Mowry, being a theater history professor at Washington State University.
He died in Malibu in 2010 at age 81 — outliving the rest of the original Bonanza cast.
Victor Sen Yung, who played the cook Hop Sing and had a degree from Cal Berkeley, spent his acting career as a stereotype Asian — sometimes with top stars like Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. Outside Hollywood he was a noted chef, specializing in Cantonese cuisine.
During tough financial times, the comical Hop Sing gave cooking demonstrations in department stores just to pay the bills.
He died in 1980 in North Hollywood of accidental asphyxiation from a faulty gas stove. He was 65.
Bonanza lasted 14 seasons — 1959 to 1973 — and 431 episodes, the second-longest-running western series on U.S. network television, behind “Gunsmoke.”
David Canary who joined the cast as the Ponderosa’s new ranch foreman “Candy Canaday” about halfway through the series’ long run, said “I think what made Bonanza such a successful show was it was a family show, it was well done, and it had a sense of drama to it … The characters were real.
“You had each of the family members fighting for the good of their family and the community. Michael, Dan, Pernell and Lorne were very fine actors, and you always knew who to root for — the Cartwrights.”
It’s nice when families do that.
• • •
Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at email@example.com.
Adam Cartwright: “Education is progress! Now what have you got against it?”
Ben Cartwright: “I don’t have anything against education — as long as it doesn’t interfere with your thinking!”
Watch ‘Bonanza’ online…
Complete episodes of Bonanza can be seen online at:
When Bonanza started in 1959, none of the stars were well known. Guest stars were paid more than the regular cast. Screen credits for the main actors were shuffled randomly each week, and didn’t have any relationship to the story featured that week.
After Lorne Greene’s death…
“He was Ben Cartwright to the end. He was ready to die without no complaints. I never stopped seeing him as my dad…Lorne was a solid pillar for both me and Dan Blocker. I’d known him for more than half my life and he’d been my father for fourteen years on ‘Bonanza’. You don’t just quit being a father and son. I’ll always consider him my Pa.”
— Michael Langdon “Little Joe”
Report on Roberts…
One report said, “Roberts considered the scripts too low brow, demeaning to women, and indecently glorifying wealth in age of poverty. Roberts’ politics were strongly progressive by the standards of the time, and he pushed producers to have Adam Cartwright marry a Native American woman played by a black actress.”
Eating out at Hoss’s…
Dan Blocker owned a chain of steakhouse restaurants called “Bonanza” similar to the “Golden Corral” chain. When the ownership later changed, all of the restaurants were later renamed “Ponderosa.” Surprisingly, none are west of the Mississippi.
Michael Landon was the only Cartwright who didn’t need a hairpiece. During the filming of one episode, Lorne Greene had to jump into a lake five feet below. When he did, he went completely under water and his hairpiece floated to the surface. Moments later, Greene’s hand shot out of the water and grabbed it and pulled it down. He emerged from the water with the piece askew and as the crew snickered, he walked casually to his trailer and went in without saying a word.